“It was May-time in England. The last breath of a long winter had blown its final farewell across the hills,—the last frost had melted from the broad, low-lying fields, relaxing its iron grip from the clods of rich, red-brown earth which, now, soft and broken, were sprouting thick with the young corn’s tender green.”
I finally found it! This is exactly the kind of a gem I always hope to find, as I browse and browse and browse in the vintage section at used book stores and book sales.
A novel—at least a hundred years old—with some wonderful characters, a can’t-put-it-down plot, a spiritual element, a bit of romance, the joy of nature, an educational element, all put together with excellent writing. 523 pages with not a single picture, and I couldn’t bear for it to end. I am still amazed that a 1904 novel can do that.
The story is set in England. Pastor John Walden, the forty-something ‘man of worship’, is introduced as having a cheerful, sanguine disposition, athletic looking, strong of character. He is the owner of one of the smallest ‘livings’ in England, an old relic of a church of medieval days, which he’d bought and renovated to the point where it was a tourist interest in the woodland village of St. Rest. A thirteenth-century sarcophagus was discovered during the renovations, which apparently houses a great saint. One window remains incomplete, for which Walden continues to slowly gather pieces of genuine, authentic stained glass, bit by bit, to fill a circular rose carving.
“He was a great lover of books and, to a moderate extent, a collector of rare editions; …He loved antiquarian research and all such scientific problems as involved abstruse study and complex calculations, but equally he loved the simplest flower and the most ordinary village tale of sorrow or mirth recounted to him by any one of his parishioners. He gave himself such change of air and scene as he thought he required, by taking long swinging walks around the country, and found sufficient relaxation in gardening, a science in which he displayed considerable skill…For the rest, he was physically sound and morally healthy and moved as it were on the straight line from Earth to Heaven beginning each day as if it were his first life opportunity and ending it soberly and with prayer as though it were his last.”
The story begins during the May-time celebration. The children parade through town singing, and arrive at Parson John’s place with the Maypole. He’d planned to give an appropriately spiritual message for the day. But with the little two-year-old Ipsy calling to her beloved friend, “Passon! Tum ‘ere! Passon! Tum ‘ere!”, he puts the child on his shoulders and joins their parade and songs.
We meet various townspeople, including old Josie who seems to be the only one left with common sense and convictions. Sinister, conscious-less Mr. Leach has his own agenda to further his interests at others’ expense, which includes chopping down the Five Sisters, a four-hundred-year old grove of trees that are the town’s pride and joy. Wealthy Sir Martin Pippett unofficially runs the town and its main businesses, but resents the reality that soft spoken Parson John Walden actually stands quietly over him in authority and influence.
One day Mrs. Spruce, his housekeeper, shows the parson a letter from Miss Maryllia Vancourt, the property owner, about her upcoming arrival. Mrs. Spruce is in a tizzy because she has a lot of cleaning to do in this house that has been abandoned for 10 years. This also disturbs John because for years he has been walking on Miss Vancourt’s forested property with his dog Nebbie (short for Nebuchadnezzar) and has even been using the library inside her house. He dreads the return of this modern Squiress, expecting that she most likely will bring modern ways with her, and will hunt, shoot, smoke, and perhaps swear.
Maryllia does in a sense bring modern ways to the village in the form of her friends and acquaintances, who exude wealth and privilege, living lives of bored gossip, fashions, food and obsessed with status. She, however, has little interest in such a lifestyle, nor is she interested in the wealthy male version of the same, Lord Rocksmith, who considers himself engaged to her. In herself, she presents a modern independence of intelligence, thought and strength, of poise and vision, of integrity and compassion, unusual for a woman in that small community of simple folk.
Maryllia and John clash, especially as he disapproves of her worldliness and the society that she keeps. Yet each encounter shows their true colors, pleasing colors. They are actually cut from the same cloth in their common qualities of humility, strength of character, goodness and faith. Eventually, they begin to see past their first impressions and develop an affectionate friendship, which leads to love. The ending is not predictable, and keeps the tension high until the last words.
Often throughout the book, literary geniuses are quoted, such as Chaucer, Spenser, Herrick and Longfellow. Here is a quote of Epictetus, which John is pondering:
“Had we understanding thereof, would any other thing better beseem us than to hymn the Divine Being and laud Him and rehearse His gracious deeds? These things it were fitting every man should sing, and to chant the greatest and divinest hymns for this, that He has given us the power to observe and consider His works, and a Way wherein to walk. If I were a nightingale, I would do after the manner of a nightingale; if a swan, after that of a swan. But now I am a reasoning creature, and it behooves me to sing the praise of God; this is my task, and this I do, nor as long as it is granted me, will I ever abandon this post. And you, too, I summon to join me in the same song.”
“A wonderfully advanced’ Christian way of looking at life, for a pagan slave of the time of Nero!” thought Walden… “With all our teaching and preaching, we can hardly do better.” Amen!
I can’t say enough good about this book! Highly recommended for all ages!
Give this book to a young reader to introduce them to top quality, wholesome literature.
This lovely book is available through Amazon and other online booksellers. You can read it for free at Online books, Project Gutenberg, Public Bookshelf and other sites. You can learn more about the author at this U.K. website.