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 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 Filth, The Man in the Wooden Hat and Old Friends.
The Flight of the Maidens by Jane Gardam, published in 2000 by Abacus. 278pp
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’.