Xmas children: A City of Bells by Elizabeth Goudge

published 1936

Every December on the blog I feature Xmas scenes and Xmas books with some nice pictures – I never seem to run out, but am still open to ideas and suggestions.

If you use Pinterest you can see some of the beautiful seasonal pictures on this page, and you can find (endless!) more Xmas books via the labels at the bottom of the page

[Set in early 1900s]

He stood in the Cathedral during morning service with the children one on each side of him and sang, “Hark, the herald angels sing,” aware that Henrietta, whose eyes were beaming with joy and whose muff was swinging from side to side like a pendulum as her figure swayed in time to the music, was seeing a starlit sky full of wings and a manger with a baby in it, and seeing them with her.

Hugh Anthony on his other side was singing the tune a semitone flat with the full force of his lungs, but he looked happily distrait and his left hand was plunged deep in his pocket; it clutched, Jocelyn knew, the knife with two blades, a corkscrew and a thing for getting stones out of one’s horse’s hoofs (if one happened to have a horse that got into this predicament) that had been in his stocking …

comments: Elizabeth Goudge has a terrific ability to draw in the reader and to handle spiritual matters in a way that is not too off-putting: for this reason she is an all-time comfort read for many people. Sometimes her books soar away even higher and transcend her very middlebrow reputation. I would say that another book in this trilogy, The Dean’s Watch, does so: this one remains earthbound. But it has some wonderful moments.
Goudge (as in her other books) is very good at describing what all the characters, including the children, are wearing - this is Henrietta’s wardrobe:
Smocks of periwinkle blue and rose-pink for everyday, with white muslin for Sundays, a soft white sailor hat, white socks and little brown sandals, petticoats with scalloped borders and combinations that were soft to the skin and descended no farther than the knee.
Though she can’t make her mind up about sailor hats - earlier in the book Henrietta is wearing one which is described as ‘hideous’ and is flung aside in horror. And then here we go again:
They put on their brown strap shoes, attached the immense sailor hats that were then fashionable for the young to the backs of their heads with the help of elastic under the chin, and slung their satchels over their shoulders.

Henrietta is given plenty of nice clothes to make up for her years in an orphanage where she wore only black:
Henrietta wore her new red winter coat trimmed with beaver, with a round beaver cap on her head and a little muff hung round her neck on a chain. She was much too hot, but she did not mind because she knew she looked very sweet.

There are some nice turns of phrase – a description of that annoyance to all children:
the heartless loyalty to each other’s discipline that seems to afflict even the best of grown-ups.
(I used to think of it as a trade union of parents, holding the line with each other’s children.)

There’s some consternation that the young hero Jocelyn is going into Trade (he is opening a bookshop), but his grandfather the Canon has an answer to that:
“Do not forget, dear Jane, that the Apostles themselves were in trade … Fish.”
And the grandfather, again, asks Jocelyn to think something over:
But mind you do think. Don’t just take out your feelings and look at them, which is what passes for thought with most of us pitiful, self-centred creatures. Look at the question from everyone’s point of view.
And I learned what ‘diapered’ means – I knew diaper as the American word for what the UK calls nappy, but there was this:
Stirring and shifting in the sunshine, [shadows of moss] made a diapered pattern all over Felicity’s white dress.
The word comes from this definition:

A linen or cotton fabric with a woven pattern of small, constantly repeated figures, as diamonds. Also called diaper pattern. Originally used in the Middle Ages in weaving silk and gold.

For more about this book see a post earlier this year.

Top picture is Prayers by Guido Bach – a 19th C German artist. The subjects are looking pretty Catholic there, with the Rosary and all, which Goudge’s characters most certainly weren’t.

The family with a fine selection of sailor clothes is from the National Library of Ireland.

Little girl in red from the Athenaeum website: Girl With a Doll by John Everett Millais.


  1. This is an excellent choice, Moira. It is hard, isn't it, to have a good balance of 'earthbound' with the more spiritual if that's a theme in a book. And people's views of what works varies so greatly! I really like the writing style, too - it's elegant without being inaccessible. Glad you enjoyed this.

    1. Thanks Margot - it was a perfect seasonal read.

  2. "the knife with two blades, a corkscrew and a thing for getting stones out of one’s horse’s hoofs"
    I'd have liked a picture of that, especially the thing for getting stones out of one’s horse’s hoofs, if it ever existed.
    Were there ever such knives, and who first turned them into a literary trope?

    1. Google "hoof pick" to see pictures. Swiss army knives date to 1891, civilian officer's/sports knife to 1897. Here's a link to the Equestrian model complete with hoof cleaner: https://www.swissarmy.com/us/en/Products/Swiss-Army-Knives/Large-Pocket-Knives/Equestrian/p/0.8583?mt_load=lt30

    2. The wonders of the 'net!
      Thanks, but I must admit I'm disappointed they actually exist. The reality is so mundane compared to what I imagined.

    3. Well Roger and Ann! Like Roger I think I thought it was mythical, and haven't wanted to know what it really was - it was just the apocryphal item on a knife. But if Swiss Army Knives say it looks like that, then that is what it is. Thanks Ann!

  3. I must read this again!

    My sister and I wore liberty bodices when we were young (1950s), until our doctor told my mother they were quite unnecessary The end of a long tradition of over-dressing small children.

    1. It's an ongoing theme on the blog - nearly all memoirists of that era complain about the layers of underclothes children were supposed to wear. I guess (playing devil's advocate) houses were colder and the likes of chest infections would be more dangerous...

  4. I cry every time I read The Dean's Watch.

    Totally OT, the seal of the university I attended featured a sail. Perhaps inevitably, it has been known almost since the institutions founding as The Flying Diaper.


    1. Not just me then. The Dean's Watch is on a different level. It feels as though it will be a comforting, slightly sentimental book, and it is nothing of the sort. It is full of rather discomforting surprises, and incredibly emotional.
      I took a look at the picture on the seal. Not immediately clear what it was, I wouldn't've known if you hadn't told me.


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