This is a story of the darkest days of World War II, when only England stood against the Nazi forces advancing across Europe, and when the fear of invasion was very, very real. Elizabeth Goudge lived on the south coast of England then, close to the eye of the storm, it was during the war that she wrote this book, and it was clear as I read that she knew and she that understood.
She write of a group of people who were drawn together, at a castle on a hill.
Miss Brown was a very English lady; quiet, polite and unassuming. She had grown up in a sleepy seaside town, but she had moved to London when the family home that she had turned into a boarding house was requisitioned by the military, and when she was turned out. It had seemed to be the sensible thing to do, but she had been unable to find a job and she was weary of staying with relations; her spirits were low, and when the news came that her home had been destroyed in a bombing raid they sank even lower. She feared for her future; all she had in the world was a train ticket, bought for a visit to a relation in the country, and a few coins.
Mr. Isaacson was an Englishman of Jewish descent, who had travelled to Leipzig for his musical training and settled there. He achieved success as a musician, even though he was rather too fond of a drink, but the growing persecution of the Jews forced him to flee, across Europe, back to his homeland. He scraped a living, playing for pennies on the streets of London, but he was terribly afraid that he would soon face persecution there too.
It was as she sat on a bench in front of the London Free Library that Miss Brown heard music; a lovely melody that she had never heard before. It lifted her spirits, and so that she rose from her seat to find the musician. She found Mr Isaacson and she spoke to him, wanting to know what the tune was. He responded eagerly and she put a shilling in his hat before she left to catch her train.
That shilling left Mr Isaacson in a quandary. He had decided, some time earlier, that he would use the next shilling he earned to fuel the fire in his rented room, so that he could gas himself. It wasn’t what he wanted but he saw no alternative, no future for himself. He just hadn’t expected the moment to come so quickly.
But when Mr Isaacson arrived home he found that maybe he could seize another moment. His landlady’s two small daughters were being evacuated to the country that day and their mother was anxious that they would be too late to report to their school; as he was fond of the children Mr Isaacson found himself volunteering to take the girls to the station. The bus fares swallowed his shilling.
An extraordinary series of coincidences – or maybe the hand of fate – or maybe the guidance of a higher power – saw the two adults onto the same train to the same destination.
I found it easy to accept. Elizabeth Goudge writes so beautifully, with rich descriptions catching every detail, catching the wonder of the world and being alive; and she brings her characters to life with such wonderful understanding, setting out their hopes, their fears, all of their emotions as they react to everything that happens.
That makes her books very slow, but very rewarding; I love them, but I can understand why others don’t.
When Miss Brown missed her station a gentleman saw her distress and offered assistance. Mr Birley was a historian – Miss Brown recognised his name, and had read his books – and that helped him to draw her out, and gave her the confidence to explain her circumstances. And that gave Mr Birely an idea. He was returning from a trip to London, where he’d had no success in engaging a suitable housekeeper for his home, Birley Castle. Might Miss Brown be the woman for the job? He persuaded her that she was!
In another part of the train evacuees were on their way to Torhaven, the nearest village to Birley Castle. And Mr Isaacson is in the guard’s van. He hadn’t eaten for some time and not long after he handed the girls over to their teacher he collapsed into the baggage car. The guard, Mr Holly, found him there and, thinking that the children Mr. Isaacson was accompanying were his own, he offered him a place to stay until he could find a job and establish himself in Torhaven.
It was almost too fortuitous, but I was completely caught up with the characters and the story. And I wanted the best for each and every person I met in the pages of this book.
Miss Brown found the role and the place in the world that she had so needed as she settled in as the castle’s housekeeper. Moppet and Poppet were billeted there and, though they missed their mother and their home terribly, they were pleased to see the lady who had rescued a drooped teddy bear at the station again and to have such a wonderful new home to explore. They were even more pleased when they spotted Mr Isaacson in the village: he was still lodging Mr Holly, but he had established himself as a street musician and a music teacher and he was paying his way.
Meanwhile Mr. Birley was able to return to his books, free of domestic distractions; his elder great nephew, Richard, a fighter pilot, came and went between missions; his younger great-nephew, Stephen, a conscientious objector, left to work with the emergency services as they struggled to cope with the casualties and the damage caused by the bombing of London; and, in the village, Prue, the doctor’s daughter, who was drawn first to the quiet Stephen but then formed a deeper attachment with his dashing elder brother, struggled with her feelings.
In the castle Mr Boulder, the butler who was loyal but horribly aware that he was aging, was resistant to Miss Brown at first but quickly won over; and in the lodge the widowed Mrs Heather, who knew she was blessed, was a reassuring presence.
Each and every one of them was fully realised; a real human being, living and breathing at a particular point in history.
There were flaws – Mr Isaacson’s character seemed unfocused; the naming of Moppet and Poppet – but emotionally and spiritually the story rang true.
And it said so much about their times.
Mr Boulder’s story explored the feelings of generation too old to go to war, who had fought in another war and had not thought that there would be another; Miss Brown’s story spoke of class divisions that it seemed would always remain; Stephen’s story, his feelings about the war and the way they changed in the light of his experiences and his family’s feelings, was particularly striking. And all of their stories caught the mixture of faith, pride and fear that sustained them through those difficult war years.
They were all changed by events, by their circumstances, as the story moved forward. And above all the story spoke about people coming together to live through difficult times.
Coincidence – or fate – or a higher power – continued to play a part – but the natural falling into lace of the earlier part of the story did not. There would be tragedy, there would be losses, lives would be changed irrevocably, before and ending that felt right but was by no means final. The war was not over and the world was changing.
But this story caught those early years of the war, and the people who lived through them quite perfectly.