Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Castle on the Hill by Elizabeth Goudge

When I was introduced to 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.

11 comments:

3margarets said...

You were warned! lol - great review. Please manage "The Dean's Watch" before you throw in the Goudge towel.

3margarets said...

One more thing! I take issue with the phrase "Elizabeth Goudge's worldview". Her worldview changed profoundly over the course of her life. ;)

Suzannah said...

Ah! Thank you so much for the clarification. Oh, I certainly have not thrown in the Goudge towel--I loved her other things far too much for that :).

Lady Bibliophile said...

I have been wondering about Elizabeth Goudge for some time, and am glad to finally read a good objective review of her! She's definitely going on The List of Books to Read. ;) Thanks, Suzannah!

Suzannah said...

Hope you read Mrs Margaret's comments, above! I really loved "Smoky-House", "The Little White Horse", and "The Rosemary Tree", two of which I've reviewed here.

Joseph Jalsevac said...

I have two suggestion for books for you to read, which both happen to be popular Catholic novels of the Victorian/Edwardian era. The first is Callista, an historical novel by that master of the English language, Blessed John Henry Newman. Its a story about the Roman persecution of Christians in 3rd century Egypt. His powerful description of a plague of locusts will always stay with me. The other one is Lord of the World, considered Msg. Robert Hugh Benson's best novel. Its a dystopian science fiction story about the coming of the anti-Christ and the apocalypse. It has the most epic ending of any novel I have read. It is apparently one of the first dystopias written, and is amazingly prophetic about certain things (airplanes, assisted suicide) as the best science fiction is want to be. If you have not read them, I can promsie you that you will be glad you did.

Also, I would be interested in your opinion of Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis, which I'm sure you have read.

Suzannah said...

Thanks for the reading recs! I recently heard of Newman's Callista and thought it sounded pretty interesting. That sci-fi novel also sounds tantalising! Now that I have an e-reader, I will also be able to read them without too much trouble. :)

Till We Have Faces--oh, one of my favourite Lewis books, one of those books you can keep reading again and again and never get to the bottom of. It has been a few years since I last read it but the time will come again...

Joy said...

For some reason I have always loved The Castle on the Hill, even before I was quite sure of the plot or moral of the story.

tynanfamily said...

I really like The Dean's Watch!

tynanfamily said...

I noticed the lack of a satisfying Scriptural conclusion to the quote from Paul, and the panentheism, which I disagree with. However, I really enjoyed this book and found it quote worthy in many places. I think it is a novel best appreciated by those who have suffered deeply. I also enjoyed seeing how different people dealt with WWII. It was written during the war before the final conclusion and so a very in the moment look at the questions in people's hearts during the time.

tynanfamily said...

I also agree that her worldview changes considerably, or else she was more bold about her beliefs as time went on. There is a lot to disagree with, but also a lot of good to be gained.

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