Fear of Flying: K. M. Peyton, The Edge of the Cloud

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.

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K. M. Peyton, Flambards

FlambardsProbably my favourite “YA” novels are K. M. Peyton’s Pennington novels, which I own in library discard copies and reread often. I’m sure I read Flambards in my youth too, but I had only a hazy memory of it, except that it involved a big house and horses. I was helping find books for my daughter at the library last week and, happening upon the handsome Oxford Children’s Classics edition of it on the shelf, grabbed it up for myself–and what a treat it was! It’s such an intelligent book, bringing together a range of historical changes all effectively dramatized through the clashes of personalities and values at Flambards, the house where young orphaned Christina is taken in by her bitter, violent uncle. His desire to hang on to a fading way of life is thwarted by his fallen fortunes as well as by his having been crippled in a fall so that he can no longer ride and hunt. His older son Mark is handsome, arrogant, and determined to follow in his father’s footsteps, a goal for which he will need Christina’s fortune, but it’s the younger son William, whose strengths are intellectual and who loves, not horses, but flying machines, who wins our sympathy as well as Christina–though not before she has a sort of romance with Dick the groom, thus bringing class, also, into the whole vexed business of personal lives that can’t help but reflect the conflicts of their times.

Peyton is a wonderful writer. I think Flambards actually lets her show off her descriptive talents more than the Pennington books do, and she’s very good with the landscapes especially. But she also captures the thrill of physical sensation as channeled for Christina through riding–along with its social themes, Flambards is very much about Christina’s maturation, including her coming to sexual awareness, and horseback riding is a time-honored way of displacing explicit discussion of those rising feelings in young women:

[Dick] grinned at her, and neither of them wanted to stop. It was too good, with the winter grass beneath them and the horses with their ears raked forward, their grey manes flying. Dick stood up in his stirrups and Woodpigeon started to gallop, Sweetbriar beside him, and this time Christina was confident, utterly trusting in her own ability, and in the infallibility of Dick. She looked across at him and laughed. Now it was right to be galloping: a great joy surged through her. And all the while the glory of it filled her with this new and incomparable happiness, she was conscious right at the back of her mind of a pity for William, and a little pit of contempt.

At this point William has yet to grow into the new model of masculinity he will embody, which will be marked by its own version of high daring and risk, but when his turn comes he will bring to it a scientific power that differentiates him from the more brutal passions of his father and brother, shown here as personally destructive and as part of a system of careless oppression: nobody but Christina is particularly concerned, for instance, when Dick is dismissed for helping her with a somewhat quixotic plan to rescue a lamed horse from being turned into dog meat. Christina becomes aware of social injustice even as she has to consider her own possible marriage to Mark and whether she will put her own resources into rebuilding Flambards or into the modern world that is making everything it represents obsolete.

It’s hard, reading Flambards today, not to see that it anticipates a lot of the themes and stories of Downton Abbey! It also fits aptly into my Summer of Somerville, at least in its historical setting. I’ve put a hold on the next volume in the series, The Edge of the Cloud, which takes us into WWI. I can’t remember it at all and am trying to avoid spoilers, but I don’t much like William’s chances if he goes into the war as a pilot…