The Edge of the Cloud is the sequel to Flambards and picks up very tidily exactly where Flambards leaves off. It also, with equal elegance, concludes with a scene that mimics the ending of Flambards almost exactly, but, as one of the characters observes, “We’ve grown up since then.” That’s what The Edge of the Cloud is, then: a novel of transition.
Flambards is too, as I noted in my post on it. In The Edge of the Cloud, the historical shifts invoked in the earlier book become even more explicit, to the point that Christina herself perceives very clearly the widening schism between the past and the present:
[Aunt Grace] would never understand, in her hidebound Victorian way, that on the aerodrome everyone was taken for granted if they were interested in the machines. There was no distinction of class or underdog; the mechanics, the pilots, the pupils and the owners all mingled without status. Brought up in what Christina now thought of as the medieval atmosphere of Flambards with its forelock-touching subservience on the part of the servants … she looked on the way of life at Elm Park as the normal order of life. Aunt Grace would never understand this attitude.
Life for Christina and Will and their peers at the aerodrome has a Utopian quality to it despite the financial challenges and the enormous risks (which are brought home quite harshly in an awful accident near the end of the book). But it’s hard not to be aware that this period, with all the excitement and adventure of both social change and technological innovation, is an interlude, the lull before the storm of war that is on the horizon when the book begins and just breaking out as it ends: Will turns the joyous thrill ride of aviation to the service of his country by enlisting in the Royal Flying Corps. Christina’s love for Will is shadowed throughout the novel by her fear for his safety; this personal anxiety transforms into a broad national and generational fear: “She knew now that life was suddenly dangerous for very many more people than just Will.” Like Vera Brittain and her fiancé Roland Leighton, this young couple finds their youthful romance overwhelmed by a very different story, one in which they will be reduced to bit parts. The title evokes both the literal clouds that turn planes back towards the ground, then, and the looming disaster from which there will, tragically, be no turning back, no shelter.
I sympathized heartily with Christina’s specific fear in this book because I am a very nervous flyer! When Will (who persists, obtusely, in believing she is “calm and collected,” never recognizing the near paralyzing fear she feels in the air) takes her along on a trip across the channel, my heart lurched right along with hers when she realizes she can’t even see land anymore. Poor girl: she would have really benefited from a little Ativan! But I found it a bit vexing that so much of The Edge of the Cloud is about her valiant efforts to overcome her own feelings in order to be the perfect mate for Will. Not that there isn’t a genuine strength in that–but Flambards is about Christina figuring out her own heart and being awakened to her own needs. Although she does break with poor Victorian Aunt Grace’s expectations by finding a job and spending unchaperoned time with Will (not to mention going up in airplanes), she feels paradoxically secondary in the novel even though she remains its main character, or at any rate its protagonist and ‘focalizer.’ Her preoccupation is learning to accommodate William’s obsession, even to the point of accepting that she will always come second to him.
I was thinking that there’s a similar dynamic in The Beethoven Medal and Pennington’s Heir: Ruth has no driving ambition or vocation of her own, instead playing a strong but still supporting role to her genius boyfriend-then-husband. Ruth too, like Christina, loves riding but does not ride once she’s with Pennington (or hardly at all). These are not weak or subordinate young women, but they put their strong wills to the service of their men’s dreams. Christina even disapproves of the suffragette mother of Will’s best friend (“she had not bothered to make him hot dinners, Christina remembered indignantly, but only left him cold meat and sald” — yes, and went to jail, dearie, to fight for your right to full democratic citizenship!). I’m not bringing this up as a major criticism, and certainly in Christina’s case there’s some historical fitness to it. Thanks to a major spoiler in the catalogue description of the next book, Flambards in Summer, I know Christina’s situation will have changed again quite dramatically when its story opens. I wonder whether the next step in her particular development will be towards an ambition, a trajectory, that is more completely her own.