'The most complete novel I know in the English language is....' Now that's a sentence that has an almost ulimited number of possible endings, depending on who is saying it. Some would say Middlemarch, by George Eliot. No doubt whatsoever, Middlemarch is a sumptuously long, intricately contrived, precisely plotted novel richly populated with characters whose inner lives are narrated and monitored by a knowing narrator. Others may stake a claim for Henry James, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and we could all compile our listmania recommendations.
But the person who said to me, 'The most complete novel in the English language is....' was referring not to the great tradition, but to a novelist long out of fashion, and to a novel not recognised as her greatest. Yet The Dean's Watch, by Elizabeth Goudge was passionately advocated by my friend while she was in hospital, and during a conversation ranging from Wordsworth to Ruskin ( we were both reading the latest biographies, she of Wordsworth, me of Ruskin), from Dickens to Manley Hopkins. So I read it, and I haven't read enough novels to make the same exclusive claim that it is the most complete novel in the English language; but it is one of the most satisfyingly resolved novels I've ever read.
It is gentle but sharply observed, sentimental in a way that affirms emotion as an essential barometer of humanity, it avoids the unlikely coincidences that drive Charles Dickens, the fateful providences of Thomas Hardy, the mature and serious playfulness of George Eliot. Instead it draws you into a story where the characters are people, but also a city, and a cathedral, and a community that like a finely calibrated clock runs reliably until something jumps out of synchronic movement, and then needs repairing.
I've read it four times - and would have read it again this December but instead have leant it to a very good friend who will be the richer over Advent for reading it. The story revolves around the last months of a year leading up to Christmas, the plot centres around the Dean, his watch, the clockmaker, the apprentice, and the cathedral and city. And it does indeed, meander and twist and move towards completion until the entire story is resolved. Goudge constructs characters who are uncomplicated, lacking the ambiguity and complexity of the modern 'literary novel'. But her aim is to tell a story, to create place, people, circumstance within a providence that is merely hinted.
Eliot's Middlemarch it is not. But a woman whose father, H L Goudge, was known for carrying the bags of local tramps up the hill to the vicarage and offering them a bath, or sitting on the pavement talking to travelling people, is someone who understands the hidden graces and glimpsed generosities of ordinary human lives. The Dean's Watch is a tale of redemption, told within the ordinary, where sin is sin, and grace is grace, but grace abounds, people change, where life is told as a story framed in the goodness of and mystery of a Love both pervasive and elusive.
By the way that last sentence could stand as a good description of Advent... " a tale of redemption, told within the ordinary, where sin is sin, and grace is grace, but grace abounds, people change, where life is told as a story framed in the goodness of and mystery of a Love both pervasive and elusive". I am at Inverness with the good people of Hilton Church - some of whom regularly call by here. So I'll return the compliment and go visit to share an Advent weekend.