If “charming” weren’t so tainted with tweeness, it would be the word I’d use about “The Flight of the Maidens,” a reissue of a 2001 novel by Jane Gardam, a multiple-award-winning writer far better known in her native Britain than here.
The book, set in northern England in the summer of 1946, follows the fortunes of three young women preparing for college, each poised for her, yes, maiden flight: Hetty, Ina and Liselotte. Chief among them is Hetty, whose scholarship is unexpected — an “academic bombshell.” But she’s had the help of her older boyfriend, Eustace, a sexless, insistently literary lance corporal (upon meeting Hetty he says, “I’m said to look like Siegfried Sassoon”).
Hetty’s father, an intellectual damaged in World War I (He’s “on the Somme. All the time.”), works as a gravedigger and is not good for much besides providing droll, slyly incisive commentary.
Meanwhile, Kitty, Hetty’s overly devoted mother, a pretty girl-woman, finds comfort in the arms of the local vicar and in her circle at the Lonsdale Cafe. In these off-kilter gossip sessions and in her letters to Hetty, Kitty is the source of some of the most piquant comedy in this on-the-cusp-of-coming-of-age tale, which is often funny in the knowing, affectionate manner of a Jane Austen novel.
Ina, a more useful than fully formed character, has taken up with a “sharp-faced boy from the fish shop who belonged to a cycle club” and comes cycling up whenever things need to be discovered, discussed, reported or done.
Liselotte, a German Jewish orphan brought to England by the Kindertransport in 1939, undergoes the most remarkable transformation. When we meet her, she is “pasty, boneless and fat,” sitting “in a hump like unrisen dough.” But after the summer’s stints with truly eccentric guardians, first in postwar London, then in California, she emerges as a worldly sophisticate, “a sharp, bright girl in high heels and lipstick.”
Gardam is very good at eccentricity. There are those guardians, of course, a tiny pair of Jewish refugees hoarding endangered art in their London apartment, and the ancient, wildly wealthy American aunt like a Tennessee Williams character dropped into “Sunset Boulevard.” And there are odd others, such as the bizarre family of fading aristocrats Hetty meets during her summer sojourn in the Lake District, and the antique Girl Guides leaders who are always of service, invariably in uniform.
Most wonderful, though, is the author’s eye for the eccentric in what’s perfectly normal. Learning about love and loss, navigating the courses of family and friendship, negotiating the transitions between adolescence and adulthood and between generations: It’s familiar territory, in life and in novels.
But what Jane Gardam does, in this novel and in her others, is remind us of how strange the familiar can be when we first encounter it, as each of us must. And finally, that’s even better than charming.
Ellen Akins is a writer and a teacher of writing in Wisconsin. www.ellenakins.com
The Flight of the Maidens
By: Jane Gardam.
Publisher: Europa Editions, 328 pages, $18.