Friday, December 16, 2022

"Sheer waste of a fowl?": DOROTHY LAMBERT, Birds on the Wing (1943)

Thanks to Grant Hurlock for a cover image!

"It was so kind of you to ask me,
dear Mrs. Thurston," burbled Mrs. Beckett, "and it solved what was quite a problem, for I heard someone on the bus going into Easthaven the other day saying that Lord Haw-Haw had said that no one in the pretty little village of Swansford need trouble to prepare for Christmas fare this year because the Loofwoff was going to pay it a visit and wipe it out completely. 'Well,' I said to Herbert, 'what am I to do? Am I to take no notice and just carry on, or will it be sheer waste of a fowl? I'd simply hate to order a fowl at the price they are and have us all blitzed before we could eat it.'"

Although I have to admit that Birds on the Wing isn't, in my opinion, as good overall as Staying Put, I can't complain too much about getting a few more glimpses of the delightfully ditzy Mrs. Beckett, as well as other old friends from the earlier novel, which I recently reviewed here.

I'm going to be careful here to avoid any significant spoilers for the earlier book. The focus shifts, in part, from the village of Swansford to the more remote village of Ravensthorpe, where the unhappy, overworked wife and two daughters of the devil-may-care, philandering Admiral Ramsbottom, whom we met in Staying Put, are trying to maintain their sanity while maintaining a farm and caring for several children staying with them while their mothers perform war work. The Admiral's announcement that Maureen Driscoll from Swansford will be parked on them for a time until other arrangements can be made (intentional vagueness) creates unpredictable results for everyone involved, including the Ramsbottoms' son Roland, who is a chip off the old block and takes a predictable interest in shy, innocent Maureen.

Despite that shift in focus, however, we still get quite a lot of the high-spirited, entertaining Felicity Falcon, now excelling in her work in the W.A.A.F.s, her mother Lavinia, her terrible older sister Rowena, still seeking a well-to-do husband, Maureen's brother Michael, now a very handsome hero of the R.A.F., and other friends, enemies, and neighbors from the earlier book, including the irresistibly dim Mrs. Beckett, who is the butt of some teasing from Colonel Ramsbottom on their first meeting:

"Don't you find weddings make one want to tell even the completest stranger little gems of romantic interest?"

"Oh, well—" Mrs. Beckett felt she was blushing violently and did not know how to reply.

"For instance," went on the Admiral solemnly, "the colour of your first husband's pyjamas—or perhaps he wore a night-shirt."

"Oh, no, nothing like that," Mrs. Beckett assured him, purple with embarrassment and striving to change the subject to a less peculiar topic.

"God bless my soul!" exclaimed the Admiral with enormous interest. "What did he wear?"

In some ways, it's perhaps appropriate that this is a less hilarious novel overall than Staying Put—we're later in the war, with the expected increase of stress and fatigue that we've seen in so many other late-war novels—and even understandable that it feels a bit more sloppily constructed (Lambert herself was perhaps feeling the strain) and the characters, though sometimes still very funny, a bit more jaded or downright unhappy. 

As in the first novel, here too there's far too much of Lavinia's ludicrous, bigoted hand wringing about the Driscolls and their influence on her family, to the extent that she very nearly became a negative character for me. But I will say that as I was reading these passages and feeling that Lavinia needed to be dropped head first into a giant snowdrift, I did recall Marghanita Laski's brilliant novel The Village, which focuses so much on class differences in wartime, and reminded myself that Lavinia's attitude would not have been at all unusual. Perhaps, even, in the more class-restricted society of the time, one could try to argue that romance across class lines would have been more difficult, less likely to succeed, and therefore something that a mother might legitimately fret about. This was my attempt to rationalize, at any rate, though I would still prefer not to invite Lavinia to tea (she probably would consider me beneath her anyway).

Similarly, the characters of Rowena and Roland are a bit of a drag on the book's spirits—rather toxic characters even. But there too, thinking about the historical moment in which Lambert was presenting them, I came to feel by the end of the novel that, though I certainly didn't like them, their behavior was rather comprehensible in light of the war and the sense of having to seize the day and enjoy life while one can. And, lightening the mood a bit, Rowena at least gets her comeuppance for bad behavior at the hands of the Admiral's recommendation of her for a job in "a disgustingly dull place in Wales".

So, fair warning that this is not one of Lambert's strongest efforts, but I did nevertheless find myself reading compulsively to the end, and I even rather wish there was a third book continuing with these characters (pretty certain that there isn't, but there are a couple of the later novels I haven't perused yet, so you can bet I'll let you know).

Though I have sworn to make my reviews shorter, I have to end with just one more snippet of Mrs. Beckett:

"[H]ow is your nephew? I mean the one who was so badly injured when his plane crashed?"

"Oh, wonderful—quite wonderful," replied Mrs. Beckett. "The doctors have patched him up in the most wonderful way, and now he's being sent to tour Canada and the United States for propagation purposes."

Mrs. Peverill opened her eyes very wide. "For—?"

Surely Mrs. Beckett deserves a novel of her very own?


  1. I really enjoy the cover art, and the blurb, as well as the review. I once spent some time reading and comparing/contrasting several English (or Scots) novels written in the earliest days of the war, when the authors and readers had NO idea of how the war would turn out. I think I did a paper for the Angela Thirkell society on this. Doing something similar for the later war years, when exhaustion and fatigue had set it would also be interesting. Having seen first hand how "covid fatigue" has been impacting the US and world does make me more understanding of wartime fatigue, for those living through a dreadful war situation.

  2. I have a massive fondness for books written before the end of both world wars, and I think Jerri above is right that we have learned about the fatigue of long campaigns from the Covid situation. I would still read this one!


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