These Girls: Jane Gardam, The Flight of the Maidens

“She’s not all right,” said the grave-digger. “She is clearly not all right. But then I don’t know who is. Our Het’s not. They never had any fun, any of these girls. Never, since the war, and they were only kids before it started. They don’t know where they are.”

Jane Gardam’s The Flight of the Maidens was an easy book for me to like. Its concept is immediately appealing: three girls — Hetty, Una, and Lieselotte — on the cusp of adulthood, spending the summer before they head to university to test the waters — to see what it’s like being themselves, to discover who they are without the influences and protections of home. It opens on an idyllic day in “the late summer of 1946”:

Years ahead, when other days had overtaken it, [Hetty] still felt the glow that almost brought tears in the goldness of summer sunlight, or saw a thick envelope and headed notepaper with her name on it or a blaze of snapdragons in a July flowerbed, or remembered a wide-open front door, her mother singing as she prepared the breakfast in the kitchen at the back.

Gardam is a lovely writer: her prose is crisp but capable of both drama and poetry, sometimes together, especially when she takes us out into the English landscape:

Along the dark railside walk she went, beside the asters and purple heliotropes, through the rose gardens where some papery roses still swung heavy on almost leafless branches . . . The park flower-beds had once held ranks of weedless wallflowers and antirrhinums and chrysanthemums, trussed tight with raffia. In the war they had been left to droop and slouch, die or survive, make countless common friends. Clouds of willowherb and dandelion floated around them and the once-pruned ornamental trees had grown wild above. Lofty sycamores gloomed over the tennis courts, which had become a cracked green asphalt pool in a dark wood. Their surfaces were like creeping jenny lying treacherous on water.

The damage done by war lurks here as it does all across the country and in the lives of all three girls: Hetty and Una both have fathers who “suffer from something known as The Somme,” and Lieselotte came to England with the Kindertransport, a Jewish refugee from the Nazis who was sent to safety after Kristellnacht and later learns the rest of her family died in Auschwitz. When Lieselotte travels to London, she passes the shells of bombed out homes; a handsomely brooding young man who catches Hetty’s eye tells her how his rear gunner was “hosed” out of their plane after they were “shot up together over Holland.

This is the world these “maidens” know, and also the one they are each, in their own ways, trying to leave, or perhaps (though they haven’t quite seen it this way yet) to change. Gardam limns their individual characters effectively, along with the other people in their lives: Una’s flighty hairdresser mother; Hetty’s kindly father, returned from the trenches “unscathed in body but shattered to bits in mind” and reduced to eking out a living as a gravedigger; Hetty’s pious, meddling mother; the kind and principled Quakers who took Lieselotte in but cannot wholly comprehend what it means to have her experience of the world. It is a differently eventful summer for each of the girls; little happens of immediately visible moment, but by the end of the novel you can feel them all settling into firmer forms, asserting more clearly who they are and will be.

It’s very nicely done — and not at all surprising, in form, concept, or execution. I’m not saying the details are unoriginal, only that when I had finished this novel I felt more or less the way I felt about Old Filth: that Gardam had (effectively, deftly, eloquently) written a book that fits, maybe a little too exactly, into a niche … my niche, right down to the detail that Hetty at one point says to herself “if life were all books, it would be easy.” It’s a book about England in a particular moment in time that allows the characters to represent both generational and historical change; it’s about young women coming of age, intellectually as well as sexually; it has eccentric aristocrats and cross-class romance and the subtle frisson of horror you get by keeping the Holocaust and the Blitz just visible underneath your English country gardens. To paraphrase Miss Brodie, for people who like this kind of book, The Flight of the Maidens is definitely the kind of book they’ll like. I certainly liked it! But that’s more a sign of a good fit than of a great accomplishment.

Recent Reading Update

Blog evidence to the contrary, I have in fact been doing some reading besides that for my classes. Since The Last Samurai, there hasn’t been anything that really excited me, and between that and the usual late-term mental exhaustion, I just haven’t felt that motivated to write anything up in detail. Here’s a quick run-through of what I’ve been reading.

I did enjoy Jane Gardam’s The Queen of the Tambourine, if “enjoy” is the right word for a book that is really quite sad, as well as occasionally disturbing. It’s the story of Eliza Peabody’s journey through a mental breakdown, told all in her letters to a departed neighbor…sort of. The novel thrives on uncertainty about what is real and what are Eliza’s delusional (or compensatory) imaginings. Even as much of the story proves unreliable, Gardam manages effectively and poignantly to make Eliza’s emotions real and vivid, and to balance the pathos of her situation with comedy.

I had high hopes of Laila Lalami’s Secret Son, because I admired Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits a lot, but I found it a somewhat disappointing read. It’s a thematically and politically interesting and carefully structured book, but the language felt stilted and often even cliched, and as a result I never became very engaged.

I have been urging Maddie to read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler for ages, and one night I decided I should leave her alone (she’s busy enough reading her way through the novels of Jacqueline Wilson) and revisit it myself. The story of the brother and sister hiding out in the Metropolitan Museum is still a delightful fantasy to me (the “period” rooms in the museum are my favorite parts and I love the idea of camping out there!), but this time I was less caught up in those specifics than in the sense that the book is really about a different kind of quest-as the author says in her afterword, “the greatest adventure lies not in running away but in looking inside, and the greatest discovery is not in finding out who made a statue but in finding out what makes you.”  I wonder what it means that I often feel closest to finding this out when I am “away,” including when I’m in New York.

I’ve continued my adventures in contemporary romance with some more Jennifer Crusie titles, including Welcome to Temptation and Bet Me. I found Welcome to Temptation a bit too zany, but I quite enjoyed Bet Me. I don’t mean to condescend to the genre when I say that for me, the appeal I can see is that it doesn’t demand to be taken very seriously, and indeed these titles are quite conspicuously light-hearted. Especially when the books I’m reading for work are not that at all, it’s actually nice to have something to pick up in between that makes me laugh.

Now I’m reading Mr. Golightly’s Holiday for those in-between times, along with Mollie Gloss’s Wild Life, which is this month’s selection for the Slaves of Golconda reading group. I felt bad that I didn’t get through last month’s choice, Anabel Lyon’s The Golden Mean: I just wasn’t interested in it, and it’s hard, with so many books around, to make one a priority that isn’t otherwise a priority for me. I admit I’m feeling the same about Wild Life, that it’s not a book I would otherwise be reading–and I also feel that about The Paris Wife, which my local reading group settled on for this month. I have books stacked up that I’m more interested in! But then, one of the points of belonging to a reading group is that it pushes you outside your usual reading habits, which if unchallenged can actual be limits, and may prevent the discovery of new pleasures. So I will finish these, I swear! One thing I do like about Wild Life so far is its West Coast setting: it reminds me of big trees and blue mountains, and a little bit of one of my favorite meta-historical novels, Daphne Marlatt’s Ana Historic…except that Wild Life, as I understand it, is going to take its fantasy in a different direction, one that I fear is going to involve something like Big Foot…

And in the meantime reading for work continues. This week we begin North and South in my 19th-century fiction class, which I’m looking forward to, and in Mystery and Detective Fiction we are moving on to Sara Paretsky’s Indemnity Only and then our last book of the term, Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress, while in the Victorian ‘Woman Question’ we have just The Odd Women left. It’s amazing how fast the term goes by! Reading will actually be the least of my problems this week, as I get in 70 midterms and 20 paper proposals on Monday, followed promptly by 40 essays on Wednesday. Egad! I should really do something frivolous today, as it will be my last chance to play for a while.

 

Jane Gardam, Old Filth

I enjoyed Old Filth a lot. It has everything I like in a novel: thoughtful, often elegant prose, artful (but not gimmicky) construction that allows the gradual unfolding of plot and character, heartfelt emotion conveyed without sentiment, a story that ranges across time and place. It does all the right things, and does them well–and yet now, thinking back over the book, I’m uneasy by just how ‘right’ it felt. Is it possible that the novel made it too easy for me to like it? Deft, pointed, dry as it is, is it also, in a way, formulaic? Not as a mystery novel or a romance is formulaic, but in a specifically literary fiction way, and a very British literary fiction way too? The evocation of Britain’s fading imperial past, the old judge with his upright bearing like a last symbolic remnant of its problematic dignity, the indifference of his young associates to the complexities of his personal history, the staunch wife with her own, never fully specified side of the story (she gets her own novel, later), the eccentric family, London during the wars: how much of this is really very new or different? Perhaps I read Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand too recently (and Old Filth is the earlier novel), but even the shades of Kipling seem, in retrospect, a little too easy, a little too familiar. Of course I liked it: it was practically custom-made for readers like me. Not (as the saying goes) that there’s anything wrong with that…but somehow realizing how nicely the novel fits into a certain niche thins it out for me, in retrospect.

Yet I did like it; I admired it, even. The writing is persistently satisfying. Gardam finds and places details so that they surprise our attention; her people, especially Old Filth himself, are made admirably distinct through deft touches rather than extensive exposition. Old Filth–properly Sir Edward Feathers–is a wonderful mix of acerbic intelligence and suppressed humanity; the early episode with his old rival Veneering is deliciously comic. The cuts between time frames are occasionally disorienting, but the gradual accumulation of knowledge about his difficult past adds poignancy to the story of his old age, poignancy that is deliberately enhanced (a little too deliberately?) by the sniffing carelessness of the current Benchers. ‘Pretty easy life,’ they mutter, looking at him as he seems to doze after lunch in the Inner Temple; ‘Nothing ever seems to have happened to him.’ The novel is built on the dramatic irony thus introduced, as we come to know the inadequacy of this summation. ‘Nothing’ is not the sum of anyone’s experience, and yet how easy it is for them to underestimate him. The novel eloquently substitutes, for that casual ‘nothing,’ a complicated blend of suffering and happiness, work, sickness, friendship, passion, violence and humor. It ranges widely; it is engaging, often amusing, often moving. The only false note in it, I thought, was the melodramatic story of Filth’s abusive foster mother and its traumatic outcome: this is used to provide a unifying thread for other aspects of the plot as well as to develop the central problem of his emotional detachment (“You became no good at love,” his cousin tells him). Again, this is all artfully handled, but it didn’t seem necessary to me to give him such a past. It’s a concession to the idea–rejected so beautifully by the novel in its other aspects–that ordinary life is “nothing.”