The Flight of the Maidens by Jane Gardem


Jane Gardem turns up on my radar now and again for her trilogy that begins with Old Filth. “Filth” is the acronym for Failed in London, Try Hong Kong and the trilogy is a much respected work with the ending of the British Empire as the backdrop. One day I will read it, but at the moment, I am not up for reading about colonial privilege.

This coming-of-age novel is set in 1946 in Yorkshire and follows three young women who have just finished “high school” and have all received not just places at prestigious colleges, but the funding that will enable them to attend. The fathers of two of them were shattered by the first war and the third is German and Jewish and escaped the fate of all of her family by the Kindertransport which landed her in this remote location living with a nearly silent Quaker couple.

When we meet the three they are hanging out in a graveyard to celebrate their good fortune, returning to a location where they had spent time studying (or revising, as the Brits call it). Una and Hetty had been pals a long while, but Liselotte has been more isolated. The three go their separate ways for the months before they are scheduled to go to the university and the focus is on Hetty who has a volatile connection to her mother Kitty. Hetty took off for a stay in a remote spot in the Lake District so that she will have the quiet to do preparatory reading. Una goes on several bike trips with her working class boyfriend, and Liselotte leaves abruptly for London in the care of a Jewish care agency that places her in the strange household of an elderly Jewish couple. She learns that all her family has been killed except an elderly rich great aunt who lives in America and plans to leave her wealth to Liselotte. The adventures of the three are odd and oddly told, so that it’s hard to tell what is a dream.

Perhaps the strangest part of this book for me is the description of an actual historical figure, Lady Anne Clifford. My Aunt Portia had determined that Lady Anne (1590-1676) was surely an ancestor of our Clifford family and that 100 year gap in tracing ancestors meant nothing. She and her husband had visited the various castles of Lady Anne. So I was quite surprised when Una asks Hetty as they are on the train to London if she knew anything about Lady Anne. Hetty, it turns out, knew quite a lot which you can discover here from our friends at Wikipedia.

Hetty’s mother died suddenly a short time before Hetty was due at her university and her distress had made her decide she was not up to college. Nevertheless she and Una were taking the train to London and the Lady Clifford question seemed to be part of Una’s plan to divert Hetty from her mourning and convince her to enroll. Una noted Hetty knew quite a lot and it would be a pity not to be in school. They met Liselotta in London, made their way to the University, and Bob’s Your Uncle, Hetty was in school.

This was a pleasant read, but not quite a coherent whole.

Jane Gardem, The Flight of the Maidens, Carroll & Graf Pub., 2001, 278 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available in the public library.

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