Saturday 26 September 2015

The Flambards trilogy by K.M. Peyton

The Flambards trilogy by K.M. Peyton (Flambards, The edge of the cloud, Flambards in summer) (Penguin, 1980)

Flambards was first published in 1967 and the sequels in 1969; the trilogy runs to just over 500 pages

Subjects: World War One, England, flying, pilots, class system, hunting, horses, women in war, young adult fiction (Year 9-12)

Winner of the 1970 Guardian award, and later made into a film, the Flambards trilogy captures a fascinating slice of history, not just the history of WW1 which is largely peripheral to the main action – mostly shown by men signing up and leaving, returning or failing to return from the front - but also the history of social attitudes, especially concerning women and the class system. Reading it makes you realise how often books about WW1 start in the middle of the war, or at the very beginning, but seldom before it. 

The three parts of the first book, Flambards, are set in 1908, 1910 and 1912. With the benefit of hindsight we know that war is looming, and some of the characters suspect that something bad is coming, but the story stays focused on Christina Parsons, 12 years old when the book opens, an orphan but an heiress, due to come into a fortune at 21. 

Having spent her childhood moving from household to household, Christina is summoned by her Uncle Russell to join him and his two sons, Mark and William, at Flambards, a crumbling estate famous for having the best stables in the county, where the year revolves around the hunting season (the opening sentence is: “The fox was running easily”) and far more care and attention is lavished on the horses than on the house. Uncle Russell, crippled after a hunting accident, angry, frustrated and bullying, rules the house from the study and despises his younger son, Will, who hates hunting so much that he goes to terrible lengths to ensure he will never have to hunt again.

Christina, self-possessed and used to looking after herself from an early age, copes with her new strange surroundings but she is convinced that “they’re all mad”. Everything changes for her when her uncle insists she learns to ride (under the careful tutelage of Dick, the stable boy) and she discovers how much she loves it; like her mother before her, she is “a hunting Russell”. With Mark, she goes out riding and hunting all through the hunting season and returns to talk over each day’s events with Russell over dinner, while Will sits by, mute.

In the two-year jumps between each part of this book, Christina, Mark, Will and Dick all get older and there are more changes. Will, a gifted mathematician, is besotted with the new flying machines. Dick is given his notice, a dreadful thing to happen in the days before social security when poverty and the workhouse posed real threats and families could easily fall through the cracks and disappear. Christina, growing up in a house without women apart from the cook and maid, and ignorant of matters that today’s children would understand at a much younger age, is often at a loss in situations where nobody will explain the truth or meaning to her. She doesn’t understand Will’s views on the inequality between their lives and those of the servants, and thinks it impossible for a servant girl to become pregnant before marriage, but she is brave and resilient, determined, sensible and loyal, with a warm and loving heart.  

The second book, The edge of the cloud, leaves Flambards behind and explores the world of the young flying enthusiasts. Flambards in summer takes us back again, with a grown-up (21-year-old) Christina, to a world that has changed in so many ways because of the war.

I enjoyed the first two books more than the third, because – without revealing too much of later plot (or romantic) developments – the third one has more of an elegiac and introspective tone, overshadowed by death, loss and grief, without any of the excitement of flying, and also the character of the child Tizzy didn’t really work for me. But the three together give a powerful impression of how people’s lives changed so utterly in that decade from 1908 to 1918.

Here is Christina, watching a sunset in the peace of the countryside: 
“It made her more bitter, this peace, that while she was standing looking at everything that was the essence of the sentimental picture of home, which all the newspapers made out that the  ‘boys over there’ were fighting for, the fact that the boys over there were now dead and would never come home again made completely negative the sweetness of every flower and the balm of every sunset.”

These books with their long descriptive passages show the differences in writing for young people that have evolved over the last 40 years. On the other hand, I can remember skipping those long passages as a child reader. Did every child do that?
About the author
The bio at the front of the book says that K.M. Peyton was born in 1929, studied painting at Manchester Art School, lives in a village in Essex and enjoys sailing, riding and long distance walks.

Other books you might like
There are a number of book about horses in war, especially the Australian and NZ horses that travelled to Egypt, as well as Michael Morpurgo’s famous War horseElizabeth Wein's Rose under fire tells the story of a WW2 female pilot, but I haven't found many books that tell the stories of the early pilots (Biggles learns to fly is one.) The Flambards trilogy captures these heady days when flying was still new and largely untested, when aircraft were fragile and their design still a matter of experimentation, as were techniques like looping the loop, but accidents were common and often fatal. Some adventurous people paid to go up for a ride, others turned up in droves to watch competitions, but many ridiculed the new machines and doubted that they would ever replaces the horse and carriage.

Have you read it?
Have you read these books? Let me know what you think!

Friday 4 September 2015

Charlotte sometimes by Penelope Farmer

Charlotte sometimes by Penelope Farmer (Red Fox, 1999; first published Chatto and Windus, 1969)

3 parts; 198 pages with a few full-page black and white illustrations

Subjects: World War One, England, Armistice, VE Day, school, sisters, friends, time travel, junior fiction (Year 5-8)

This was one of my favourite books as a child, although I realise now that I read it as a time travel fantasy, with very little understanding of the historical background.

The New York Review has a succinct summary of the plot:
It’s natural to feel a little out of place when you’re the new girl, but when Charlotte Makepeace wakes up after her first night at boarding school, she’s baffled: everyone thinks she’s a girl called Clare Mobley, and even more shockingly, it seems she has traveled forty years back in time to 1918. In the months to follow, Charlotte wakes alternately in her own time and in Clare’s. And instead of having only one new set of rules to learn, she also has to contend with the unprecedented strangeness of being an entirely new person in an era she knows nothing about. Her teachers think she’s slow, the other girls find her odd, and, as she spends more and more time in 1918, Charlotte starts to wonder if she remembers how to be Charlotte at all. If she doesn’t figure out some way to get back to the world she knows before the end of the term, she might never have another chance.

On her blog, Penelope Farmer writes an interesting summary herself, describing the book as being “set in the kind of English boarding school my twin sister and I attended/were incarcerated in – take your pick – for part of the fifties.” No wonder the school scenes ring so true. The girls have very English names: Susannah, Vanessa, Janet, Elizabeth, Sarah, and there is a mystery about Sarah’s unexpected kindness to Charlotte, explained at the end.

(This is the school which Penelope and her sister went to, and which she used as the setting for the book, including the cedar tree and the glassed-over verandah that Charlotte climbs out onto.)

She adds that “the whole book turned – though I didn’t see that when I wrote it – on identity; how do people identify you as you?” and says this is “a particularly relevant question for twins in general, and still more so for two not identical but similar looking twins like my sister and me, quite different in character and ability – even opposites in many respects, she right-handed, me left - but always taken together not singly. This was another connection I did not make at the time I was writing.” (More on her twin sister below.)

The first clues about the war setting come with breakfast (“porridge… as solid as bread, much solider in lumps, and slippery too”) when Bunty tells Charlotte-as-Clare, “Miss Bite says it’s doing your bit, to eat things you don’t like… I don’t see how it hurts Germans myself, eating nasty porridge.” 

In September 1918, the war is drawing to a close. We as readers know it is nearly over, but the girls at school don’t, and it still affects their everyday lives. There are air raid alarms in the middle of the night, and an army training camp nearby with soldiers dressed in khaki, who “strolled casually about or marched stiffly up and down.”  Injured soldiers arrive home on the hospital trains. A girl with a German surname is ostracised by the others, and the teachers, girls and nearby villagers have fianc├ęs, fathers or sons away fighting in France; some of them won’t ever come back.  

Part Three only takes up about 25 pages but it brings the story to a perfect, poignant ending. 

You can find lots of lots of different covers, some of which are better than others.  

About the author
A number of excellent fiction writers are called Penelope. This writer is not Penelope Mortimer or Penelope Fitzgerald or (another of my favourites) Penelope Lively.

Penelope Farmer was born in 1939. At first glance, there isn’t a lot of information about her online, but the New York Review says that she published her first book of short stories for children, The China People, in 1960 and writes novels for adults and children, including several books about Charlotte and her sister Emma.  (We also had Emma in winter when I was a child, which I enjoyed - but not as much as Charlotte sometimes.)

There is some biographical material about her here (including more fascinating twin info about the circumstances of her birth).

However, an absorbing article in the Guardian reveals a lot about her family life. Written in 2007, it describes the events of 16 years before when her twin sister lay dying in hospital in Oxford, and the connection that developed between her and the daughters of the woman who was dying in the next bed. It is a sad, moving and yet lovely story, all hinging on a chance meeting in the street.

Later, living in Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, she wrote about starting a blog called grannyp (“Old writers may not die, but they do have to move on. Thank God for the internet”) but it doesn’t seem to go beyond 2010.

Info about the illustrator
The cover illustration on my copy is by Emma Chichester-Clark who is best known for her Blue kangaroo books (and incidentally she also went to boarding school)

Other books you might like
Valentine Joe is a time travel book about World War One.
The red suitcase by Jill Harris is another, but about World War Two.

Things I didn’t know
I didn’t know anything at all about Penelope Farmer. It has been a delight to find out all this info about her, and this remains one of my favourite books.

And how many children’s books have inspired songs? This one inspired a song by The Cure, called Charlotte Sometimes and full of quotations.  This Smashwords blog article points to two other blog postings that talk about the copyright implications, the impact it had on her sales, how Penelope Farmer actually got to meet the Cure at one of their concerts, how she signed a copy of the Puffin edition for Robert Smith (who told her that his older brother read him the story at bedtime when he was about 12, and “it never got out of my head”) and how she enjoyed her own “brief moment of pop glory” when they played the song as an encore at the end of the concert.
You can read them here and here (scroll down to the entry for June 12).

Have you read it?
Have you read this book? If so, I hope you loved it as much as I do. Let me know what you think!