Gentian Hill is a book that is based partly on history and partly on legend. Anthony, a fifteen year old orphan, became a midshipman in the British Navy after the unexpected death of his grandmother who had brought him up after both his parents died.
The British were fighting Napoleon and Anthony, only two months in service, had not yet seen any action. In fact he shrank from it with dread. All his life he’d been afraid and suddenly it seemed to him that it was impossible for him to continue in the navy. When his ship entered the bay at Torbay on the English Channel, the temptation to desert the ship came and he yielded to it.
After spending some time in hiding and in a state of semi-starvation, he found a miller willing to give him work but the man’s son, Sam, who had brawn but no brains, took an instant dislike to the well-educated young man and made life miserable for him.
The miller was famed as a wrestler and Sam was obviously following in his footsteps and pummeled Anthony at every opportunity. Anthony was left with two choices – to leave the work at the mill, just as he had left the Navy, or stay and learn how to wrestle.
A wrestling match was coming up in a month and Anthony proposed that Sam leaves off his poundings and that he and his father teach him how to wrestle. When the match was held they would fight together and if Sam won, Anthony would leave the mill.
The match day arrived and as expected Anthony was the loser, although he put up a good fight. One of the spectators was a doctor and when Sam threw Anthony to the ground he intervened and took the young man home to care for him. As he was carrying Anthony to his carriage another man went to help him and so another thread was added to Anthony’s story that would reveal itself at a later stage.
Anthony’s inner demon had always been fear and he had to learn not to be ruled by it. The doctor was instrumental in Anthony’s growth in this area of his life. He helped Anthony to see that right decisions are not always followed by feelings of relief.
‘You’ve done the right thing…though as far as you can see its not done you any good. Not much glory about it, as far as you can see. You feel damnable. That’s of no consequence – feelings don’t matter. It’s action that matters, and from fine action some sort of glory always breaks in the end…’
The doctor gave this advice to Anthony on dealing with fear:
‘To begin with, don’t fight it, accept it without shame, just as you would accept any other limitation you happen to be born with…Willing acceptance is half the battle…Be willing to be afraid, but don’t be afraid of your fear. As a doctor I can tell you that every man has within him a store of strength, both physical and spiritual, of which he is utterly unaware until the moment of crisis.’
There are many other characters in this story that I haven’t alluded to as well as ‘Providential’ threads, a romance of sorts, and a bit of history and legend thrown in.
As is usual with Elizabeth Goudge, she interspersed this story with philosophical rambles and the inner workings of the minds of her various characters which really flesh out the narrative.
‘You’re not befouled by another man’s obscenities and brutalities, but only by your own.’
Gentian Hill is a satisfying story of second chances, friendship and sacrificial love and of course, Goudge’s trademark descriptions of the beautiful English countryside.
‘Fear is a lonely thing. Even those who love us best cannot get close to us when we are afraid.’