An Episode of Sparrows (1955) is a story of friendship and love, of family and belonging, of dreams and dreamers, understanding and misunderstanding, and one that is essentially uplifting and warm, and brought a smile to my face (even if there were some heart-wrenching moments).
Set in post-war London, where the impacts of the war are still on the surface, the book opens not with the main characters but in the imposing Mortimer Square, inhabited by a fairly well-off segment of society, and overlooking the main focus of our novel, the working-class Catford Street. In Mortimer Square, we meet two of the characters whose lives end up intertwining within those of our main characters, and who end up influencing the course of these as well. The Misses Chesney—Angela the younger sister has been an accountant but now works for various charities, is energetic and also well looking while Miss Olivia, the elder is quite her opposite, but blessed with a sympathetic outlook that enables her to truly see and sympathise rather than jump to conclusions and judge.
Just behind Mortimer Square is Catford Street, bustling, noisy, full of life, though also of smoke and dirt. Here were meet Lovejoy Mason, eleven years old, who lives with Mrs Combie and her husband, George/Vincent while her mother Bertha is away on the stage. Lovejoy in many ways must take care of herself, from dressing herself immaculately with what little she has (taught to do so by her mother), going and coming from school and also looking after the room they lease from Mrs Combie. She has a friend in Vincent, who runs a small restaurant, in which he aims to entertain the best clientele but so far this is a dream that remains unrealised.
With a mother who is almost always away, no friends, and none who really wants or cares for her, one day Lovejoy finds a packet of cornflower seeds that someone has dropped and this creates in her the desire to have her own garden. Soon, this idea of a garden takes root and begins to become her solace and the focus of her life. While initially she embarks on the project on her own, soon Tip Malone who leads a ‘gang’ of local boys begins to sympathise with her and take an interest in the project. Before he knows it, Tip is part of it and at Lovejoy’s beck and call. But while he points her to a site for the garden in an old bombed out church, when they need good earth for the garden, it is to Mortimer Square that they turn, and thus begins a bit of trouble for the children and their dream.
While heart-wrenching in parts, this story is largely a heartening one, with warmth, hope and little miracles playing a role all through.
The book has been compared to the Secret Garden, and I can see where that comes from for here too, we have children who find solace, joy and friendship through their own secret garden—the little blades of green that sprout from the earth, the colour from the flowers, and the war time rubble they use to decorate it. The garden for Lovejoy is the one thing she has to hold on to in a world where she finds little love, sympathy and understanding.
Lovejoy isn’t the most likeable of characters; in fact, even after the garden begins to come together, and she finds a friend in Tip Malone, she does things that make one rather annoyed at her. However, all through the book, one really feels for her. At just 11, she is only a child after all, and one who has literally nothing. Her mother doesn’t seem to care about her, has pretty much left her to look after herself; not only that, when she does make her short visits, Lovejoy is usually constantly waiting on her or put out of the house while she entertains her boyfriends; she sees little kindness from others (although Mrs Combie is by and large a nice person, she too disappoints Lovejoy at a crucial time), and even the children around her are not particularly sympathetic.
While on the one side we have Lovejoy, Angela Chesney who is may be too rigid and ready to jump to conclusions for us to like, or the sharp-tongued Cassie, Mrs Combie’s sister who hurts often with her words, in Tip, Olivia and Father Lambert, we find sympathy and kinder hearts. All of Godden’s characters are very real, their actions and motivations understandable and preventing us from judging them too harshly, even where we wish they had acted differently
Dreams play a part in this story, as do small (and perhaps not so small) ‘miracles’. We have Lovejoy’s dreams, initially of having her mother with her, and later of the garden. Vincent wants to run an elegant and classy restaurant in a working-class neighbourhood; both these dreams seem to put upon others—Tip and Mrs Combie, but Lovejoy and Vincent are lucky in having people who do in essence sympathise with these dreams. What shape they take and whether they come true, you will have to read the book to see.
The book brings alive not just the various characters that we soon become interested in, but Catford Street itself—life as it unfolds there everyday; St Botolph’s Home for Compassion, an orphanage from which 26 little girls go out for walks in twos (very like Madeline); the newspaper stand and the owner’s little son Sparkey who longs to be in Tip’s gang; Mrs Cleary and Miss Arnot with their many cats; people walking dogs, as also others busily bustling about. This background too was lovely to see, and makes us feel like we are very much there, on Catford Street, watching the story unfold.
This was a lovely lovely read, and I am really glad to have picked this as my first Rumer Godden.
This was a pick for #RumerGoddenReadingWeek2021 hosted by Brona at This Reading Life.