Review: The Flight of the Maidens by Jane Gardam

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I really enjoyed this book.  Within a few pages it created a sense of anticipation about the direction of three young lives, which I looked forward to resolving as I read.

It begins with a scene in a graveyard in the late summer of 1946 where three young women — Hester ‘Hetty’ Fallowes, Lieselotte Klein and Una Vane – have gathered following the news that morning that each of them has been awarded a state scholarship, an important award because it finances their place at university, which they can now take up.

Hetty is to read Literature at London, Una is off to Cambridge to read Physics and Lieselotte is to Cambridge as well to read Modern Languages.  As the girls lounge among the gravestones, their feet on a tomb, Gardam gradually introduces us to their lives.

We learn that Hetty’s father is a former intellectual, ruined by the effects of World War 1 and not suitable for much besides gravedigging; her mother is an anxious individual, constrained by her husband’s lack of ambition, and one of those characters that sets the restrictive moral tenor for the small town in which they all live.  Una’s father was a doctor who committed suicide when Una was young so Una’s mother tries to make ends meet running a hair salon.  Lieselotte is a Jew from Hamburg, who arrived in England in 1939 ‘on the last train full of refugee children, the Kindertransport’, and as a consequence has no parents.  She has lived with a childless Quaker couple for six years after losing her papers that would have seen her united with a relative.

The book follows the group in the couple of months before they begin university in October: Hetty takes herself off to the Lakes District to study, Una bicycles around the countryside with her friend Ray, and Lieselotte vanishes to London following a bureaucratic breakthrough in finding her relative.

What I liked about this book was the strong, feisty, multi-dimensional characters –- from the three young women to their parents, and other adults in their lives.  In the cases of Hetty and Una, I enjoyed the exploration of the relationships each had with their mothers — a type of exploration I haven’t really encountered before in much fiction.  Mothers tend to be characterized as foils, as others, as objects to be defined against, or just plain perfect.  But in The Flight of the Maidens this bond is examined, looking at how it’s maintained and valued despite its imperfections.

Hetty’s relationship with her mother, Kitty Fallowes, is an uneven one.  Kitty Fallowes needs her child because there is little else going on in her life but Hetty has just finished school and is on the cusp of establishing independence.  Consequently, Hetty’s affections for her mother wax and wane in line with Kitty’s expressions of neediness.  Despite this, the relationship remain intact – indeed, is valued by Hetty – even though it causes her anxiety and stress.  And Una’s relationship with her mother is a gentle one — openly affectionate and forgiving of the other’s eccentricities, needs and wants.  It is interesting to note that in both cases fathers are largely absent from their girls’ lives.

The other thing I enjoyed in this novel was the way it looked at the tentativeness of women’s behavior in 1946 as they stepped outside the boundaries of culturally sanctioned behavior.  Each of them are unsure about whether they are doing the right thing in going to university – the prospect of marriage – particularly for Hetty and Una – looms large and constant so there is a real pressure to succumb and marry.  None of them, except perhaps Lieselotte, display a passion for learning; they are smart girls and university is something that smart girls attend as a way to a better life.

For me this is what made this novel interesting – the ordinariness of their working class lives.  They are not ideologues, driven by the cause for women’s rights, but they manage to take those steps which will given them greater scope in their lives than simply marriage and children.  For me, this was a refreshing perspective because, generally, suffragettes and feminist intellectuals are portrayed as being so sure of themselves, so sure of their struggles to assert themselves as women.  In some sense, it’s as though you need to be a suffragette or intellectual to be able to effect feminist change or lead a feminist life.  And perhaps that’s the point – these three girls are not suffragettes or intellectuals and don’t live as such.  But they are trying to live differently to the norm, working against cultural forces to shape their lives to a pattern that they choose – a way of life which any supporter of women’s rights would champion.

Kitty Fallowes, Hetty’s mother, is offered up as a salutary example of a life lived with limited choices, a life lived within the boundaries of acceptable behavior.  Very early on in the book, we’re told that:

She always thought ahead, and it was always on somebody else’s behalf.  Her Birthday Book was thick as a train timetable.  She could give only modest birthday presents – a card of pins, a handkerchief of her grandmother’s, a few bread units and once, in 1945, a potato; but she never forgot.  Kitty Fallowes was profoundly, most sombrely religious but, for one who looked so confidently towards the release from the sorrows of this world, she was put into an intensity of concern by small disorders.  A shivering fit was always a rigor.  A bad cold was a congestion of the lungs …

‘Most of it’s boredom,’ said her husband.  ‘Imaginary illnesses.  In the raids we all had to jump to it.’…

Mrs Fallowes spoke of her own ill health indeed of everybody’s, of life itself, as a treacherous river on which we are flung at birth and must struggle against until this transient miserable body, the soul’s guest, merges properly into the sea of heaven.

These beliefs Kitty did not discuss directly in the Lonsdale Café, where she spent most of the time talking about Hetty, of whom she was tremendously proud and tremendously jealous.  Mrs Fallowes’ poor health as a child (the local doctor was famous for prescribing only glasses of water) had meant that she had had almost no education, and like many High Church women of the time, filled with the idea of making their bodies a living sacrifice and trying not to think of sex except as a method of pleasing a husband, she had thrown her passions into motherhood and Church ritual.  And penitence.  And Confession.  And ‘being unworthy’. (p.28)

It’s a brilliant bit of writing.  We get an idea of Kitty, of how she has been shaped by a lack of education and by boredom, of what she values and how she thinks.  And there is reference to the next generation – to Hetty – whom she acknowledges as hers yet is different from her and that difference causes profound jealousy because she, Kitty, did not get the chance to live Hetty’s kind of life.  It’s sad and bittersweet.  What redeems Kitty’s and links both generations is the love that they feel for one another.  It’s a lovely portrayal and it’s probably the core of the novel.

In an interview in The Guardian, Jane Gardam expressed a horror of sequels.  She appears to have made an exception of sorts with her recent novel, The Man in the Wooden Hat, a companion piece to Filth, her 2004 novel about an expat lawyer failing in Hong Kong, which was short-listed for the Orange Prize in 2005.  I think I would rather like it if she made a proper exception in the case of The Flight of the Maidens because I want to know what happened to these three young women.  I want to know how they fared.

Book details:
The Flight of the Maidens by Jane Gardam, Abacus, 2000, 278 pages, my own rather smoky copy.

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