Green Dolphin Street

Warning: Spoilers.

An acquaintance who was halfway through the book wasn’t liking it much and asked what it was that I liked about it. This isn’t exactly what I told her, but this is what I found I had to write out before I knew what to say to her about the book.

I’m not sure what it is, sort of a summary, a response, a reflection. Anyway, I thought I’d throw it up here because it says something about what I liked about the novel. And maybe it’s the first step to writing more.

Have you read the novel? What did you like about it or dislike? I’m still grasping at something. I think I’d like to write a post about the ending.

The setup for Green Dolphin Street, by Elizabeth Goudge, could be the makings of a tragedy. Two sisters with similar names, Marianne and Marguerite, fall in love with the same man, William. He’s not an idealized man, he’s definitely got his flaws, he’s rather weak-willed and lacking in ambition, but he also has his good points, he is kind and generous and big-hearted and able to see the good in everyone. The first part of the novel is about roots, the roots of the crisis go back to their parents: the girls’ mother was in love with William’s father but their lives diverged and they each made less-than-happy-marriages with another person. And yet, despite not being terribly happy marriages, they don’t seem to be terribly miserable either. It’s not clear that they would have necessarily been happier married to each other nor does it seem that their lives were ruined by making the marriages they did. In Goudge’s world marrying the right person is not the only factor that determines what kind of life one will lead. Just as important is what one does with each and every day. A bad choice is not a life sentence to misery.

Those unhappy marriages prefigure the unhappy marriage of the next generation. William has always got the girls’ names confused and never managed to speak to Marguerite of his love before he went to see— primarily because of Marianne’s deliberate machinations. Marianne’s selfishness and her single-mindedness are her deep-seated flaws. She willfully convinces herself that it is possible William will prefer her over her sister and she does her best to prevent him from making his choice final. Then when William’s letter of proposal arrives with the wrong girl’s name on it, Marianne willfully ignores her sister’s heartbreak, never questions William’s choice. She sees it as her one chance to escape and she seizes that chance with both hands.

My favorite part of the novel is what happens after Marianne gets to New Zealand. Although William is in love with Marguerite and pines for her and she for him, he realizes instantly that Marianne needs him. To tell her the truth would devastate her and she would never recover from that blow. And he does care for her, even loves her. Although it is not eros, he does love her like a sister. And so begins Williams long path towards sanctification as he dies to self to save his wife from her own folly.

Meanwhile William’s mistake ultimately frees Marguerite to find a different vocation. First, she stays with her parents, never marrying, until they both die. Then, upon her father’s death she re-discovers a pull to the religious life that had its seed sewn in childhood when she found herself face to face with the mother superior in the seaside convent after a near-disaster. This religious vocation and the enmity of the two sisters had been foreshadowed early on in the novel by the legend of the two sisters who started rival monasteries and whose eventual reconciliation left magical footprints on a rock offshore.

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