The Dean's Watch
I’ve read a lot of novels over the years and set too many aside as forgettable amusement. But this recently republished classic by Elizabeth Goudge has earned a place on my list of 10 all-time best. I’ve gone through it twice now, the second read touching me even more deeply than the first.
The British novel, published in 1960 and set in the 1870s, is all about character and context --- the history of a small city that is rather defined by its cathedral, towering so prominently that it seems to be among the living characters. Psalm 68 might also be in that category; its presence breathes.
"I’ve read a lot of novels over the years and set too many aside as forgettable amusement. But this recently republished classic by Elizabeth Goudge has earned a place on my list of 10 all-time best. I’ve gone through it twice now, the second read touching me even more deeply than the first."
At the center of the book is a fortuitous friendship between a prayerful, faithful, even powerful cathedral dean who feels he’s been a failure and a depressive, masterful horologist who has lost his faith. We are introduced to Isaac Peabody, the clockmaker, in the first chapter. We then glimpse the history of the city and its cathedral and are introduced to lesser characters before we --- and Isaac --- meet the dean by name, Adam Ayscough, in chapter five. There Isaac makes his weekly walk to the dean’s home to wind and tend the dean’s clocks, always, intentionally, when the dean is at the cathedral. But on this autumn day, the dean, recuperating from an illness, engages Isaac in a conversation about the dean’s unique watch.
It is an inauspicious meeting, but neither man is ever the same. Isaac sees beyond the dean’s bookish shyness to his isolation and pain. And the dean has been unwittingly challenged, by a watch paper poem mistakenly placed in his watch, to let down his guard and get to know his people. For years the dean has prayed over his city as he, like a specter, walked its streets at night: “He would stand in dark doorways and pray there for the men and women within the shuttered houses. If he lacked the common touch, if he was not the priest he had longed to be, this at least he could do.”
The next evening, mysteriously drawn as if in a trace, the dean knocks on the door of Isaac’s home and sets off a chain of events that transforms men, families, even the city. Within the week, the dean meets a kindergarten girl who he takes to Isaac’s clock shop. “Like his unpremeditated call on Mr. Peabody he was aware that [the outing] was about to have consequences out of all proportion to his initial action.”
This review isn’t doing THE DEAN’S WATCH justice. As another reader said to me, “It’s a book in which nothing happens,” and yet it brought me to tears. The momentum moves toward Christmas when, for the first time ever, the dean delivers a sermon without a script and gives his wife a gift she appreciates. Yet another reader tells me that he and his wife read this book every Advent. Its message is that compelling.
Do not be deterred by the book’s slow pace. You will be rewarded, and all will be revealed.
Reviewed by Evelyn Bence on November 19, 2012