Some books reach you at just the right moment. They talk of things you know and love or spark ideas of things you’ll come to know and love. They contain characters and stories that are at once new and fresh and at the same time resound in your mind with a rightness that seems like familiarity. It is almost as though these books were written with you personally in mind. Henrietta’s House by Elizabeth Gouge was a book like this for me. I read it first when I was twelve or thirteen, that time when I was still gulping in all the fabulous richness of children’s books while also tipping a toe into the adult section of the library. Elizabeth Gouge was an author of a generation earlier, my mother had read her as a child, but you could find her books in libraries and second-hand shops and if you hunted there were some modern editions around. There’s a Christian focus in these books but not in the way of Victorian books. It’s woven around with myth so that it seems exotic and fascinating rather than dourly moralistic (though to be fair, there is a fair bit of lesson-learning).
There are only two children in Henrietta’s House and a lot of grown-ups, all with rather grow-up concerns. The two children, Henrietta and Hugh Anthony, don’t much like children, other than each other. It’s the story of Henrietta’s birthday picnic in the hills around the cathedral city of Torminster, of underground caverns and giants with their heart in paper bags, of early motor cars and dreams come true. I love the way Elizabeth Gouge threads fairy tale through the everyday, the contrast between the down-to-earth Hugh Anthony and story-loving Henrietta. But most of all I loved the house in the woods that Henrietta’s father secretly put together after long ‘what if’ discussions with her, complete with the library of the twenty books Henrietta thought every ten-year-old girl should own. Oh, and the part at the end when Henrietta is waiting at the house for everyone to turn up and they first lay out a tea party with the things they find in the kitchen and then gradually add things to turn it first into high tea and then into supper as time goes on. Oh the joy – I might have to go and read it again right now!