Les Misérables by Victor Hugo (1862)

There are probably very few people who have never read this very big book but believe that they have a good understanding of what it is all about; thanks to a hit musical; films, both with and without music; and a recent BBC television series, adapted by a rather famous screenwriter.

I was one of them, and I even gave my copy away, because it is such a very big book and because there were so many other books that I hadn’t read that I knew even less about.

The time came though when I began to wonder if I had done the right thing. I saw some wonderfully positive comments from a year-long read-along, and as I have read some other big classics that I thought I would never read over the last few years, I began to think that I really should tackle this one too, and that it would be a wonderful way to fill the 1862 hole in my 100 Years of Books Project.

I always meant that to make me read the big classics and the well-read authors I had always meant to read but hadn’t – yet. I’d had some major successes. I was so taken with ‘Anna Karenina’ that I had to read ‘War and Peace’ too, and this is the project that made me finally understand why so many people love Anthony Trollope …

That is why I invested in a new copy Les Misérables.  I worked my way through it, slowly and steadily; and I am very glad that I did. The adaptations did well at condensing a big book, but the big book itself is so much deeper and richer.

It explores real history through the intersecting lives of a wide-ranging cast of characters

There is a freed convict, Jean Valjean, who determines to reform after being saved by the Bishop of Digne, but who will be haunted by his past for the rest of his life; there is Javert, the policeman who is determined to see him rightfully punished according to the law; there is a woman Fantine, whose life has been hard and who will entrust the care of her illegitimate daughter, Cosette, to Jean Valjean; there is Marius, who falls in love with Cosette, and whose friends draw him into the uprising of 1832; there is an amoral and self-serving man named Thénardier, who betrayed Fantine’s trust and who was credited with saving the life of Marius’s father on the field of Waterloo, though he was in fact a scavenging thief who roused him as he looted what he thought was a corpse.

Hugo made these characters, and a great many others who pass through his story, live and breathe; and he wrote with beauty, with authority, with command of his subject, in a way that made me think of the finest of teachers.

It was clear that he loved the city of Paris, and that he understood the importance of home of having a place in the world.

So long as you go and come in your native land, you imagine that those streets are a matter of indifference to you; that those windows, those roofs, and those doors are nothing to you; that those walls are strangers to you; that those trees are merely the first encountered haphazard; that those houses, which you do not enter, are useless to you; that the pavement that you tread are merely stones. Later on, when you are no longer there, you perceive that the streets are dear to you; that you miss those roofs, those doors; and that those walls are necessary to you, those trees are well beloved by you; that you entered those houses which you never entered, every day, and that you have left a part of your heart, of your blood, of your soul, in those pavements.

Hugo had much to say about many things, but I think that this was the most important:

Is there not in every human soul, was there not in the soul of Jean Valjean in particular, a first spark, a divine element, incorruptible in this world, immortal in the other, which good can develop, fan, ignite, and make to glow with splendour, and which evil can never wholly extinguish?

The story is compelling, the writing is brilliant, the major themes are profound; and that made it easy for me to forgive lengthy digressions, extraordinary coincidences and the second generation of character being not quite as interesting as the first.

There is much joy to be found in details, and I have marked many and must share this one.

M. Mabeuf’s political opinion consisted in a passionate love for plants, and, above all, for books. Like all the rest of the world, he possessed the termination in ist, without which no one could exist at that time, but he was neither a Royalist, a Bonapartist, a Chartist, an Orleanist, nor an Anarchist; he was a bouquinist, a collector of old books. He did not understand how men could busy themselves with hating each other because of silly stuff like the charter, democracy, legitimacy, monarchy, the republic, etc., when there were in the world all sorts of mosses, grasses, and shrubs which they might be looking at, and heaps of folios, and even of 32mos, which they might turn over.

Much has been written about this book, by people more erudite and articulate than me, and so I will just add that I am very glad I invested in a second copy and that I wouldn’t rule out reading it again one day.

The Vanishing of Audrey Wilde by Eve Chase (2018)

I wanted a book that would pull me out of this cold, dark winter, a book that would would hold me captive, and this book did that wonderfully well.

Two narratives, separated by fifty years, tell a story of sisters and secrets, of an unsolved mystery and its consequences, and of how family relationships are changed by events and by the passage of time.

The first story is told by fifteen year-old Margot Wilde, the third of four sisters who live a happy, bohemian life in fifties London. When their widowed mother is presented with the chance of a summer in Morocco she seizes it, and sends her girls to stay with their Aunt Sibyl and Uncle Perry at Applegate Manor in the Cotswolds. It would be their first visit since their cousin Audrey had disappeared five years earlier.

Margot had been particularly close to Audrey, they had always resembled one another; and when she was in her family home, when she saw how deeply her disappearance still troubled her aunt, she couldn’t help being drawn into the life that he cousin had left behind and being troubled by the unsolved mystery.

It was unsettling for all four sisters, and because the summer was warm they were able to spend much of their time outside, That was how they came to meet Tom and Harry Gore, whose family spent their summers at the neighbouring Coniston Place. And that was what unsettled the relationship between the four sisters ….

The second story is told by thirty-five year-old Jessie, who has persuaded her husband to but Applegate Manor. It stretched their finances, almost to breaking point, but Jessie was sure that moving out of London and settling in the country was the best thing for her family. It would allow her to give her young daughter the upbringing she wanted,; it would give her a chance to improve her relationship with her stepdaughter, who she didn’t think had been able to come to terms with her mother’s death a few years earlier; and it would allow her to escape from the very long shadow cast by her husband’s first wife.

None of that would be simple, nothing really went to plan, and when she learned the history of her new home Jessie began to question whether she had really done the right thing for her family ….

I was captivated by each story, because both narratives had the ring of truth as they spoke in their different ways of evolving family relationships, of the ways that the past can haunt the present, and the complications the come with growing up.

The echoes and the differences were beautifully handled,  with subtlety and the lightness of touch that made it feel completely natural and right. I particularly liked the contrast between the bright and warm summer days of the past and the cold and wet days of the present.

Of course, all of that would only work if the characters were engaging, and they were. They lived and breathed, and they pulled me right into their stories. I always love stories about sisters and I loved that these sisters were both distinctive and alike, and that the relationships between them were so very well drawn. The characters of step-mother and step-daughter in the present day were just as well done, and I was very impressed by the way that the relationship between the two was drawn and the way that it evolved.

The plot was beautifully and thoughtfully constructed; and there were times when I saw exactly where the story was going and there were times when my expectations were very cleverly subverted. The way that the two stories came together was particularly good, and I was held to the very last page.

The writing was the best thing of all. It was vivid, it was evocative, and it was impressionistic. I was never really aware that I was reading descriptive passages, that I was reading the narrator’s thoughts, and yet I drew so much about the times, about the places, about the lives being lived, from the two narratives.

Houses are never just houses. I’m quite sure of this now. We leave particles behind, dust and dreams, fingerprints buried on wallpapers, our tread in the wear of the stairs. And we take bits of the houses with us. In my case, a love of the smell of wax polish on sun-warmed oak, late summer filtering through stained glass. We grow up. We stay the same. We move away, but we live forever where we were most alive.

I can easily forgive some things that felt improbable, some things that fell into place too easily, because there were so many more things in this book that I loved.

It was one of those books that made me think that the author and I have read and loved many of the same books.

I picked up her previous book from the library today, and I am looking forward to what comes next.

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (2019)

I loved Ann Patchett’s last novel and that caught me by surprise, because I had liked some of her earlier books but she had never been one of those authors I felt I must read and must look out for a new book.

Not until that book made me look out for this book.

When I first caught a glimpse I saw that it was a beautiful object,  when I read the premise of the story I was intrigued, and when I started reading I was captivated.

I thought of it for some time after I had finished reading, and I realised that it was a book that I had loved on a number of different levels.

It’s a book about people. Many books are, but this is one of those books that make you feel that that you are reading about real people, that you might have mutual friends, and that a friend might have told you some of this story, because there are a great many people in the world who have stories that are more than worthy of retelling.

I believed in the people in this book. I believed they lived and breathed and that their stories were true.

This is also a book about a house

Seen from certain vantage points of distance, it appeared to float several inches above the hill it sat on. The panes of glass that surrounded the glass front doors were as big as storefront windows and held in place by wrought-iron vines. The windows both took in the sun and reflected it back against the wide lawn.

The Dutch House was named not for its architecture but for the nationality of its original owners, the Van Hoebeeks, who had built it when they prospered in the twenties. Their home boasted Delft mantels, marble floors, ornate fireplaces and gilt ceilings;  it was adorned with silk chairs, tapestry ottomans and oil paintings; and it was a house like no other.

By the late forties the Van Hoebeeks had lost everything, and so they sold the Dutch House to Cyril Conroy, an ambitious property developer who had risen from humble beginnings. He acquired everything – the house, the grounds, the furnishings, the staff – and only when he brought his family to see the house for the first time did he tell them that he owned it and it was their new home. His wife, Elna, and their children, Maeve and Danny, were transplanted from a small apartment to a grand, ready-made new home and lifestyle with no warning at all.

Cyril saw the  Dutch House as a the ultimate symbol of his success, but Elna saw it rather differently. She saw it as a work of art but she knew that she could not be happy there, that it would never be her home; and her spirit faded, she began to spend more and more time away from the house, until that day came when she didn’t come ‘home’ again.

It wasn’t long until an attractive young widow with two daughters found her way into Cyril’s life, and into the Dutch House. She would become his second wife, she would take possession, and when the children of the first marriage would be pushed out. They would return to look at the Dutch House, but they would keep their distance and they would have to make their own way in the world.

All of that had lovely echoes of fairy tales. These echoes were strong and yet that story felt utterly real and natural.

The story unfolded beautifully. It had a clear path, and there were many interesting developments along that path. Some of those developments I expected, but some I did not. There were times when I thought that the story was going to go one way but it went another, and so I was always interested, and though I had an idea of where things might be going I was never entirely sure.

Those stories had the untidiness of real lives. Mistakes of the past were repeated, but maybe that is inevitable.

“We look back through the lens of what we know now, so we’re not seeing it as the people we were, we’re seeing it as the people we are, and that means the past has been radically altered.”

The evolution of the characters and their relationships was fascinating. As the younger characters grew up and the adult characters aged some things changed and some things remained the same; and though some of their actions seemed improbable their lives all felt utterly real. My perceptions of characters didn’t change too much but as I spent more time with them I came to understand them much better.

They weren’t characters to love, I didn’t want them to be more that friends of friends, but I did want to learn their stories.

This stories had much to say, they were written with intelligence and insight, and they were a joy to read.

Rhododendron Pie by Margery Sharp (1930)

This is the desperately rare, long out of print, first Margery Sharp novel. It is the book that I described as ‘the book that I had thought would always be just out of reach’and I know that I was wonderfully lucky to spot and secure a copy that was not quite so expensive as some of the copies you might see online.

I have to tell you that it is a joy to read, and that it so very deserving of being sent back out into the world again, to delight another generation of readers.

It tells the story of Ann Laventie, the youngest of three children of a family of aesthetes and snobs. Ann is a little different from the rest of her family, because though she loves them dearly and shares their love of art and beauty she is not a snob, and she has a strong practical streak and a lively curiosity about the world.

That is beautifully illuminated by the much-loved family tradition of floral pies. It began when six years-old Elizabeth Laventie, Ann’s elder sister, wept over the cherry pie that she had requested for her birthday.

It transpired that she had expected the pie to contain not cherries, but heliotropes. However the confusion has arisen in her infant mine it was now firmly rooted. The fact that flowers were inedible did not concern her; Elizabeth was determined that her birthday pie should contain them or nothing, It was at such a moment that Mr. Laventie’s quality showed itself. With instant resource he swiftly removed the crust, disposed of the cherries in a convenient parterre, and crammed the dish with a mass of sweet-smelling heliotrope. His daughter was bidden try again, and this time true delight lay under the pie crust.

Ann saw the beauty of her own birthday pie, a rhododendron pie, but she knew that something was missing.

Every year she had hoped against hope, and every year the lovely inedible petals have cheated her. For she has a fundamental, instinctive conviction that they are out of place, Flowers are beautiful in gardens … and in houses, of course … but in a pie you want fruit. Apples. Hot and fragrant and faintly pink, with lots of juice … and cloves. She wished there had been apples in her pie.

When Elizabeth grew up she became a writer, when brother Dick grew up he became a sculptor, but Ann couldn’t identify a particular talent of her own or a career that she could pursue. She did have a talent for friendship, she was as at home with the down-to-earth Gayford family who lived next door as she was with her siblings’ bohemian circle of friends, and she had a suitor who she knew her parents would love as a son-in-law and another one she knew they would not understand at all.

Rhododendron Pie

Margery Sharp tells Ann’s story with warmth, wit and wisdom; and that story is both of its age and written to resonante long into the future. In time, Ann finds that she has a good idea what she wants, but she knows that she cannot please all of the people she loves, and that maybe there is no path through life open to her that will give her everything she would like.

‘What I want,’ continued Ann recklessly, ‘is a nice wedding in the village church, with a white frock and orange blossom and lots of flowers and ‘The Voice that Breathed’ and two bridesmaids in cyclamen pink and rose petals afterwards  and a reception in the drawing-room with a string quartet playing selections from Gilbert and Sullivan. In June. And a honeymoon in the Italian Lakes.

‘Where does Gilbert come in?’

‘He doesn’t. And I want to live in a house, not a flat, even if it’s only a little one in a suburb where there’s no-one amusing, with a back garden to dig in. And have bird pattern chintzes in the drawing-room and cold supper on Sundays because the maid’s out. I shall probably,’ finished Ann defiantly, ‘take a stall at the church bazaar.’

I just had to love Ann, I felt such empathy and understanding, and I would have loved to be her friend. Not that she lacked for friends, and her story had a wonderful and diverse cast, with every character perfectly realised. They lived and breathed; I believe that they had many more tales that could have been told and perspectives that could have been used; and I could easily believe that some of the bohemian Londoners were around for the London scenes in The Flowering Thorn and that the last of the Four Gardens might be nearby.

It was lovely to spot themes and ideas that would echo through Margery Sharp’s novels. Many of those novels are more accomplished than this one, but ‘Rhododendron Pie’ is a particularly accomplished first novel. There could have been a little more subtlety, a little more sophistication in the way that Ann determined her future ; but this book  is beautifully constructed, the quality of the writing and the use of language is sublime, and that carries the day.

What I think really makes this story sing, what makes it distinctive in the company of Margery Sharp’s other books, is the depth of feeling in its telling; and I have to think that it must have been particularly close to her heart.

The final scene is a master-stroke; and the book as a whole is a delight.

The Poor Man by Stella Benson (1922)

Five years ago, when I read Stella Benson’s first novel, I wrote:

“I don’t know what Stella Benson did, I don’t know how she did it, but she did it quite brilliantly.

I don’t want to – I don’t need to  – pull her book apart to see how it works. I just want to wonder at it, to be impressed that it does!

And now, of course,  I want to read everything else that she ever wrote!”

It shouldn’t have taken me so long to read another book, but I didn’t have one to hand and I was distracted by other books, until The Man of the House came home with a copy of The Poor Man that he had picked up for me.

Edward R Williams is the poor man of the title, an Englishman who was alone in the world since the death of his brother, who was socially awkward and a little deaf, and who was in the slightly position of having enough money to not need to work but no more than that.

He had settled in San Francisco and fallen in with an arty set. Rhoda Romero, Avery Bird, Banner Hope and Melsie Stone Ponting had no great love for Edward, they didn’t really understand who he was and why he was always around, but they were so self-important and so caught up in their own concerns that they didn’t think to question his presence.

Emily Frere was the assistant of the famous journalist Tam McTab and she travelled the world with him and his wife. Edward met her at a party and he was utterly smitten. She was everything that he wasn’t; she was bright, she was sociable, she was emphatic and she loved life.

Edward adored Emily and he was sure that she cared for him; because she listened, because she was always kind.

The elements of this story are beautifully balanced – the satire of the arty set, the tragicomedy of Edward, and the vitality of Emily – and the author’s voice was perfect. It was distinctive, she had a lovely turn of phrase, she had a sharp eye, and it was clear that she knew and was fond of San Francisco; though it was obvious that she was fonder of the surrounding countryside than the city itself.

Californians have brought suburb-making almost to an art. Their cities and their countryside are equally suburban. No one has a country house in California; no one has a city house. It is good to see trees from city windows, but it is not so good to see houses from country windows. This however, for better or for worse, seems to be California’s ideal, and she will not rest until she has finished turning herself into one long and lovely Lower Tooting.

When Edward learned that that Emily had travelled to China with the McTabs he knew that he had to follow them. He lacked the means to make such a journey, and so he set about earning a his passage. It was clear from the start that Edward was not cut out to be a salesman, but his brief career in sales did result in him being propelled to China. He fell into another job, teaching English, but he wasn’t cut out for that either.

Stella Benson walked the line between tragedy and comedy beautifully, and somehow she drew me into the story of this desperately poor man.

Would he find Emily?

What would happen if he did?

What would happen if he didn’t?

I can’t say, but I can say that the end of the story both powerful and inevitable.

I loved the way that Stella Benson illuminated very real human lives and situations in this unlikely tale, and that though the arc of the story was improbable every moment in it rang true.

This book came seven years after the other book of hers that I have read, and it lacks that books whimsicality but it has other things that more than make up for that. It has wisdom, it has clarity, and it has something to say.

The writing is wonderfully vivid, few other authors could have made the story of this poor man so compelling, and I can’t think of any author who could have told this story so very well.

The Lost Ones by Anita Frank (2019)

I love a ghost story, but I am very picky when it comes to picking up new ones, because I was spoiled at a very young age when I read the work of a wonderful array of authors in the Virago Book of Ghost Stories and two more collections that followed that one.

This is a rare case of a new ghost story catching and holding my attention.

I was intrigued by the setting and by the central character.

The story is set in England, towards the end of the Great War; a time when so many people were haunted by the deaths of young men far from home. Stella Marcham was one of those people. She had been a VAD nurse, she had worked hard and well, but she had been sent home after she was stricken by grief over the death of her fiancé Gerald.

Stella’s parents were sympathetic, but as time passed they found it hard to deal with and they failed to understand why she couldn’t come to terms with what had happened and start to live again. They began to wonder if their daughter was mentally ill.

They thought that a change of scene might help her, and an interesting opportunity presented itself. Stella’s sister Madeleine was pregnant, and her husband had insisted that she left London for the the safety of the countryside. He had left her in the care of his mother, Lady Brightwell,  st his family’s country home, Greyswick while he continued his war work in the city. Stella would be a companion for Madeleine, and Madeleine would be a distraction for Stella.

The two sisters were delighted to be reunited; but Stella was concerned about her sister. Madeleine was unsettled, unhappy, and inexplicably fearful. Lady Brightwell said that she was foolish, that nothing could be wrong, but Stella knew her sister too well to believe that and she tried to work out what the problem might be.

It wasn’t long before she saw the first signs.

And then there was a noise in the night: Stella and Madeleine – and no one else – heard the clear and inexplicable sound of a child crying ….

The story is captivating, the prose is lovely and nicely understated – I loved that it left space for me to think and to ponder. The description of the house and its grounds brought the setting to life; and the period, the place and the mood were wonderfully evoked.

The ghost story works well; there are times when it is genuinely frightening, and there are times when it is clear that there is a desperately sad story behind the haunting of Greyswick.

The human story wrapped around this ghost story had much to say.

It spoke of the position of women in a world where men govern society and determine how they should live; and of how that could make women victims, and of how women might use the little power that had for good or for bad.

It spoke of that society’s treatment of grief and of mental disturbance; and of how those things could make a person terribly vulnerable.

Most of all it spoke about love and loss, through Stella’s story and through other plot strands. As Stella strove to help her sister and to uncover the secrets of the house, she knew that she had to be strong; and though she would always grieve for Gerald she began to find a little comfort in the memory of him and of the time they had spent together. That was beautifully and sensitively done,

Of course, all of this only works if there is a cast of characters who are real and believable. This book has that. I was particularly taken with Stella, with her maid, Annie, who came from a family said to have psychic powers, and with the way their relationship moved from the traditional one mistress and servant to a very different one where the servant was superior to her mistress. Annie brought something different and distinctive to this tale, as did the three women who had lived in the house for many years – its mistress, her companion and her housekeeper. A wonderfully diverse cast of women!

I worked out how the story would play out a little earlier that I feel I should have, I found it predictable and a little contrived in places, and I think that this would have been a better book if certain of the story-lines had been pruned a little; but I was captivated from start to finish.

I could easily believe that the author had read and loved and learned from the work in those collections of ghost stories that I love and remember so well.

This book isn’t that good, but it is very good; beautifully written, evocative of time and place, and holding a story that has much to say and much to haunt its readers.

 

A Book for the 1930 Club: Rogue Herries by Hugh Walpole

High Walpole was a  popular and prolific author in his day, and he was one of those very traditional story tellers who fell out of fashion when modernism came to the fore. I liked the one, quite early, novel of his that I read, a few years ago, and so I had high hopes for this much later work.

It had much to recommend it to me.

It was a big book; it was a family saga; it was a historical novel; and it was set in a part of the country that the author loved; the place he moved to in middle age, to live for the rest of his life.

I wish I could say that I loved it, but I’m afraid that I can’t.

What I can say is that though I saw many weaknesses I was sufficiently interested to read to the end.

The story opens in 1732.

Francis Herries, a man who has clearly done much to earn the sobriquet ‘Rogue’, has uprooted his family from their Yorkshire home, because he knew that his sins would soon catch up with him if he stayed. The travelling party includes his wife; his two daughters, Mary and Deborah; his only son, David; his loyal manservant; a woman who carries the title of housekeeper but is in fact his mistress; and a priest who held some very strong views….

9322179He plans to settle in his childhood home, near Borrowdale. His brother, who lives nearby is horrified, because the house is remote, the land is poor, and the property has been decaying for a great many years; but Francis Herries is set on his plan and will brook no argument.

In the years that followed the two families would meet and cross paths, but Frances Herries would never again set foot in his brother’s house.

He was a proud and independent man, he was slow to trust and slower to love, but he had a strong sense of right and wrong, and he was strong and prepared to work to establish his family in their new home.

Margaret Herries loved her husband dearly, and forgave him everything; and though he didn’t feel the same way he appreciated that and did his best to look after her. He sold his mistress at a country fair after she upset the household, and the scene rang true but it made me compare Walpole with Hardy, and that comparison did not flatter him.

I thought that sale might have consequences later in the story, but it didn’t. Nor did the departure of the priest, or the compassion shown to a woman judged to be a witch, or the introduction of the wider family, or the flight of Mary, who had inherited her father’s pride and independence, and who thought that she deserved a better life.

David would have liked to make his own way in the world but he felt tied to the family home. He was his father’s pride and joy, he had promised his dying mother that he would always watch over him, and he didn’t want to abandon Deborah, who had inherited her mother’s reserve.

In time though, things changed. Deborah fell in love with a clergyman, who told her that he was prepared to wait until she was ready to leave her family. David fell in love with a young woman who he had to wrestle away from her cruel guardian – quite literally. And – most extraordinarily – Francis Herries developed a passion for Mirabell, the daughter of a gypsy woman he had helped and who had asked her to watch over her daughter after her death. He loved her as he had never loved before, she didn’t feel the same way, but she was buffeted by life and he became her refuge.

Time and place were wonderfully evoked, the descriptions were wonderful, but the book fell down for me on character and relationships. There was no depth, there was no evolution, and there was little to suggest that they were active in setting the course of their own lives. They were simple people, so I wasn’t looking for too much, but many of the moments that would have illuminated their lives, were rushed over or even missed completely.

I might make an exception for the man who gave the book its title. On one hand he was a wonderful character, but on the other I can think of other more interesting rogues.

Time passed, things happened, but no more than that. There was little progression and there were rarely consequences.

The skill of the storyteller and interest in what might happen kept me going.

I couldn’t help thinking that this read like a draft, and that the author hadn’t troubled to go back over what he had written and think about the book as a whole. A good editor could have made such a difference.

The final act was the strongest part of the book. It led to a wonderful – if melodramatic – ending that set things up beautifully for the sequel.

I’m curious, but I am in no hurry to read it.

The Peacock Spring by Rumer Godden (1975)

In her preface to this novel, Rumer Godden wrote:

I suppose, in a way, I am a divided person, having two roots: Sussex, England where I was born and India where I first went when I was six months old. For most of my life I have gone back and forth between them in one I am homesick for the other.

Sometimes this homesickness becomes acute …. I seemed to feel the warm Indian dust under my sandalled feet, smell flowers in sun, and other smells pungent and acrid …. I had no reason to go back to India, but the longing persisted; then, as if in answer, came a story linked to a memory of something strange and sad that happened many years before ….

This story draws on that particular memory; and it was so fortunate that it belonged to an author who knew India as a child, who saw that country more clear-sightedly as an adult, and who loved both England and India, and could see the strengths and weaknesses of both countries and what each one brought to the complex relationship between them.

Fifteen-year-old Una and her half-sister Halcyon (Hal) were happily settled in an English boarding school, after spending most of their childhood in different homes in different countries as their father’s diplomatic career, when a most unexpected letter arrived.  It brought word that Sir Edward Gwithiam wished his daughters to join him in New Delhi, where he had recently been posted by the United Nations.

Hal was delighted with the prospect of a new adventure in India, but Una was desperately unhappy. She was clever, her teachers were encouraging her to set her sights on a good university, and she knew that even the best of governesses in India could not give her the education that she wanted and needed. The prospect of spending time with her adored father was little consolation.

Peacock SpringWhen she reached her father’s new home in Delhi, Una quickly realised that the reasons that her father had quoted in his letter were mere pretexts. Miss Lamont, who was to be her governess, was a beautiful woman, she held a privileged position in the household, and she was clearly unqualified to teach a well-educated fifteen year-old.

Of course Una understood what the real situation was, and why it was that she and Hal had been summoned.

Hal had never been much interested in lessons, she accepted Miss Lamont’s presence without question and happily accepted all of the lovely things that her new life had to offer.

Una resisted all of Miss Lamont’s attempts to win her over and a fierce battle of wills would develop between them. It was a battle that she could not win, because her adversary was cold and calculating, and determined that noting should prevent her from achieving her ambition, and because Una’s father shared that ambition and treated his daughter’s opposition as the behaviour of a spoilt child.

Hurt, troubled, and lonely, Una retired to the abandoned summer-house at the bottom of the garden, with her beloved books.

It was there that she met  Ravi, the under-gardener. He was a handsome young man, he was an aspiring poet, and the gift of a blue peacock feather would lead to a clandestine romance.

Una was smitten with the young man and the very different side of life in India that he showed her; and of course it don’t occur to ask why someone with his education was working in a garden. Ravi’s friend Hem, a more worldly-wise medical student, knew why; and he warned him that the relationship could only lead him into more trouble, but Ravi took no notice at all.

When Una made a discovery that she knew would appall her father, she and Ravi made a desperate plan, that they hoped would allow them to escape from the worst of the fallout. It didn’t occur to either of them that while Sir Edward might be happy to allow his daughter to ‘sulk’ for a while he still considered her a child and would act as soon as he realised that anything might be amiss.

The events that played out would be a painful coming of age for Una.

I was caught up with her from the very first, I understood her feelings and her actions, and my concern grew as the story progressed. That story had a wonderful understanding of the complications of family life, the awkwardness of the stage of life between childhood and adulthood, the intensity of first love, and the pain that learning more about how people are and how the world works. I couldn’t doubt for a moment that Rumer Godden understood and that she care; and she made me understand and care very deeply.

Her characterisations were deep and complex, and this was a story of real fallible people. Even Miss Lamont, who could be considered the villain of the piece, was a woman who could make me feel care and concern. She was mixed race, she didn’t fit into English or Indian society, and so her life had been a struggle and she had to hold on to the wonderful and unexpected chance that she had been offered. In contrast, Hem was lovely. He was a little older and wider than his friend, his advice was almost invariably ignored, but he would remain the truest and most thoughtful of friends to both Ravi and Una.

The prose is rich and evocative; the attention to detail is exactly right; but above all this is a human drama, and that drama felt so real that I might have been looking into the lives of people who really lived and breathed for a short but significant spell in their lives.