The Flight of the Maidens by Jane Gardam
You’d have to have a heart of stone not to love this novel. Three young women lounging in an ancient graveyard in the Yorkshire sticks that Gardam knows so well have all received good news. All three eighteen-something year olds have received grants and scholarships to attend either Cambridge or London University.
It’s 1946 and Britain is limping towards recovery after World War II. A crushed grapefruit, a banana, decent coffee, are still precious luxuries. In London, the walls of museums are full of blank spots since the pictures haven’t brought out of hiding. Whole streetscapes are in ruin from incessant bombings. And a documentary about concentration camps, specifically Belsen, is making the rounds of movie theaters.
From now on their paths will diverge and the novel is energized by triple plotting. This is the last time they’ll all be together until the end of the story as Jane Gardam writes with a full-throated confidence that makes The Flight of the Maidens my favorite of the four novels by her I have read. It’s a great “Europa Editions read”, meaning it’s an uncovered gem of indisputable literary quality.
Hetty has the lead in the reader’s attention. Her state scholarship has come as a surprise. An unsympathetic teacher finds it unbelievable and some of her small-town neighbors are gossiping that it must have been a mistake. But Hetty has had a mentor. A diffident, watery sort of fellow named Eustace, about ten years her senior, who serves as Hetty’s off-the-cuff paramour. Eustace is very well read and he amplifies Hetty’s reading list.
Una lives with her widowed mother who ekes out a living as a mediocre hairdresser in the front room of their house. She implies she’s a professional, that she’s been trained, but she hasn’t. Una’s father left the house one evening and never came back. He jumped off a cliff. Many of the characters in this rural town, having borne the trauma of the first World War not so long ago, are now being asked to bear up under another world war. Hetty’s father is mentally bent as well. He’s the town’s gravedigger, a rather intellectual one since he attended Oxford. Those who know Gardam’s work will recognize her talent for weirdness at full tilt.
Liselotte, the last of the trio, is a Jewish refuge from Hamburg. She arrived in England in 1939. In an automobile trek over the Yorkshire vale, her papers were carelessly lost by her helpers. As a result, she is lost to her family for seven years. Her one remaining relative is a wealthy elder aunt living in California, her parents having died in a concentration camp. Having a writer as totally English as Gardam depict California is a stretch. She muddles through but the terrain is not her forte. Gardam equals Yorkshire, pretty much. Liselotte lives in a stone cottage with a Quaker couple who try to serve as surrogate parents.
The best single line that I read in The Flight of the Maidens is when Ray, Una’s boyfriend, who works for the railroad and used to be the town milk boy, counsels Una that everyone must occupy and live their own life. It’s good advice even if it means leaving some characters in irretrievable loneliness on the Yorkshire moors. Obviously, I think you should read this novel.