The Flower of May by Kate O’Brien (1953)

This novel, sadly out of print, is set early in the 20th century, and it tells the story of a younger daughter who loves her home and family but misses her convent school in Belgium until a chance comes to travel with the family of her dearest friend.

It is beautifully and clearly written, it has a wonderful cast of characters, and it would have sat very well with the selection of the author’s books that Virago reissued.

The story begins at an Irish family wedding. The writing was rather more formal than I have come to expect from Kate O’Brien, but I loved the way that she portrayed the occasion and made characters and relationships clear, often with just a few simple strokes. I particularly loved her drawing of the bride’s mother and father, which showed a wonderful understanding of how a long married couple might love and be infuriated by, understand and by mystified by each other.

Fanny, who had just turned eighteen years old, was bridesmaid at her elder sister’s wedding. She was happy that her sister had what she knew she had always wanted, but she knew that she wanted something different for herself.

She had been deeply disappointed to learn, only after she had returned home, that she would not be returning to her convent school in Belgium to study for her baccalaureate. Her parents hadn’t explained the reasons for their decision, but she had more than enough faith in them to know that there must be good reasons; that her sister’s wedding had been costly, and that maybe it was her turn to be the daughter who stayed at home.

Sympathetic to their daughter’s feelings, Fanny’s parents agree that she can  travel to Belgium to visit Lucille, her dearest friend, and that she can join Lucille, her two brother and her mother –  the Comtesse de Mellin – on a visit to Italy.

The writing that had began formally relaxed, and it captured the unfolding story quite beautifully.

The visit and the trip were a joy – for the girls and the reader. Fanny was warmly received into what was clearly a happy family, and the two friends had a lovely time exploring Italy together.  The country had less appeal for the Comtesse, who rather missed her husband and her home comforts, found took great pleasure watching the young people find do much to delight them.

Fanny was admired by the younger brother and charmed by the older. She knew though that their family was much, much grander than hers and that she could never be more to them than a family friend. That wasn’t a problem at all, because what both Fanny and Lucille had come to realise was that, though marriage could lie in the future, they wanted to be educated and to explore the world.

News from Ireland drove all thoughts of how they might do that from Fanny’s mind. Her mother was gravely ill and so she returned, not to her own home but to her grandfather’s home in the country that her mother has always considered to be her real home.

She no longer had the security of being the younger daughter; she had to support her father who struggled to cope without his wife by his side, and her sister whose marriage had been troubled from the start; and she saw strengths and weaknesses in the people around her they reacted to the situation and as she learned certain things about them.

Lucille turned to the Mère Générale of her school for advice, and then she travelled to Ireland to support her friend.

Fanny found that her aunt, who had stayed at home to look after her grandfather, understood her hopes for the future better than anyone; and that had done what she thought might not be possible. She had found a way for both of them – and Lucille –  to set out on the paths they wanted to tread ….

The story is beautifully constructed and told; mainly from Fanny’s perspectives but shifting sometimes to her mother and to her dear friend. The use of those different perspectives, they deployments and development of the cast of characters, the parallels between the set piece and the beginning of the book and the one near the end, were so thoughtful and they worked wonderfully well.

The characters and their relationships live and breathe in a world that is richly drawn and perfectly realised.

What struck me most of all was the strength and depth of the women characters and the relationships between them.

The friendship between Fanny and Lucille was perfectly drawn and I was quite sure that they would support one another throughout the courses of their lives. The dialogue between Lucille and her wise and compassionate Mère Générale was a joy, and I would have loved to spend more time at her school. It was wonderful to see Fanny realising what a remarkable woman her aunt was, and appreciating that she had held on to her own hopes for her future until she could let go of the responsibilities she felt for the people she loved.

I loved the way that this book said that home need not be holding on to a familiar place, that it could be holding on to loved ones, and it could be holding on to hopes and dreams and beliefs.

I can think of few coming of age stories more profound than this one. It moves from immature feelings about love and life, though loss and grief, to an understanding that acceptance of responsibility without sacrificing ambition would bring both security and spiritual grace.

It would be lovely to see it back in print ….

A Place to Stand by Ann Bridge (1953)

Mary Ann Dolling Sanders married Owen St. Clair O’Malley, a diplomat, on 25 October 1913. His career would lead to them travelling widely; and to the diplomat’s wife writing many novels – using the pen-name Ann Bridge – inspired by the places she visited and the history she witnessed.

This story is set in Budapest, in the spring of 1941.

Hope Kirkland is the daughter of an American businessman who has been based in that city ever since she was a small girl, looking after his company’s European interests. She has been sheltered and spoiled, but she is bright and curious; and I was inclined to like the girl who brought home wild flowers from the street market to sit alongside the rather more formal flowers that her mother chose.

On her way home from a trip to Belgrade, to say goodbye to her new fiancé, Sam, whose career as a reporter was taking him away from her only days after their engagement, Hope opened the box of chocolates he had given her as a parting gift. She thought it a rather thoughtless gift, particularly when she realised that all of the chocolates on the top layer were soft centres. Sam knew that she didn’t like soft centres! When she peeked at the layer below, she found no chocolates at all. She found three passports and some very precise directions as to what she should do with them.

3c9533834dc9c65593963305377444341587343Hope followed those instructions very carefully, and they led her to a family of Polish refugees. They were surprised to see her and not Sam, but they welcomed her and were very appreciative of the trouble she had taken. Hope liked them immediately, she was shocked that they has to live in such poor conditions, and she decided that she would do what she could to help them.

A friendship grew, and Hope learned a great deal from her new friends. She was particularly fond of the elderly mother of the family, and when she saw how kindly and gently her children treated her she realised that she had always taken her own parents and her very good fortune for granted.

When Germany invades Hungary Hope’s father is advised to leave the country as soon as he can. As Hope helps her mother to pack up their life she worries about what will happen to her friends. She is sure they won’t be safe, she is sure that she can do more for them, and her feelings are complicated by the fact that she has fallen in love with the son of the family.

What Hope does next is wonderfully brave and dangerous, but it could get her into terrible trouble ….

Ann Bridge’s writing is wonderfully vivid. She painted lovely pictures of Budapest before the invasion; she allowed be to be an eye- witness to that invasion as Hope rushed out to see what was happening; and she captured the turbulent events that followed wonderfully well.

I couldn’t doubt for a minute that she had been there and that she had thought a great deal about the history she lived through and the significance of the events that she had witnessed. She illuminated different attitudes to what was happening so cleverly, through conversations between the Kirklands and two friends; an American diplomat and a young Polish aristocrat.

The plot was very well constructed, every character was there for a reason, and the story held my interest from start to finish. It would have worked as well without the love story; and it might have been more interesting to see a friendship between a young woman and a young man from such different backgrounds.

Ann Bridge is sometimes accused of snobbery and I saw just a little of that her. It came mainly from characters whose backgrounds made their attitudes understandable, but I spotted one or two instances when it came from the author. I also have to say that I didn’t have to be told that Hope was pretty quite so many times.

I did like Hope. She was bright, she was capable, she was ready to do anything in her power for the people she loved, and  I was only a little disappointed when she sometimes chose to play the helpless female and have a man sort everything out. She was only nineteen years-old, and nothing in her upbringing had prepared her for much of what she would experience.

I loved many of the other characters – particularly Hope’s mother, who really came into her own when she was faced with a crisis – but I have to say that not many of them had depth. I suspect that there were a few characters who were there simply to serve the plot.

That lead me to say that this isn’t Ann Bridge’s best book; but I can also say that I’m very glad I read it.

It was a wonderfully entertaining and intriguing story; and it took me to a part of the world and a corner of history that I am pleased to know a little better now.