I first read this book when I was about fifteen and remember being totally swept away by it, reading it through with hardly a break and feeling bereft at the end, always the sign of a good book. Out of print for many years, I have a battered old second hand copy which is falling apart, so was delighted to see that Capuchin Classics have republished what I hope will not be the last of Elizabeth Goudge's output.
Green Dolphin Country tells the story of two sisters, Marianne and Marguerite, who live in the Channel Islands. Marguerite, the younger, is a sweet gentle child, loving and loved by all who meet her, but Marianne is the total opposite, wilful and determined. She dominates her sister who defers to her on all things but they have a close relationship, until one day they meet William, the son of Dr Ozanne, who has returned to the island after many years away. He is a widower and is glad that William strikes up a close friendship with the sisters, though it is to Marguerite he gives his devotion.
As the years pass William realises he wishes to make Marguerite his wife, but has reckoned without Marianne who is also in love with him and for once, will not allow her lover for her sister stand in her way. She realises that William has a secret desire to go to sea but his loyalty is keeping him at home and because of his sightly easy going and lazy character will never broach the subject with his father, so she decides to do it for him by pointing out to Dr Ozanne how frustrating it can be to be denied the chance to do what you really want.
"I can never be a doctor. It's horrid being a woman, one does not ever seem able to have what one wants unless a man gives it to one....what matters is that he should go to sea....it's horrid to be frustrated. It's funny isn't it, how often parents ruin their children's lives because of their pride? ...It's horrid to be frustrated
Of course Marianne is talking about herself as much as William but she achieves her object and William is given permission to go to sea. She is quite ruthless about separating him from Marianne and during a farewell ball where it is clear William is about to propose to her sister manages to manoeuvre an interruption so that the vital question is never asked.
William sets sail on the HMS Orion, but being homesick and sad gets drunk one night in a disreputable tavern and awakes to find himself in the street with not a penny to his name, having been robbed in the night. He has missed his ship and is stranded and will be branded as a deserter. He manages to obtain a place on a ship to New Zealand as he is too ashamed of himself to do anything else. There he settles. Elizabeth Goudge is fairly unforgiving in her portrayal of William, he is lazy and easygoing and prefers an easy life if he can get it, he is also non-attentive and gets names mixed up, much to Marianne's displeasure. So we understand how William, who also likes a drink or two, can make a mistake when he decides to write to the family he had never forgotten back in the Channel Islands, to ask if Marianne would consent to be his wife and travel out to New Zealand to join him.
Back at home in the Channel Islands, the grief at wondering what had happened to William, is forgotten and Marianne is jubilant at the proposal. Sweeping all opposition aside he sets off for New Zealand leaving Marguerite being, grief stricken at William's seeming betrayal and left behind to come to terms with her unhappiness.
Marianne is in for a shock when she meets up with William again: "....she saw that ten years of pioneer life had changed him almost out of recognition. Little of his great beauty remained with him...he looked ten years old than his actual age"
He in his turn is shocked to see her instead of Marguerite: "She opened her eyes and saw him standing there his face dead white, as though he has just passed through some moment of almost unbearable emotion, his figure set and still"
So begins the great deception as William recognizes he can never let her know that it was Marguerite he wanted not her. The rest of this marvellous book tells the story, in a great sweep, of the life and dangers they face in the wilds of New Zealand and the contrast with the life Marguerite is leading back in the Channel Islands who, eventually, finds happiness in an unexpected way.
The story comes full circle when many years later William and Marianne return home and she learns, inadvertently, of William's mistake and has to come to terms with the fact that it was she, not Marguerite, who was the rejected sister. At first she is full of bitterness and anguish but then slowly realizes that they have built a life together:
"It was William's love that she thought about, the slow difficult thing that he had built up through the years to save her. Yes, he had saved her and she acknowledged it. Perhaps he was right is saying that in material ways she had saved him, but spiritually it had been the other way round. What sort of woman would she have become if he had not made that mistake in his letter.......and she had been left behind on the Island? She had a good look at the bitter woman she had been at the time his letter came and she trembled. What sort of woman would she have been if he had told her the truth at Wellington and packed her off home again? She dared not even look at that woman...how hard it must have been for him. What a price had paid for her salvation, that was what love was..."
Of course, the irony of all this is that Marianne was the prefect wife for him in his circumstances in New Zealand. Brave, feisty and lion hearted, she stood by him through all the difficulties and dangers and provided the backbone that he was lacking and which Marguerite would not have been able to do.
An absolutely wonderful book, a great fat tome, which I have re-read with utter joy. I have all of Elizabeth Goudge's books on my shelves, her children's book, The Little White Horse being a particular favourite of mine, but looking at Green Dolphin Country again has brought back so many happy memories of my teenage years when I first came across it. I loved it then and love it now and am simply delighted that Capuchin Press have reissued this wonderful story. Eizabeth Goudge has been somewhat neglected and I hope that more of her books find their way back into print. They deserve to be.
On the back of this edition next to Capuchin Classics is the tag line "Books to keep alive".
I could not agree more and Green Dolphin Country certainly falls into that category. Do read. Please.