Oct 16, 2015

Love Amidst Suffering (Novel Review: The Dean's Watch)

By Anna Ilona Mussmann

“As this world becomes increasingly ugly, callous and materialistic it needs to be reminded that the old fairy stories are rooted in truth, that imagination is of value, that happy endings do, in fact, occur, and that the blue spring mist that makes an ugly street look beautiful is just as real a thing as the street itself.” Elizabeth Goudge

Originally published in 1960, Elizabeth Goudge’s novel The Dean’s Watch is set in an isolated, mid-nineteenth-century city where the climate is as harsh as most residents’ lives. In this city lives Isaac Peabody, a clockmaker who hates and fears God but is alive to the wonder of beauty. He forms a friendship with the embittered Dean of the Cathedral, a man who fears that despite his own efforts, he has failed to serve God. Through this friendship the Dean learns how to love the people and the city that he has always wanted to care for.

It is currently popular to write stories in which the villain is the protagonist (the recent movie Maleficent comes to mind). However, even these tales maintain the traditional hero/villain format by also providing readers or viewers with a real villain who has hurt the so-called villain. Ms. Goudge’s approach is different. In her story, we get the sense that the lines of hero and villain are intertwined--whether sympathetic or hard-to-like, the characters are all suffering in their own way and capable of hurting one another. Indeed, many of them have hurt each other.

It sounds schmaltzy to say that this is a novel about the power of love amidst suffering. Yet I, a reader with an intense dislike of sentimentality, felt warmed and nourished by it (admittedly, I was probably influenced by a surge of post-partum hormones). It satisfied* me in a way that many books don’t. However, it also left me pondering theology. This is a book about love, but the focus is on the love that humans show to others rather than the love God shows to them. Characters seem to come to understand God’s love, and therefore to find hope, through loving and serving their neighbor. Is this a confusion of justification and sanctification? Does good Lutheran theology demand that this book be cast aside as hopelessly works-righteous-y and heretical?


I have come to the conclusion that it depends on how one interprets the novel. For instance, one of the characters is a woman who, neglected by her family and denied marriage or career, decides to make “love” her life work. As she doggedly sets out to love the people around her,

“. . . the central figure of the Gospels, a historical figure whom she deeply revered and sought to imitate, began at rare intervals to flash out at her like live lightning from their pages, frightening her, turning the grave blueprint into a dazzle of reflected fire. Gradually she learned to see that her fear was not of the lightning itself but what it showed her of the nature of love, for it dazzled behind the stark horror of Calvary . . . . She could not take her eyes from the incredible glory of His love. As far as it was possible for a human being in this world she had turned from herself. She could say, ‘I have been turned.’”

What does this mean? It could be interpreted as saying that the way to become a real Christian is to do good works, and that once a person becomes good enough, she will receive a spiritual revelation about a vague, smushy “power of love.” On the other hand, I think one could also note the phrase “she had been turned,” and choose to interpret this passage as the work of the Holy Ghost in the character’s life. Perhaps she came to understand that “the stark horror of Calvary” is about love (i.e., God’s love--a free gift of salvation--for us). The book does tell us in a later passage that, “She knew her own worthlessness and so did God, though He loved her none the less . . . .” After all, the characters live in a time and a place where knowledge of the Law’s demands is common.

A second problematic element is the way that several of the characters function as Christ-figures by loving (and therefore changing) others. One character thinks that, “To draw some tiny fraction of the sin of the world into her own being with this darkness was to do away with it.” No, no. We sinful humans cannot pay for, or eliminate, anyone’s sin. We cannot go around making the world a purer place by sin-eating. On the other hand, if the author is intending to speak of the suffering that is the result of sin, it is true that those who show mercy to others can absorb some of the suffering that afflicts the world.

Overall, I suspect that the author’s personal theology lacks a full understanding of justification. However, because she was able to avoid making her story feel too sentimental or annoying, I was willing to see the changes in her Christian characters’ lives as simply God’s merciful work in the lives of His children. I was especially willing to do this because even if the novel isn’t a good source of theological catecheses, it is a vivid examination of compassion. I would like to view my neighbors in the way that the author viewed her characters.

In addition, the story’s handling of suffering and grief was timely for me. During the week when I read this book, I heard a great deal of sad news about deaths and other tragedies in the lives of people I know. Ms. Goudge evoked the same feeling as Kate DiCamillo’s words in Tale of Despereaux: “The world is dark and light is precious. Come closer, dear reader. You must trust me. I am telling you a story.” We can all use the light of another good story.


*Note: The first few chapters felt very slow. I recommend that you persevere through the beginning until you are hooked on the characters and their emotional arcs. 


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After graduating from Concordia Wisconsin, Anna taught in Lutheran schools for several years and became so enthusiastic about Classical Education that she will talk about it to whomever will listen. She is a big fan of Jane Austen, dark chocolate, and the Oxford comma. Anna and her husband live in Pennsylvania with their two small children. Anna's (currently neglected) personal blog is Don't Forget the Avocados and her work can also be found in The Federalist.

2 comments:

  1. Thank you for your post. EIzabeth Goudge is one of my favorite authors, and The Dean's Watch is probably my favorite of her books. I don't have much comment - am not an eloquent writer - so a simple "thank you" will have to suffice.

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