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 better...one 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.