Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Reading Journal: "Green Dolphin Street"

The protagonist of Elizabeth Goudge's Green Dolphin Street (1944) is strong-willed, smart, capable, cocksure, and eager for adventure. The only problem is that Marianne Le Patourel is a girl, born in the first half of the nineteenth century. She dreams of sailing on a clipper ship and of leaving her mark on life. If, as a woman, she is prevented from doing this for herself, she will find herself a husband and make of him the man she wishes she could be. Unfortunately, Marianne seems to be afflicted with a kind of narcissistic personality disorder. She judges everything by herself and her own ambitions, and spends most of the novel making life miserable for everyone around her, including, sometimes, the reader. She's acquisitive, jealous, and manipulative. I wanted to sympathize with her because, as a woman in the nineteenth century, self-fulfillment is denied her: she can't be a sea captain or a doctor or a wealthy entrepreneur. But Goudge uses Marianne to illustrate a different point: that there can be a greater good, and greater happiness, in self-denial and self-sacrifice than in self-fulfillment. Marianne's taut selfishness serves as a foil for the easygoing selflessness of the people closest to her. Marianne can only be saved when she is thoroughly humbled, and learns to value the humility of those around her.

Goudge is a Christian writer, and Green Dolphin Street is an historical romance heavily doused with theology. Goudge is interested in how grace can enter lives both accidentally and through a lifetime of effort. She admires perseverance: sea captains who go down with their ships, missionaries who go off to martyrdom among the heathen, good men who remain faithful to their impossible wives. And Marianne is certainly impossible. It becomes clear that even Goudge finds her intolerable. She needs to be humbled, because for Goudge, the Christian writer, humility is where the human and divine come together. In her life of Jesus Christ, God So Loved the World (1951), Goudge focuses on the "unbelievable humbling" of Christ. In Green Dolphin Street, Marianne thinks of herself as a kind of god, and only becomes human, as God did in Christ, through her humiliation.

Elizabeth Goudge is a wonderful descriptive writer. The scenes set on the island of Guernsey are wonderfully evocative. When the scene shifts to New Zealand—which Goudge never visited—the descriptions unfortunately become less convincing and entrancing. I'm looking forward to reading some of her other books—her first novel, Island Magic (1934), for example—set in the Channel Islands, because she's at her best when she's grounded in that closely-observed and beautifully-evoked—and obviously beloved—landscape.

A Hollywood adaptation of Green Dolphin Street in 1947 starred Lana Turner as Marianne, with support from Van Heflin and Donna Reed, and won an Oscar for best special effects (an earthquake). It also yielded a theme song that became a jazz standard. Here's Carmen McRae performing On Green Dolphin Street in 1980.

The cover pictured above is from the currently available reprint edition. I read a 1944 American edition published by Coward-McCann, printed under wartime restrictions: thin paper, narrow margins, and small print.


Penelope said...

Hello Rob, welcome back. I loved Goudge's "The Little White Horse" as a girl, though it has now been many, many years since I read it. I must track down a copy and see what I think of it now. I remember mainly that salmon-pink geraniums figure significantly.

Jim H. said...

My parents used to play that song. I asked where Green Dolphin Street was and my mom said it's probably in New York. I never knew until now what the origin of the song was.


New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .