The Flight of the Maidens

The Flight of the Maidens. Jane Gardam
London: Chatto & Windus 2000. 288pp.

It is 1946. Three girls come of age in the weeks after they emerge from school. All of them are poor, all have won scholarships to elite English colleges.

They live in Yorkshire.  The background characters are passionate people who like to be seen as generous and self-sacrificing. They also tend to be petty and narrow, repressed and stunted, prone to selfishness and narcissism.  There is the legacy of the puritan era, and laid over that,  the first world war’s residue of widowhood, spinsterhood and male madness.

Over the last six years females have focused in on each other; in the towns and cities, buildings still lie in ruins. People are still digesting the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the reduction of Hamburg and Dresden to ‘paste’. A new order had not yet begun, the postwar boom not suspected. The old England is not yet fully chewed through: run-down aristocrats still cling to castle ruins, politics disturbs the thoughts of ordinary burghers over their morning papers, the Communist Party is still an option, the Pill not yet. Threaded through all this is the silent calm of Quakerism: the puritan tradition at its gentlest, in its most dignified clothing, Quakers are presented as the force that did most to help Jews out of Germany in the 1930s.

Hetty is the daughter of an erudite man, mentally smashed in WW1, who lets his social connections lie fallow while he digs graves for his income. Quite another story is Hetty’s saintly, pretty, suffering, hyper-attentive, Anglo-Catholic mother. In a ghostly way she extends everywhere: into her own tight grey circle of female acquaintances, into the life not only of the local Vicar but also of Hetty’s boyfriend, the ‘glass of cold water’ Eustace; into the past, into the future, above all into Hetty’s heart and mind. Sickened by these undue familiarities, Hetty has a few week’s holiday alone in the Lake District, where she is thrown in with farmers and daffy local aristocrats, never ceasing from spiritual combat with her mother, in all her inner and outer forms.

Liesolette is a refugee German Jew, sent out by her family in 1936. She was then raised by childless English Quakers. She has their calm silence on the outside, and another, appalling silence within. For a while before uni she moves to London, into the congested dwelling of another childless couple, German Jews like her, and she attracts a young Polish Jew as suitor; in their company the  brittle silence inside her shatters at last. But complicating it all is the offer of an alternative future, from a rich great aunt, childless again, in California. Liesolotte is pulled from afar into her eerie, suburban cocoon of  wealth, between forest and sea.

The third girl Una lives, or rather scrapes by, with her matter-of-fact, streetwise mother. Cambridge beckons but meanwhile Una is busy exploring life with her boyfriend: shy, sensible, laconic and stern, a union man and communist. Una is a relief from the intensity of the other two (despite the earlier suicide of her father, another one done in by the Great War) and serves to tie the story together.

The plot’s coincidences and contrivances may irritate some readers but really just lighten the tone and do not, I think, get in the way of what the tale sets out to do.

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