Girl Green as Elderflower

July 19, 2007 at 10:00 am 6 comments

For my entry on this novel, I had planned to cut and paste from the 2500 word conference paper I gave last week. I realised pretty quickly that it wasn’t going to work. This realisation brought home just how differently I write for different audiences. A conference paper is different from a thesis chapter, and not only in length, just as a conference paper for a medievalist audience differs from a paper for a postcolonial studies audience, even if I am actually talking about the same thing (in the former, I have to explain why I’m talking about Australia, and in the latter, the Middle Ages). In a blog post I don’t have to defend anything. Do I. What I like about blogging about novels, is that I can be as personal and effusive and anecdotal and cursory as I like. It’s fun.

I really love Randolph Stow’s Girl Green as Elderflower (1980). I love the title – the weight and balance of the words, the way they swing off each other. Stow is a pretty amazing poet, so it’s not surprising that he can come up with good titles. I love the structure of the novel, the way the medieval stories are embedded in the modern narrative, and the complex ways in which they reflect each other. And I love Stow’s prose, the seemingly effortless way he catches Suffolk voices.

Girl Green as Elderflower tells the story of the convalescence of Crispin Clare, as he recuperates in Suffolk from a traumatic experience – malaria and attempted suicide – in the Trobriant Islands. Stow himself had had a similar experience. As Clare slowly regains his health, he translates and rewrites 12th century Latin stories. These include the story of a fantastic sprite who was abandoned by her mother at birth and brought up by a witch, and longs for freedom, friendship, and her own family. He goes on to tell the story of the green children, as related by both Ralph of Coggeshall and William of Newburgh. According to these twelfth century sources, the two green children were discovered in Suffolk or East Anglia, and were taken in by locals. Initially refusing to eat anything, the children eventually feast happily on green beans, before growing accustomed to ordinary food and slowly losing their green colour. The boy eventually dies, but the girl grows up to be wanton and lascivious. When asked where they come from, they reply that they come from the ‘land of St Martin’, where ‘all dwellers and things of that region were tinged with a green colour, and that they perceived no sun, but enjoyed a certain brightness such as happens after sunset.’ In Stow’s novel, the green girl explains: ‘We are people of the land of the antipodes’ (p. 127).

Being now out of the sun the children gazed up at the knight, the most imposing man in the room, wide-eyed, and the beauty of their eyes amazed him like some stone never seen before. They were not of one unmixed green, but flecked or lined with different greens, and in each child’s eyes there was a different promise; for in the boy’s there was, as it were, a misting of blue, while in the girl’s was a haze of pale bird-breast brown.
Nor were their skins all of a single colour, but as there is variation with us (whose arms, for example, are darker above than below), so the skins of the green children verged in some places on the fairness of ladies. Noticing this, the knight thought first of the green of leeks, where that green meets white. But his second thought was of green elderbuds, at the point where they are transfigured into bloom (p.

Clare’s own alienation and displacement as an antipodean exile are reflected in the lives of the green children. Oh, there is so much to say about this book, and it will all go in my thesis. The medieval stories Clare tells are tragic, but the way they fit together, and refract the characters of his everyday life, is extraordinarily beautiful. Through the stories he tells, the strangeness of the Middle Ages enables Clare to face with courage the strangeness of the modern world.


Entry filed under: medieval, Randolph Stow.

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Lizzie  |  July 25, 2007 at 8:32 am

    I’m going to have to get a copy of this it sounds really good.
    I like books like that

  • 2. Wilson  |  July 30, 2007 at 5:43 pm

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  • 3. Wilson  |  August 5, 2007 at 2:19 am

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  • 4. fifi  |  August 7, 2007 at 9:07 am

    hi meli,
    I haven’t been in this book room for a while.
    What lovely things are always in it.
    Yes, indeed, there are so many ways of writing, so many ways to say something. I love your blogwriting, and I am sure I would love your papers, and your theses, never mind for whom your audience.
    It would be wondrous to observe your rigour and structure within those both genres, the arguments proven, and neatly finished off.

    Ah, but doesn’t blogging give one the chance just to ramble at will!

    I listened to a lovely paper recently, on Renaissance Arboreal Iconology, at the end of which she neatly flipped over and tied it all up into an image of the Green man. Utterly charming and clever.

    I was thinking how I often have to unravel the complex, and make it meaningful for my students. How different the postgrads to second years!

    In a big stretch, I explained Postmodernism in Indigenous Art to little ten year olds, with whom I am doing a community art project.
    I think they “got” it.

    I must read the Randolph Stow Green Girl, shall hunt it down.

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge!

  • 5. meli  |  August 8, 2007 at 6:57 am

    Thanks fifi, yes this poor little blog has been abandoned by me too the past couple of weeks, there’s lots of books i have to catch up on. doesn’t help that i’ve been feeling very ill. but maybe it would help get my brain back in order.

    how fun, explaining postmodernism to ten year olds! i still remember learning structuralism and poststructuralism as a first year, as my very lovely tutor made big lists on the white board and it all seemed painfully obvious. then last year i had to try to teach some first years myself. not as easy as it looks…

    yes i think girl green as elderflower is my favourite stow novel, i re-read a couple of others recently and they weren’t as good as i remembered.

  • 6. victor barker  |  November 15, 2007 at 11:11 am

    So pleased to see people reading Randoph Stow’s book The Girl Green As Elderflowwer.
    Many years ago I lived in a cottage in the shadow of Orford Castle, where the merman was imprisoned. Randolph Stow’s retelling of the story stuck in my mind. I am a professional writer and my latest novel – The Manatee – uses the merman myth as part of its structure. If you are interested you can read more about it on my website,

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