Study Guide

The Girl Green as Elderflower

by Randolph Stow

The Girl Green as Elderflower Summary

Summary (Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Crispin Clare awakens in an old house in Suffolk, the home of his ancestors, to which he has returned to recuperate from a serious but unspecified illness (the reader later learns that it was malaria, which eventually provoked attempted suicide). Looking out his bedroom window, he sees a world covered with snow, while on his wall hangs a painting, done by his widowed cousin Alicia Clare, showing the same view on a beautiful summer’s day. Although it is winter and freezing in the cottage, it is also a morning suffused with “the new year’s astonishing first white light,” and although Clare is still ill, he ruminates in his half-waking state that “the doing” (of what, the reader is not told) “might even be the rebeginning of his health.” Trying to recapture the fever-dream of the night before, he is forced fully awake by the ringing of the downstairs phone. It is Mikey and Lucy, Alicia’s two younger children, inviting him over to see what their Ouija board has been “writing” for their friend Amabel.

Thus begins The Girl Green as Elderflower, a novel in which little happens in the way of external action, yet which takes its main character through a process of healing and renewal, as he comes to grips with his past and integrates it with the present. The novel is structured accordingly: The first twothirds is titled “January”; the last third is broken into three brief sections titled “April,” “May,” and “June.” The narrative proper (limited to Clare’s point of view, somewhat depersonalized by being rendered in the third person) consists of outwardly unremarkable events— Clare’s playing with the children, his accompanying Alicia’s oldest son, Mark, to the pub, his renewed acquaintance with an old school chum—which nevertheless gain the force of drama in revealing deepening layers of the central character’s (and, to some extent, other characters’) inner life. This level of the narrative alternates with three discrete symbolic folktales, of Clare’s own invention, whose characters correspond directly with their real-life counterparts (Clare usually gives them the same names). It is clear that Clare’s writing is self-therapy, perhaps connected with “the doing” of the novel’s opening paragraph. Stow thus allows the reader insight into his central character by allowing Clare’s thoughts and feelings about his real world—past and present—to surface through the symbolism of his private folktales.

Shortly after the novel’s opening scene, Clare arrives at the home of his cousins Clare, where he engages in the Ouija-board game with the young, inscrutable Amabel. They contact a twelfth century sprite named Malkin, who speaks to them at first in Latin and then specifically to Clare, in the tropical language of his recent past, Kulisapini. The spirit now identifies itself as Clare himself, and says, in Kulisapini, that Clare has already died. This revelation sends Clare into a sprawling faint, yet the children and nineteen-year-old Mark seem less astonished by the apparently supernatural event than they are concerned for Clare.

After recovering from his faint, Clare and Mark go to the local pub, almost colliding with a foreign-looking girl on her way out as they are entering. Mark’s polite attempt to make contact is rebuffed by her silence as she continues on her way, and his hurt and angry reaction is the first of several responses by various characters to this elusive figure and/or her fictional counterparts.

In the pub, Mark asks the pubkeeper who she is, and he is directed to an American, “Jim” (Jacques Maunoir), with whom she entered. While Mark looks Jim over and rejects him as “too old to matter” (it is clear that Mark leans toward homosexuality, as do several other characters in the novel), excusing himself to play darts with the “gypsy-looking” Robin, Clare and Jim get acquainted over drinks. Initially reserved, they soon warm to each other, and Jim explains that he had found the girl walking in the snow and offered her a ride and a drink; she had said little and left soon. The reader is treated to another flash of insight into Clare as he suddenly recognizes the civilian-garbed man as a priest and believes that he is an official sent to check up on him. The insight is only partial; Jim is, indeed, a former priest who has rejected his calling in search of a new identity and place, but...

(The entire section is 1804 words.)

The Girl Green as Elderflower Bibliography (Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Goodwin, Ken. A History of Australian Literature, 1986.

Hassall, Anthony J. A Strange Country: A Study of Randolph Stow, 1986.

Kramer, Leonie, ed. The Oxford History of Australian Literature, 1981.