Miss Brown, in her early forties, is alone and at a loss as to what to do. Living in the early years of WW2 England, she is overtaken by fear, having just lost her home and her livelihood due to the destruction of the bombings.
“Cousin Emmie did not like her and did not want her but was willing to house her for a week or so while she looked about her for a job. But she could not find a job…no one wanted a shop assistant. No one seemed to want housekeepers or companion helps either; they could not afford them or they already had five hundred applications for the post. She could not get any war work to do; at present they wanted only strong young women and she was forty-two and looked fragile.
As the days had gone by a leaden despair had grown in her. When she had heard by this morning’s post that her beloved house and all her possessions had been blown sky-high she had hardly been surprised; she had said to herself that it merely meant that now there was no past as well as no future; only today with its fear.”
On the way to visit her cousin, Miss Brown almost misses her train, but a hand reaches out to her and pulls her up into his (first class) carraige. And thus we are introduced to Mr. Birley, an English gentleman. The reader will find Mr. Birley to be not only part of the English gentry, a vanishing class, but also kind, patriotic, and stoic.
During the journey he begins to gently question Miss Brown (her real name is Dolores. The reader is told this in the early pages of the novel but she is ever after referred to as “Miss Brown”), and finding that she is both home-and-job-less, he takes pity on her and engages her as his housekeeper.
What Goudge tries to do in this novel of the early years of England during the war, is shown through three main characters: Stephen Birley, Mr. Birley’s son; Jo Isaacson, an exiled, persecuted Jew, and Miss Brown, the aging, principled spinster.
Three classes, three separate stories, three dilemmas. Stephen is a pacifist (not a popular position to have during war-time England!) Miss Brown’s conflict is fear and finding a place she can make into a home, and a way to support herself. And Jo Isaacon’s dilemma is not only to simply survive, but also somehow find meaning in life itself. Jo Isaacson is a transient Jew, having fled from first Germany, then Vienna, and now to England with no home and his only means of earning a living through his talent playing the violin on the streets.
“It’s because we’re all shut up in England now like beleaguered people in a castle on a hill,” said Miss Brown. “Outside is that great evil army battering to get in; and it does not do to think of it too much. It does not do to think of tomorrow either. It is right that we should all be friendly, for we have only today, each other and our pride.”
‘The Castle on the Hill’ illustrates what it was like for the children were sent to the country during the war for safety, only to lose their parents in the Blitz. It shows the sheer doggedness of England, digging out in the rubble of bombed streets and churches, all the while saying “I can’t go on” and yet going on because one must. It brings home to the reader that even in the darkest hours, there is value to life; that courage is an attainable thing, and there is always something to strive for.
E. Goudge has a talent for exposing all of the pathos and emotion of the human heart.
Out of all the books I have read by this author, although I enjoyed this one and found much to think about, I also found it to be more difficult to pinpoint exactly what she is trying to say. I am still mulling over some of the ideas Goudge expresses in this novel. I guessed that she is exploring (through her characters), more than giving the reader ‘an experience’.
And Goudge does a LOT of exploring in this novel. She presents not only the concept of pacifism during war-time and whether it is a justifiable viewpoint when life itself is threatened, but she also stresses the importance of the home in order to survive the worst life has to offer. For Goudge, making a place of safety for someone in need, whether or not one is related by blood, is of immense value. She also scrutinizes the choices we individually make and their impact on those around us and then cleverly weaves it all into a historic vignette. Along with Mr. Birley and others in this book, we mourn the loss to society all the way from feudal times in England up to the class structural changes that the Second World War ushered in.
Miss Brown is presented with a difficult choice: “Desperately she sought for the answer, searching her own character, remembering that day when she had knelt by her bed and said to herself, “I’m not a self-sufficient woman. I can’t get along unless I can be indispensable to someone.” Did it matter much, with a nature like hers, to whom one was indispensable? “
Change is always difficult, but perhaps the author is attempting to give the reader hope that in our frailty itself there is strength if we learn to rely on One greater than we are, that has experienced all that we have and triumphed in it.