The Dean’s Watch may very well be the best book I read this year. I can’t imagine any modern book outshining this lovely tale of the friendship between a cathedral dean and an atheist watchmaker.
Isaac Peabody, horologist and master craftsman, had any belief in God taken away from him early in life by his abusive clerical father. Dean Adam Ayscough holds a deep love for the people of the mid-nineteenth century town where he ministers, but he is unable to express his care for the community or for individuals because his shy, gruff manner and his deteriorating hearing separate him from the people he is called to pastor. When Dean Ayscough and clock and watchmaker Peabody meet and begin a tentative friendship, both men cannot predict that their short but rich time together will change an entire city as well as their own lives and legacies.
Elizabeth Goudge is a fine writer. Reading one of her novels takes a certain mood and patience since she was not, as far as I can tell, at all influenced by the press for unremitting action in novels that comes from our immersion in television and movies and the “hurry up and tell me what happened” attitude that can rule our reading nowadays. The Dean’s Watch moves slowly, inexorably toward a very satisfying conclusion, and I am impelled by the pace of the novel to slow down myself and savor every word.
I really think the best thing I can do to give you a taste of what I’m talking about is to, well, give you a taste.
Deceptively simple observations are one of Ms. Goudge’s specialties:
“The reasons for seclusion were many. One should find out why a man is alone before one lets him alone, for he may not want to be alone. This he had not done.”
“That sky was enough to make a man imagine anything, it was in itself so unbelievable.”
“The contemplation of sunsets and vegetable matter has its serene pleasure, and involves no personal exertion, but I think that is not what you want in your old age.”
“What harm unpurified and undisciplined human love could do. He believed it must pass through death before it could entirely bless.”
“Why do I demand certainty? That is not faith. Why do I want to understand? How can I understand this great web of sin and ugliness and love and suffering and joy and life and death when I don’t understand the little tangle of good and evil that is myself?”
Miss Montague is an elderly spinster, lame as a result of a childhood accident and never loved or cherished by her family as a child. But she finds a vocation as she expends herself in love for the people whom God has placed in her way:
“She never knew what put it into her head that she, unloved, should love. Religion for her parents, and therefore for their children, was not much more than a formality and it had not occurred to her to pray about her problem, and yet from somewhere the idea came. . . Could loving be a life’s work? Could it be a career like marriage or nursing the sick or going on stage? Could it be adventure?”
“So she took a vow to love. Millions before her had taken the same simple vow but she was different from the majority because she kept her vow, kept it even after she had discovered the cost of simplicity. Until now she had only read her Bible as a pious exercise, but now she read it as an engineer reads a blueprint and a traveler a map, unemotionally because she was not emotional, but with a profound concentration because her life depended on it.”
Isaac Peabody cannot believe in a fatherly God of love because he has only known a father who acted in cruelty and contempt. So Dean Ayscough tells him:
“Believe instead in Love. It is my faith that Love shaped the universe as you shape your clocks, delighting in creation. I believe that just as you wish to give me your clock in love, refusing payment, so God loves me and gave Himself for me. That is my faith. I cannot presume to force it upon you, I can only ask you in friendship to consider it.”
“Whatever had made the Dean take such a fancy to him, a cowardly, selfish, obstinate, ugly old fellow like him? He would never understand it. He took the piece of paper out of his pocket and looked at that too. Faith in God. God. A word he had always refused. But the Dean had said, put the word love in its place.”
And to top it all off, Dean Ayscough has a butler, Garland, who reminds me of Downton Abbey’s Carson, or perhaps The Dowager Countess’s Spratt, velly, velly British and dignified and protective. I highly recommend The Dean’s Watch, when you’re ready to slow down and enjoy the roses of thoughtful, unhurried prose and insight into the depths of the spiritual lives of a small cast of rather extraordinary quotidian characters.