The Castle on the Hill by Elizabeth Goudge (1942)

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.

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9 thoughts on “The Castle on the Hill by Elizabeth Goudge (1942)

  1. Tricky – what works well in children’s literature may not be so good in adult books. Certainly, it does seem as if Goudge will be love or hate.

  2. So interesting, and now I want to re-read the novel. I recall enjoying it a lot, and even finding it less sentimental and more morally complex than I would have expected. And my notes from the time really do compare it to Iris Murdoch! But I wonder if I would feel the same in re-reading it? At any rate, so great getting a different perspective on it–even Goudge fans rarely seem to have read this one.

  3. I think you’re absolutely right about the moral complexity – in this respect I found Goudge much less conventional than I expected. I think that there is an interesting novel in there somewhere but in the end her prose style and tone defeated me.

  4. I’m interested by Scott’s comparison to Murdoch – not something that’s ever occurred to me, so it will be interesting to consider on my next re-read. I would, grudgingly, entertain the notion that it’s somewhat sentimental, but it’s a book I’m very fond of and actually, I still find it comforting. The importance Goudge places on kindness, empathy and reflection appeal to me strongly, and I think it’s entirely consistent with the characters of Miss Brown and Mr Birley that they spend far more time thinking, alone, than they spend talking.

    Whether you love or hate Goudge’s adult novels may all depend on how willing you are to inhabit her intensely Christian (albeit it with interesting pagan overtones, conservative (note small-c), spiritually engaged mindset. And apparently what’s lyrical landscape description to me is irritatingly flowery to others.

    There’s no accounting for taste. Me, I’m off to the treacle mines!

  5. And as for me…I am with geranium cat! This book, and others by Elizabeth Goudge have endured precisely because they ate not sentimental but require of the characters inhabiting that world great fortitude, honour and love as action rather than easy mouthings….

  6. I went through period when I loved most of Goudge’s books. When there were still numerous used bookstores in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, area, EG’s books were always in the fiction section — that is how I first came across them–just browsing, an experience that has become a rarity in my life. I don’t mind if people come from more well off backgrounds than I was lucky enough to find myself in, and don’t mind that there is a respect for family and tradition–in fact, I like it. I teach in an American university in a Brutalist building that is appallingly ugly and often wonder whether students and even many faculty would have a different attitude towards school, etc., if the architecture were, say, Gothic or Renaissance.

    I love Goudge’s so-called “flowery writing” and her “lush” descriptions of place–when I read for pleasure I want to be forced to take my time with details for which I don’t have time in the normal course of living my days. Goudge’s adverbs and adjectives pace the reader and place attention on word choice. I’m not claiming she was the best writer in the world, but there is attention to word choice. I see my university colleagues teaching writing classes who misuse basic words in writing and in their speech and I am pleased I know the difference. Many of my students and even many of my faculty colleagues categorize reading novels or reading for pleasure as “elitist.” I’m delighted to see a university collecting these works that probably meant a lot to many readers and possibly helped them face life.

    Goudge is not simplistic–few, if any, characters in her books get the life they wanted for themselves–some even have to work almost impossibly hard to accept their lives, circumstances, and the decisions of other people. There seems to be to be the lesson that even the things and relationships in which we find satisfaction almost inevitably have a sting of bitterness and incompleteness.

    It is true, her characters don’t do drugs or when we seem them are not living in slums, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have very real struggles. Reality TV and all the drama all around us misleads us into believing that only the dramatic is truthful–when it might be nothing more than drama.

    I’ve read The Rosemary Tree, The Scent of Water, The Castle on the Hill, and the Eliot trilogy. I also read Gentian Hill and remember that I really loved it, but was never able to read it a second time and don’t have it. I own copies of the titles I listed above. I feel better seeing them on my bookshelves on a bookcase in which I keep all the books that I believe have made the person I am.

    • Thank you for taking the time to leave your thoughts on Goudge. These reviews of Goudge have prompted some of the most deeply felt responses on the blog, and I’m very grateful to receive them. The aim with our collection is to preserve those books that meant something to many people, and these reponses show how important it is to collect Goudge.

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