Wednesday 24 February 2021

The Castle on the Hill by Elizabeth Goudge (1941)


Many of Elizabeth Goudge’s books have historical settings. The White Witch takes place during the English Civil War, Green Dolphin Country and The Dean’s Watch are set in the 19th Century. I expected The Castle on the Hill to be set at some remote period of time and was surprised when I started reading it that it was written at the beginning of WWII when England was being hammered by the Germans during the Blitz.
The outlook was grim and many people were feeling quite hopeless. It is into this insecure and desolate setting that Elizabeth Goudge weaves her story of loss and despair, love and hope, duty and sacrifice. There’s a good deal of sadness, as you would expect. No one quite gets what they were hoping for and have to settle for circumstances that weren’t their first choice. But, in typical Elizabeth Goudge fashion, sacrifice and duty are redemptive decisions that grow people’s souls. As one of her characters decided after surviving a bomb blast that crippled him, 
‘The other way would have been too easy a death for a man who had too easy a life. Now he would have time to make his soul.’ 

One of this book’s most likeable characters is Miss Brown, a nondescript woman of forty-two years who had nothing about her that stood out, ‘nothing to catch hold of.’ She had a gift for protective covering and managed to blend into the background wherever she was. She was a woman who loved more than she was loved. 
She had had to give up her home for military use and had just learnt that it was obliterated in a bombing raid and the news caused her to lose hope.

‘Her loss of everything she had hitherto known was making her feel as solitary as though she were the only human creature alive in the world. And what a world! It was June nineteen forty. Yesterday was gone, burnt up in the blazing inferno of its suffering. There was today, a tiny patch of foothold, but there was no to-morrow...Memory of the past and hope for the future are companionable things.’

Sitting outside the Free Library in London, feeling herself to be on the edge of a great abyss, a small thing lightened her despair. A violin played by a street musician began to reach her,

‘And she knew it was the truth she was listening to. She heard no words, she saw no vision, but she was slowly made aware that she was one of a multitude that went upon pilgrimage to something or other. She had no idea what the something was, or how they were to get there, all she knew was that the way was stony and painful, dreadful, terrifying; yet worth daring all the same.’

The music was Delius’ Song of Summer and hearing it played helped her transcend her circumstances. When one of Dostoevsky’s characters said that 'beauty will save the world,’ I think he was referring to this ability of beauty to reflect truth, inspire us with a sense of awe, and point to something beyond ourselves. 

Some favourite passages:

'Orderliness of life and thought must be maintained as far as possible. When these chaotic days were passed what was left of it would form the scaffolding upon which the new order could be built. “Order.” A good word. How passionately sane men longed for it, and how incapable they seemed of achieving it with any permanence. How passionately the insane hated it and how easily they could destroy it. Hitler’s contemptuous sneer at “the bourgeois virtues of peace and order” was typical of all the anarchists through the ages.'

'England, from the days of Ethelred the Unready onwards had never been ready for anything, and never would be, had not been ready with proper shelters when the Blitz came.'

'I wish I could live that afternoon over again and do it ought to be given the chance to live certain scenes in ones life over and over again until one gets it perfect.'

As with every book I've read by this author, I found her characters very well described. Her writing progresses slowly because she spends so much time exploring personality and setting, which I enjoy. Her work is perceptive and reflects a deep understanding of human nature, much of it shown through the conversations and reflections of the characters in her books. 
She was living in Devon when World War II broke out and you get the sense that her own personal experience of vulnerability permeates the book.

Friday 12 February 2021

Charlotte Mason Simple Spanish - a Curriculum for Young children

 It has been very encouraging to see new business ventures emerge within the home education movement in recent years. Downloadable products are especially helpful to those outside of the USA who pay a premium for postage and this format lends itself well to learning another language. 

Charlotte Mason Simple Spanish is a Curriculum for teaching Spanish to young children. So far the author has downloadable resources that may be used with very young children to help expose them to the language and also for Year 1. She is planning a Year 2, a program that will focus on learning to read Spanish as well as introducing copywork and dictation to learn to write Spanish and will be following the Scope and Sequence of the PNEU (scroll down) for formal lessons and for when to introduce reading and writing.  

The author recommends the lessons be woven into your days, e.g. the poetry informal lesson could be done during tea time, the challenge (replacing an English sentence with Spanish) when they wake up and so on. 

For the early years, two lessons of five minutes a week where the child learns a very short song for a month through play and exploration is suggested.

For the formal lessons for Year 1, two lessons of ten minutes each week are recommended and one ten minute lesson a week for the poetry recital. In addition, a lesson of fifteen minutes a week for song study is suggested.

Audio links to Spanish music, stories, songs, and pronunciation are given via QR codes which are very easy to link to with a mobile phone. Nature walks, poetry and Bible verses are included in each unit.

As you can see, this is a very immersive and gentle method of learning a foreign language which is very consistent with a Charlotte Mason approach.

The home page of the Charlotte Mason Simple Spanish website has a link, Expectations by Age, which has ideas on how to use the curriculum with different ages.

Charlotte Mason Simple Spanish is an economical and attractive curriculum. There are some free resources to download and if you subscribe to the website you get 15% off your order.

Wednesday 10 February 2021

Non Fiction: A Woman in Berlin (1954)

A Woman in Berlin is a firsthand account of the Red Army’s entry into Berlin during the last days of World War II. The anonymous author was a thirty-four year old female journalist who was living in the city at the time. Berlin had been bombed extensively and ninety percent of its buildings were destroyed. There was no running water or electricity. 
Hitler had rejected any idea of evacuating the two million civilians left in the city, thinking that his troops would defend the city more bravely if their wives and children remained there. The civilians were mostly women and children and included 120,000 babies and infants - young boys and old men had been forced into the German army as the Allies gained ground. 
The author recorded the events that occurred in Berlin during the time period of the 20th April 1945 up until the 22nd June, 1945 in a notebook. 
The diary was first published in an English translation in the United States in 1954 and not long afterwards in seven other languages, but when a German language edition was published in Geneva six years later it was very controversial and had a hostile reception in Germany. As a result, the author decided the book should not be published again while she was still living.
Her writing is considered important as a firsthand account as many of the atrocities committed against women, in particular, at the time have been repressed by both the Soviets and Germans. Not to mention the fact that history is often rewritten to fit in with current agendas.

‘This chronicle was begun on the day when Berlin first saw the face of war.’

The author’s account is harrowing and dreadful but she wrote in an objective, almost dispassionate manner at times which lessened the initial punch for me...for a little while, at least. Thinking back on her story, I almost wish I hadn’t read it. It's a book I'd be hesitant to recommend unconditionally because of the nature of the content so I'd suggest checking out these websites to know what you're in for if you do read it:

‘Our radio’s been dead for four days. Once again we see what a dubious blessing technology is. Machines with no intrinsic value, worthless if you can’t plug them in somewhere...At the moment we’re marching backwards in time. Cave dwellers.’

The author found some flowers growing and took them to a Frau Goltz, a lady she knew:
‘“What flowers, what lovely flowers.” The tears were streaming down her face. I felt terrible as well. Beauty hurts now. We’re so full of death.’

The author observed that she was ‘...coming down a level in way I speak...these are strange times - history experienced first hand, the stuff of tales yet untold and songs unsung. But seen close up, history is much more troublesome - nothing but burdens and fears... 
We are debasing our language in expectation of the impending humiliation.’

Before the Nazis surrendered, Hitler and Goebels sent out handwritten notices to rally the inhabitants of Berlin, but the residents were so used to the noise and fanfare of Nazi proclamations that these handwritten commands were ignored. One woman was heard to comment, “Well, just look what those two have come to.”

‘The handwriting looks pathetic and inconsequential, like something whispered.
Yes, we’ve been spoiled by technology. We can’t accept doing without loudspeakers or rotary presses...
Technology has devalued the impact of our own speech and writing.’

‘The cold doesn’t want to go away. I sit hunched on the stool in front of our stove, which is barely kept burning with all sorts of Nazi literature. Assuming everyone is doing the same thing - and they are - Mein Kampf will go back to being a rare book, a collector’s item.’

Tuesday 2 February 2021

2021 European Reading Challenge (Belgium): William - An Englishman by Cicely Hamilton (1919)


This book is a gem!

Cicely Hamilton worked in administration in France during World War I and served at the Front as the Germans were advancing and the area was being bombed. Incredibly, she wrote this novel during that time, probably in a tent, and in between evacuations and mopping up efforts. The book was first published in 1919 and reprinted by Persephone Books in 1999.

I don’t want to give too much detail about the storyline except to say that its ending is very different from its beginning.

William- An Englishman tells the story of William Tully, a very nondescript young man of twenty-three living under the strict rule of his mother. According to his office colleagues William was ‘a negligible quantity’ and he remained so until a crisis occurred in his life and changed the direction of his life.

William’s crisis led him to unburden himself to one of his work associates, a young man by the name of Faraday, who tended to keep to himself. Unbeknown to William, Faraday was a passionate Socialist and before long William, hitherto clueless about social issues, wholeheartedly embraced the same cause and devoted himself to it. Within a year he was in demand as a speaker and campaigner. He also became involved in the suffragette movement and it was in one of their meetings that he found his perfect match in Griselda. Like William, Griselda ‘had found peace of mind and perennial interest in the hearty  denunciation of those who did not agree with her.’

William and Griselda held to identical idealistic creeds. They were Pacifists when it suited them but knew next to nothing of history, science, literature or art.

They believed in, ‘a large, vague and beautifully undefined identity, called by William the People, and by Griselda, Woman; who in the time to come was to accomplish much beautiful and undefined Good; and in whose service they were prepared meanwhile to suffer any amount of obloquy and talk any amount of nonsense.’

William and Griselda believed their own intentions were pure and therefore the intentions of those who did not agree with them must be evil and impure. No dissent was permitted. The author played on this belief and the pernicious idea of isolating ourselves from those who hold opposing views. (There is nothing new under the sun, it seems.)

‘They were, in short, very honest and devout sectarians - cocksure, contemptuous, intolerant, self-sacrificing after the manner of their kind.’

William and Griselda were married and travelled to the Belgian Ardennes for their honeymoon where a fellow revolutionary had made her cottage in the forest available to them. There, in a foreign country, where neither of them knew the language and had no knowledge of or interest in world affairs, their narrow and idealistic thinking was shattered. For, the day before they had planned to return home to England, World War I was declared and the young couple were oblivious that the world had changed overnight.

Cicely Hamilton wrote with a brilliant combination of irony, sarcasm and humour about those on the sidelines of the war effort. William, Griselda and their associates were combatants in their own War; waging battle in scuffles at Cabinet meetings, suffragette protests, stirring up revolt and distributing pamphlets. Caught up in their own view of international affairs, armchair critics of everything military, they were completely unprepared for what awaited them.

I mentioned earlier that the book’s ending is very different from its beginning. As the story progresses there is a gathering intensity. The author keeps the sardonic tone but as their slightly ridiculous behaviour becomes pathetic rather than laughable, I felt a growing sympathy for the two of them.

‘So they trotted down the valley, humiliated, dishevelled, indignant, but still incredulous - while their world crumbled about them and Europe thundered and bled.’

‘ is one thing to brave ridicule with an approving audience in the background, another to face it unapplauded, uncrowned with the halo of the martyr...’

I’ll leave my thoughts at that. I think William - An Englishman is a neglected classic that deserves to be noticed. I’ll be adding it to my daughter’s free reading for this year’s study of the 20th Century as I appreciate the way the author looked at the folly of dogmatically cutting oneself off from the views of others. The book is unusual in that it views World War I through the eyes of noncombatants. Another book I enjoyed in this vein was ‘Pied Piper’ by Nevil Shute, set in World War II.


Linking to Reading Europe 2021 Challenge at Rose City Reader: Belgium