Review by Thecla W:
It is early in the War. Miss Brown, aged around 40, has had her boarding house requisitioned by the Army and is in London, staying with a cousin and unsuccessfully looking for work. On her way to visit another relative, she is moved by the playing of a street violinist and speaks to him. Then at Paddington she rescues the toy of an evacuee girl who is waiting on the platform with her sister. She gets into the wrong train by mistake and shares a compartment with an elderly historian from Torhaven, Mr Birley. She finds herself telling him of her difficulties and he offers her the post of housekeeper at his home, a Tudor house built into the ruins of a castle, which has been in his family for generations. He lives there with his two great-nephews, Richard (in the RAF) and Stephen (a conscientious objector), an old manservant and a dog. She accepts impulsively and finds herself drawn to the house and the family, recognizing that she wants always to be indispensable and to have people to look after.
Various coincidences ensure that the violinist, Jo Isaacson, a Jewish refugee, and the evacuee children, Moppet and Poppet, also end up in Torhaven. The rest of the novel concerns the relationships which develop between the characters and the radical impact of the War upon them.
My first response to this novel was one of near revulsion at the language and the tone, both of which tend to swamp the characters and create a seriously distancing effect. The language is excessively and irritatingly flowery. Aspects of the landscape, for example, are described repeatedly in lush, detailed prose; I found myself longing for a plain, simple and short description. In the tone there is a snobbishness, a feeling for the family and its house and history which is romantically feudal.
Stephen shows Miss Brown round the house,
“They mounted the great bare staircase together, slowly, as befits those who tread where generations have trod before them. The centre of each wide tread was a little worn, so many were the feet that had passed up and down, yet was polished to a satin smoothness by the caress of the many silk and satin skirts that had slipped from stair to stair through the centuries.”
Then there are the stark coincidences and plot contrivances necessary to get the main characters to Torhaven and later towards the end of the novel to enable a quasi-family consisting of Miss Brown, Jo Isaacson and the two children to settle in a small lodge on the estate (the elderly occupant and the children’s parents having conveniently died). I found this very unconvincing but Christianity is a powerful theme in the novel and I suspect the author means this to be seen as the working out of God’s plan.
But beyond all this there are some more interesting things going on.
Some of the characters at the Castle have a mystical connection to the past so strong as to be almost hallucinatory. Mr Birley is obsessed by the Castle, his family and its history and constantly sees the past in the present. Moppet and Poppet see children in old-fashioned clothes (like the carved figures on the family tombs in the local church) running ahead of them in the woods and see their footprints in the snow. They are not distressed by these experiences but it is different for the sensitive Stephen. He is uncomfortable in the presence of Jo, the Jewish refugee, because his ancestors had fought in the Crusades. Hearing Jo play, he is overwhelmed by the sense of having been part of a pogrom in the past,
“Hot panting breath fanned Stephen’s face and the stench of blood and sweat and garlic that clung to the garments of the men about him was nauseating, horrible. And they were so silent in their fear…… the street was blocked at both ends. There was no more hope. My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? They were trapped….”
Stephen comes out of this state, back into the present day, but feels “hot with shame, for there was no possible restitution for that act of treachery”.
It seems at first that the author’s sympathies lie with the romantic feudalism which so attracts Miss Brown. But other very different viewpoints are presented sympathetically. Old Dr Maxwell says of pacifists like Stephen “We need their witness to the fact that war is bestial, wicked, degrading, futile.” And Richard, the man of action who dies defending his country, loathes the Castle and its traditions and sees himself as fighting for
“the grey-faced men in the streets and the dirty children in the slums. For the factories and the built-up areas and the drunks in the pubs….the millions of tired drab folk.”
There is nostalgia for the past but also a sense that it is right that it should go. I often found myself thinking of the 1940s films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger ( The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death, A Canterbury Tale) with their romantic Englishness, porous boundaries between this world and the next and strong links between past and present.
One peculiarity of this novel is that there is far more description of the characters’ internal mental states than there is of conversations between them. People are constantly reflecting on themselves and their relationships while apparently spending little time together. This means, for example, that when Miss Brown acknowledges in an interior monologue that she is in love with Mr Birley, it comes as a complete surprise. This combined with the florid, cloying prose gives the story an opaque quality.
Occasionally there is a telling description. Jo is shown as sitting
“taking up as little space as possible, his knees tightly together and shrinking in on himself. So since the days of adversity he had been accustomed to sit in buses and tubes all over Europe..”
But this unusually economical for the writer.
There is a strong emphasis in this novel on the importance of deeds of kindness, on the power of music, on God, on England and a sense that, whatever is destroyed by the War, there is something essential in the country which will continue. I think that in 1942 many readers would have found this an intensely comforting read.