It's too bad that so few of Elizabeth Goudge's books are in print, though I am grateful that this one has been reprinted. I'd never read it before, and initially I was turned off by the unicorn illustration on the cover. But I'd heard lots of comments about how magical it was, and so I sat down to read.
Newly orphaned Maria Merryweather is being sent from London to Moonacre Manor, the castle-like home of her uncle, Benjamin Merryweather. Initially Maria and her devoted governess Miss Heliotrope expect the place to be cold and uncomfortable -- but Maria is delighted to see an enchanted, silvery landscape, and the brief vision of a white horse running past. She fits quickly into the slightly strange, almost idyllic surroundings -- despite the fact that no woman has come to Moonacre Manor in twenty years. But Sir Benjamin seems very pleasant -- as does the huge, unusual dog Wrolf.
Maria is enchanted both by the beautiful natural surroundings and the neighboring village of Silverydew. But she begins to sense that something is wrong: her uncle is unhappy about something and won't talk about the briefly-seen white horse. Her childhood invisible friend Robin returns to her -- and the inhabitants of Silverydew know him. Beautiful items are laid out in her tiny, luxurious room -- with the initials L.M. And strange dark figures are creeping through the woods near the sea. Maria soon finds out about a long-lasting story of magic, sadness, greed and darkness that has haunted her family for generations, and is determined to set it right.
Goudge was evidently one of the few authors who can effectively blur the line between reality and dreaminess. Some sections of her prose are almost intoxicating; she never held back from describing surroundings and items lushly. The dreamy atmosphere of the book is established when Maria and Miss Heliotrope (and Wiggins the dog) arrive at Moonacre. Such beautifully written passages crop up, such as "moonlight and firelight mingled their silver and gold."
We also are given examples of Ms. Goudge's evident love of both nature, the countryside, and religion (not preachily, simply a demonstration of the beauties she saw in it). She also mixes in a few other items: the hare being a "Fairy" creature, the legend behind the Merryweathers and the valley, the sinister Black Men in the forest, and the enchanting visualization of the "little white horse" being one of the white horses that crashes in on sea foam.
Some aspects of this book are a little unusual by current politically correct standards: we get several negative references to "female curiosity", atheists may be offended by Ms. Goudge's evident dislike of atheism. And I literally have no idea what a "syllabub" is. However, since this takes place in a past era, there's no reason to fuss about it.
Maria herself is a delightful heroine, with just enough quirks to make her realistic -- her mild preoccupation with clothes, for example. Miss Heliotrope is not the usual strict spinster governess, but a kind and upright woman with real emotions and feelings. Wiggins is a little pain in the tail. We also have the fascinatingly charismatic Parson, who manages to make religion come dazzlingly alive while also being kind and gentle. And we have the loquacious Marmaduke Scarlet, a dwarf cook with an odd temper, an amazing culinary craft, and a vaguely gnome-like appearance. And it takes a little while for Robin to develop beyond the level of "boyish sprite," but he's a nice character as well.
This is a thoroughly delightful book, full of childlike innocence and wonder that very few could pull off. Fans of Narnia and the "Hobbit" will probably eat this right up. A timeless, charming tale.