I've had to think a bit about how to write about this book. I acquired it in one of my recent binges on e-Bay, after having meant to get back to reading more of Dorothy Evelyn Smith, particularly after Simon at Stuck in a Book recently wrote in glowing terms about her early novel O the Brave Music.
For myself, her 1959 novel Miss Plum and Miss Penny is an absolute treasure, which I raved about here not long after starting this blog back in 2013, and which I recently announced (yay!) that we would be reprinting in August. As I mentioned in that announcement, I re-read MPAMP just last year and was delighted to find that I loved it every bit as much as before. But my second Smith novel, 1952's Lost Hill, inspired considerably less enthusiasm here, and I unfortunately let her lapse after that. But I always wondered if there were more treasures to be found among her work. O the Brave Music will be queued up next, and Simon has now let us know that it will be reprinted by the British Library's new women's writers imprint, but first I couldn't resist picking up Brief Flower in this well-preserved copy complete with dustjacket (though I'm not entirely sure of the cover image, which makes our heroine look just a bit demonic…)
And now my dilemma. First, the positive, of which there is much. Brief Flower is a coming of age story, a genre I often don't particularly like, but here I was grabbed from the first page, in which two little girls fearfully but spunkily await the end of the world, having been told by a surly servant that the approaching storm signifies some kind of armageddon. It's a brilliant scene, and one which gives a perfect introduction to Bunny, the novel's narrator (narrating the story from the distant future when she is already an elderly woman), a spitfire wild child with enormous self-possession and a delightfully philosophical outlook on her life. A life that is not without its problems, to be sure. She lives with Laurie and Madge, who have raised her from infancy but who are, she already knows, not her parents. She is in fact a bastard, though she has only the vaguest notion of what that means or why anyone would care about it. The other girl is Frankie, a neighbour girl and Bunny's devoted friend, plagued by migraines but with a charming pluck of her own.
Bunny lives at Blackberry Farm, rundown and impoverished, which Laurie halfheartedly farms in between trying to write a novel and periodic drinking binges, the latter of which occasionally lead to him beating Bunny with his belt. Despite this, Bunny remains devoted to Laurie, and is typically philosophical about his violence:
Better go hungry than take a beating. Not that I held it against Laurie when he beat me. I kicked and scratched and swore, and once I bit his hand so deeply that it had to be bandaged up. But when it was over it was over, and neither of us referred to it again. I knew that Laurie was ashamed but I knew, too, that I had usually deserved what I'd got, and we observed a sort of gentlemen's agreement about the whole thing.
Madge, who was formerly on the stage, is less demonstrative with Bunny, but clearly bears her a slightly grudging devotion. And Bunny, due to reasons which we eventually learn, has been allowed to run absolutely wild, a fact she appreciates. She clearly sees the positives in her life rather than focusing on the negative:
Most of the children I knew had fathers and mothers, grandparents, aunts and uncles and any number of brothers and sisters. I had never envied them particularly. They always seemed to be running errands, minding pram-loads of babies, being called in to meals in the middle of games or packed off to bed while the sun still shone. They had little of the freedom I enjoyed, living with Laurie and Madge. If I chose to stay out late and thus missed supper it was my own silly fault and I went to bed hungry. If I "answered back" I was either ignored or I had my ears boxed. When Laurie had taken too much to drink on market days he might take off his belt to me but never without real provocation, which I was honest enough to admit. Madge grumbled and whined, but she also made me laugh a lot. Laurie teased me, ignored me, sometimes treated me like a baby and at others made almost impossible demands on my strength and patience; but he allowed me to read any book in his possession, and of ten spent hours alone with me, walking along the beach or climbing the cliff paths, telling me strange stories out of the past; stories of Greece and Rome that came tumultuously alive in the keen air of the Yorkshire coast and filled my heart and mind with a richness that has never faded, after all these years.
It's only when an older boy, Guy, camping with his friends nearby, appears on the scene, that Bunny begins to question some of her savagery…
Before long, however, Bunny's ruggedly idyllic life is disrupted by the reappearance of her wealthy grandfather, who, having ignored her existence thus far, has decided he wants to make amends and take her to live with him at Tarn House, his lavish home, complete with servants, regular, plentiful meals, and elaborate, spacious gardens. We learn the story of Bunny's mother, which I won't spoil here, and how Laurie and Madge came into the picture, and it is agreed, against Bunny's vigorous objections, that she will go to Tarn House for a year and then be allowed to choose where she wishes to live.
Of course, Tarn House is the polar opposite of her life at Blackberry Farm (though her grandfather still allows her considerably leeway), but it presents challenges and puzzles of its own, some predictable, some definitely not.
For the most part, it's all really charming and joyful and funny, with a heroine who is absolutely irresistible (if perhaps slightly unrealistic in her total independence of thought and self-awareness, though perhaps this is explained by the fact that it's all an elderly woman's recollections of herself). There were moments that made me laugh out loud not from hilarity but from sheer delight (particularly a final scene in which Bunny comes into her own with her grandfather's stern housekeeper—unforgettable). For most of the time I was reading it, I was thinking that here, though totally different in just about every way from Miss Plum and Miss Penny, was another Dorothy Evelyn Smith that should be brought back into print post haste. Another treasure.
As I noted, Bunny is eleven years old when the book begins. She turns twelve midway through, and then perhaps ages a bit more right near the end. The trouble starts with her romantic interests. First, there was Guy, age sixteen, to whom Bunny is almost immediately devoted, and who is perhaps a bit unusual in returning the devotion of a girl so much his junior. But it is all innocent enough. Guy is amused and charmed by her, but there's nothing hot and heavy.
Then she arrives at Tarn House, where one of the gardeners is a Gypsy (of course, and as earthy and potent as any stereotype) in his twenties who begins making advances. In contrast with Guy, Lee is openly sexual in his approach, groping and all. What's more, while Bunny doesn't like the Gypsy man, she certainly desires him and is responsive to his efforts. At eleven. Or possibly twelve, by this point. Shortly after, she gets her first period, acknowledged to be a bit early in arriving, so perhaps we are meant to believe that she is just extraordinarily precocious in all areas, but her reaction to it was a wee bit offputting for me:
I had hated Lee. I had hated myself. I had hated whatever it was that made me not hate Lee enough to keep away from him.
Now I knew without any shadow of doubt why I hadn't wanted to keep away from Lee, and the knowledge shattered me.
I might be a woman, but I was an animal, too. I was no better than Moll, who had to be tied up twice a year .... Oh, beastly thought—I was no better than a bitch on heat! ...
Now, I'm all for a liberating acknowledgement that girls and women have sexual desires. Of course they do, and more power to them. But the plotline of a 20-something man groping an 11-year-old girl who clearly desires him in return might give some readers pause, particularly in the age of #MeToo.
But even that's not quite all. As the novel ends (a sort of spoiler alert here, though it doesn't give away everything), we see an only slightly older Bunny vowing not to marry unless she can marry Laurie—the man who, though not a blood relative, has effectively served as her father and raised her from infancy (Madge, her foster mother of sorts, has conveniently been removed from the picture)—and it seems we are meant to believe that this is quite likely to happen.
It's hard not to be just a wee bit distressed by all of that, and I don't think I'm overly sensitive to such issues.
In short, Brief Flower is skillfully written, often quite beautiful, funny, smart in its observations of children, and frequently touching. It's a lovely, lovely novel on almost every level.