Elizabeth Goudge's novels, they came with a disclaimer: Don't just read any of her books, because some of them are not quite right. I managed to read three good ones, and found them so very good that I have gone on collecting them, in a quiet sort of way, ever since.
The Castle on the Hill takes place in England during the Blitz, in the darkest days of World War II when only England seemed willing to resist the Nazi threat and the people lived in constant fear of an invasion which they felt was both inevitable and inexorable. In these dark days, the lives of eight or ten people become subtly entwined. Miss Brown, a middle-aged spinster, loses her home to falling bombs and almost by accident is invited to become the housekeeper of the ancient Birley family's castle-home, populated by an elderly historian, a young airman, and a sensitive pacifist. There's the derelict violinist who also winds up haunting the castle, the two little girls evacuated from the Blitz in London, and the local doctor's niece who loves Richard Birley.
Under the shadow of death, each of these eventually learns to set aside self and fear and lose himself in the task at hand.
I'm afraid that even now, I don't have a real taste for books like this, in which the plot is merely an ethereal thing, serving only to faintly illumine character growth. Somehow The Rosemary Tree, the other of Elizabeth Goudge's grown-up books that I've read, held my interest far better; the stakes seemed higher. This one, despite the rather dark and desperate setting of the Blitz (written as only someone who lived through it could have) doesn't hold the same immediacy.
There are a number of themes winding through The Castle on the Hill. One of them has to do with continuity: the Castle itself is almost a burden on the characters: it belongs to the family, like they do, and in fact it would be more specific to say that it owns the family rather than the family owning it, since it contains all their history and experience throughout the ages. Although it is a burden, especially in an age of modernism and mounting bills, it's a treasured thing as well. It's an interesting thought that a past, like any other possession, requires work and can be a burden.
The major theme of the novel, though, has to do with life and death, selflessness and fear. It's here that the book is most profound, and here that it stumbles most badly. One character is haunted by the Apostle Paul's words, "If in this life only we have hope, we are of all men most miserable." He, and others, eventually come to a realisation that, to paraphrase, "life is too big to be contained in this mortal existence." But this is a subtle twist to Paul's words. His actual words were, "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable."
The book emphasises the need to take what life offers and forget one's self in service of others. A love for others casts out fear, and it's the secret of the characters who find peace that they die to themselves and recognise their essential oneness with the universe and with life. And, in the book's closing words, "Life is God." While there is a Christian veneer and a Christian flavour to everything that Elizabeth Goudge says about faith, life, and dying to one's self as the path to real life, at bottom she seems to be promoting some kind of Christian-inspired monism, in which the path to happiness lies in self-obliteration before the faceless One and everyone is part of everyone else; a kind of panentheism.
This is, of course, a serious flaw in what the novel has to say. Still, it was a valuable look at Elizabeth Goudge's worldview, and if you prefer gentler, quieter novels, you might like this one.