It's been a while since a book caused me to shed tears, but it happened-- on an airplane-- as I finished The Dean's Watch, by Elizabeth Goudge. I'd started out annoyed with the paperback version I bought because the cover illustration makes it look like a trashy romance. Reading it in public, I tried to keep my hand over it and control the urge to tell adjacent passengers, "Not what it looks like. Really." And the blurb inside quotes the one hot kissing scene as though it were the heart of the story. It's fitting that the label on the front covers the title, because the publishers definitely covered up the actual story with their heavy breathing.
It's about a dean, Adam Ayscough, the head man of a cathedral in an unnamed English city, The City, and his watch, a marvelous bit of craftsmanship and art which he regularly drops or over-winds so that it comes into the hands of Isaac, a talented watchmaker, who is annoyed with the dean for mistreating the watch, but also grateful, because he loves to work on it.
The dean is a big, ugly man who considers himself a failure. He had been a pastor, but a poor preacher. No one understood his sermons full of of theological terms. He became a schoolmaster, and was much admired and respected, but faulted himself for failing to connect with the boys as human beings. Now, as dean, he is held in awe by residents of the city, and a little feared. He has one true friend, an elderly lady who never married and made the decision that her contribution to the city would be to love its people and pray for them. She tells him not to be afraid of joy.
An "accident" causes him to talk to the watchmaker and thank him for his work. By fits and starts, they become friends. The dean forces himself to drop in at Isaac's house. Unheard of! People call on the dean; he does not call on them. But he has tea in the kitchen with Isaac and Polly, the maid, (I think that's supposed to be her on the cover.) and finds that it's... fun. At least until Isaac's uptight and extremely proper sister arrives home and is scandalized that they've entertained The Dean, The Dean of the Cathedral, in the kitchen. Now he must find a way to mollify her and to overcome his dislike. That's one of the most interesting themes in the book-- how to love the thoroughly unlovable.
The dean also tries to help the often-beaten apprentice who loves Polly. He soon finds how complicated it can be to insert oneself into other people's lives. And he struggles to find a way to heal his own cold marriage to a much younger beauty, who seems to think of nothing but her beautiful image. It involves a clock, probably the most beautiful and perfect in the world, made by Isaac. None of it works out the way one might guess, at least not the way I would guess, but it works out beautifully, because Goudge is a master at portraying God's mysterious ways. Faith, lack of, and growth of, is always a part of her work, like the most well-known, Green Dolphin Country (also published as Green Dolphin Street, and made into a lousy movie you need not bother with.) And part of that working-out is what made me dab at my eyes.