Tag Archives: 1946

The Flight of the Maidens by Jane Gardam

My book group decided to read The Flight of the Maidens by Jane Gardam. I was pleased as I very much enjoy her novels, especially the Old Filth trilogy. So too do many others, who voted for the first of the trilogy to be included in the Guardian’s 100 best reads. I like the way she explores lives, especially those of women. She excels at placing them in difficult situations and requiring them to face dilemmas.  I especially enjoy the quirky details that she includes. Sometimes they are relevant to the plot line, and sometimes they provide period or character detail. The death of Old Filth’s wife Betty as she plants tulips and hides evidence of her betrayal, is one of those moments. I had not read The Flight of the Maidens.

The Flight of the Maidens

The novel follows three young women at that exciting moment in their lives when they are about to branch out, in this case all three have won places at university and the novel begins as they all secure the funding that will enable them to take up their places. 

These events occur in the summer of 1946, the war has ended and everywhere there is the sense of emerging from six years of disruption and deprivation. The national mood echoes the mood of the three young women who have spent their school days at war. 

The three girls take different routes over the next three months as they spread their wings (take flight) before meeting up again on the eve of taking their places at university.

Hetty lives with a mother who is suffocating in her attention to her daughter and a father who has never returned from the Somme. Her works as a grave digger but is known locally as something of a philosopher and rather fragile. Mostly to escape her mother, but also to experience a wider world than her Yorkshire village, she takes herself off to the Lake District to spend some weeks reading in preparation for her course. While there, staying in a guesthouse on a farm, Hetty learns a thing or two about herself. Her horizons are broadened when she meets the people of the area: those who work on the land and the aristocrats who seem to be quite mad. One of the aristocrats in the devilishly handsome Rupert, who seems somewhat unavailable but a dreadful flirt. She is rescued from seduction by distressing news from home.

Una is the single daughter of a single mother who has supported them both from the income from operating a not very reliable hairdresser’s in her home. She has had a longstanding uncommunicative relationship with a local boy who leaves school to get a job and works his way up to a career on the railway. Their relationship, up to this point, has been conducted through bike rides at weekends. Now Ray and Una decide to spend a weekend together in a remote hostel. Their plans are disrupted in a most unfortunate way, but their next attempt brings the looked-for intimacy. Una wonders whether university is the way to go.

Lottie has been in England since 1938, brought as an endangered Jewish child from Hamburg on the Kindertransport, and cared for by a Quaker family in Yorkshire. She is severely restricted in her emotional expression and in her interactions. She suddenly disappears to London where she is taken in by a very eccentric older Jewish couple who escaped from Germany with many items of household furnishing. They had been experts in transportation before they fled. After a few weeks of exploring bomb-damaged London, Lottie travels on to California to consider the option of being adopted by an older, rich, American relative. The West Coast life seems so disconnected from anything she knows or wants that she decides to return.

I found Lottie the least believable of the characters. Things appear to happen to her, and she attracts the oddest of people. The episode in California seems far-fetched, but perhaps that is the point in Lottie’s fractured and disrupted life.  

So, all three young ‘maidens’ are changed by those few months. Jane Gardam has captured that magical time in a young woman’s life. It took me back to my time before I went to university, which involved spending a few days in Israel during the Six-Day War in June 1967 and being evacuated to Cyprus – not then a divided island. The following year I went to America to study in Philadelphia and it seemed as if life was going to be a series of similar adventures. In the same way, twenty years before, the lives of Hetty, Una and Lottie opened out at the end of the war.

It was an exciting time for the girls, but a time for recuperation by the adults.

Jane Gardam

Jane Gardam

Jane Gardam was born in Yorkshire in 1928. She is a prolific writer of children’s and adult’s books. I counted 13 children’s books, many collections of short stories and 9 adult novels and one non-fiction book on her Wikipedia page. 

I recommend The Flight of the Maidens as well as the trilogy: Old FilthThe Man in the Wooden Hat and Old Friends

The Flight of the Maidens by Jane Gardam, published in 2000 by Abacus. 278pp

Related Posts

The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam, in the Older Women in Fiction series (October 29014).

A Long Way from Verona by Jane Gardam, her debut novel in 1971, is a recent post on Jacquiwine’s Journal, who refers to it as ‘a warm, funny, thoroughly enjoyable novel that captures the trials of adolescence so engagingly’.

6 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews

One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes

The ‘long nightmare’ is over but everything is changed. This wonderful novel captures one glorious summer’s day in 1946 around the village of Wealding near the south coast of England. We follow Laura Marshall as she contemplates her life now that the Second World War has been over for a year. She ends her day on Barrow Down, where she has gone to retrieve her dog and sits down to look at the view.

She had had to lose a dog and climb a hill, a year later, to realize what it would have meant if England had lost. We are at peace, we still stand, we will stand when you are dust, sang the humming land in the summer evening. (143)

One Fine Day

The structure of this book is very simple. We follow Laura on this day, and through her concerns, activities and from her interactions with other people we are shown a view of the country as wide as her view from Barrow Down.

Laura, 38, is married to Stephen, who, since his return from the war after years of separation, has caught the 8.47 train up to his job in the City of London every weekday morning. Their daughter, Victoria, is ten years old and something of an alien species to Stephen as he last knew her as a toddler. His dismay at his daughter is summed up in his reaction to finding her dental brace in the bathroom. His time at home is dominated by the garden as Chandler, their pre-war gardener, was killed in Holland and the replacement, Voller, is a very old man with limited capacity. Some of Laura’s day will be spent trying to find a better gardener. 

When Stephen has gone for the train (taking the car) and daughter to school (taking the bus) Laura settles down to a morning of housework with her ‘help’ Mrs Prout, and for some shopping in the nearby town (also taking the bus). Mrs Prout does well in these post-war years. She is not slow to make comments about the neighbours, or Laura’s single child. She is the subject of the first cameo, a deftly, sparingly drawn portrait, which tells us so much.

Mrs Prout obliged several ladies in Wealding, conscious of her own value, enjoying glimpses of this household and that, sly, sardonic, given to nose-tapping and enormous winks, kind, a one for whist tables and a quiet glass at the local, scornful of the floundering efforts of the gentry to remain gentry still when there wasn’t nobody even to answer their doorbells, poor souls.  (18) 

Returning to Wealding after her shopping trip, Laura visits the Porter family to see whether George, recently returned from India, can take on their garden. The scene at the Porter’s door draws in many of the threads of the novel. George sees no future in Wealding, so is off to the city to find a job, girls, cinemas and dancing. Laura is chastened to find that to him she is akin to an old sofa. She is aware that she is losing her youth. Mavis Porter, formerly of the WAAF, has added to the Porter brood as a result of a liaison with a Polish airman. She too will soon be gone. 

As the day progresses Laura has interactions with the Vicar, ‘a saint who had the misfortune to sound like a bore’ (54); her mother who lives in Cornwall and was almost untouched by the war and its consequences; and the Cranmers. This is the family whose house has dominated the village, not just because of its size, but also in economic terms. Mrs Cranmer is the local landowner and many of the local farmers are her tenants. The big house had provided employment for the villagers, and during the war accommodation for Canadian soldiers. But Mrs Cranmer and her silent sister are to move to the stables and the house is sold to become some kind of institution. They invite Laura in for tea.

She continues on her way to fetch Stuffy the dog, climbing up the lower slopes of Barrow Down where a gypsy lives in an old railway carriage. She is intrigued by this man who lives apart from the village and is known to have a special way with animals. She is particularly struck by the fact that he doesn’t own a radio. In many ways his quiet, peaceable life appeals to her. She feels again the overwhelming demands of her nice house. 

She climbs the rest of the way up the barrow and sees the wonderful landscape bathed in evening light. She contemplates her options, unable to live lightly as the gypsy does. But she thinks of the fun she and Stephen had before the war, and begins to see the possibility that her life with him and Victoria can be more than drudgery. And Stephen returning home from the city is also reminded of what he still has, despite everything. And that he and Laura can still find happiness with each other.

There have been frequent examples of references to the world beyond Wealding and Bridbury: Cornwall, London, Poland, Canada, India and even the view from Barrow Down brings a wider perspective. It is one of Mollie Panter-Downes’s skills to show so much from that moment, those people, in that place.

Mollie Panter-Downes

Mollie Panter-Downes was born in London in 1906. Her father was killed in the First World War and she grew up with her widowed mother in a village in the south of England. She began her writing career at 17 with a successful novel The Shoreless Sea. During the war she published Letters from London in the New Yorker every two weeks and many short stories (see Good Evening, Mrs Craven). They form a cumulative account of the Second World War for Americans, from the perspective of London and the Home Counties. By the time she came to write One Fine Day after the war she had honed her journalist skills of observation and of drawing meaning from everyday incidents. 

One of the charms of this novel is the way she shows us people is so few words, from passengers on the bus to the people in the big house. Her observation of dog behaviour is so familiar that it must have been drawn from life. Her love of and familiarity with the countryside and the natural world is also a feature. Her descriptions of the demanding garden, other people’s gardens and the hedgerows are enchanting. Here she summons up a wonderful view and Laura’s reaction as she looks out.

She did not stir. The golden eye blinked again, far out in the warm haze. Yes, it was a car, for it was moving. She watched it half-sleepily, listening to the hum floating up from the great bowl. It was the summer voice of England, seeming to say in the rattle of hay carts, the swish of the blades laying the sorrel and clover in swathes, the murmur and buzz of the uncut fields, the men’s deep voices calling peacefully across the dead quiet. We are at peace. An aeroplane flew south, trundling along, flashing a silver blink to the gold blink below, and Laura watched it go as idly as she had watched the car crawl and dip along the unknown road. Planes were no longer something to glance up at warily. The long nightmare was over, the land sang its peaceful song. (142-3)

In following Laura’s day we have observed the changes brought by war, especially to the middle classes. For Laura, the loss of servants could chain her, as so many women, to the domestic duties required by their houses as the servants will not return. Some people have been lost in the war, killed, moved away for better opportunities or new partners. The war has widened the perspective of the villagers. 

Stephen and Laura will have to deal with the separation forced by the war which took Victoria from toddler to near-adolescent, and now lands them back together without the social structure upon which they relied. Laura is perpetually tired (she falls asleep on the barrow) and going grey at 38. Stephen wonders whether he fought the war in order to continue his daily commute. Both Laura and Stephen come to see what they liked and still like about each other, and about the countryside in which they live. The three of them will find their way we are sure and the novel finishes as they all return home.

And I am left wondering what we, in 2021, will see when our long Covid-19 nightmare is over. Will we rejoice in what we have and adjust to what we have lost?

One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes, first published in 1947, reissued as a Virago Modern Classic in 1985. 179pp

Related links

Good Evening Mrs Craven and London War Notes by Mollie Panter-Downes (war-time stories from the New Yorker)

Wave me Goodbye (short stories from the Second World War)

In Praise of Short Stories

Three bloggers, whose views I respect, have all praised this novel: Heaven AliStuck in a Book and Jacquiwine

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews