I have seen An Episode of Sparrows referred to as a young adult or even a children’s book, although Wikipedia lists it in amongst Rumer Godden’s adult novels, and having read it I think it fits there more comfortably. To me it certainly doesn’t read as a children’s book (although nothing in the content would preclude a child reading it) but more, as a book for adults about children. As such it was chosen by the Librarything Virago group as one of the books for the childhood section of the Seven Ages of Women theme read. Rumer Godden’s depiction of children and childhood is particularly good as I have found in other novels by her. She understands acutely the heartbreaks and frustrations of children, how so often adults misunderstand them, and let them down.
Set in London sometime after the Second World War, among the street children who run up and down the grim, unloveliness of Catford Street, An Episode of Sparrows shows poignantly the simple joy that a garden can bring. At the end of Catford Street, is a gracious London square, a square of houses of an altogether different kind, they have a very pleasant garden, a gardener and a gardening committee. Catford Street is a place where nothing very much ever grows, the children there are small and scrawny, running wild, gathering in gangs in the bomb damaged ruins that still litter the street. Living in a large old house in the square are middle-aged sisters Angela and Olivia Chesney, Angela is the youngest by about a decade, but it is to her that Olivia, and the garden committee –among others – defer. Olivia likes to stand at the window in the old school room at the top of the house, watching, from there she can see Catford Street and the children that run up and down. Angela is a committee woman, a woman of a blinkered, narrow view of the world, domineering and cold. Her elder sister watches quietly and with understanding.
“The room still smelled of her mother; when Lovejoy burrowed her face against that spot on the armchair, instead of hard plush she seemed to be burrowing against the warm soft flesh she knew so well, that smelled of scent…gone a little stale, thought Lovejoy, of scent and powder and perspiration – Cassie had taught Lovejoy never to say sweat – of clothes and the warm elastic of stays, of cigarette smoke and drink; it was not altogether a pleasant smell, but it was the smell of Lovejoy’s babyhood, of her kitten-dance time, when she had been sweet and the word was safe.”
Lovejoy Mason is a tough little nut, a child more ridiculously named it is hard to imagine, as there is little love or joy in her life. She lives with Mrs Combie and her husband, with whom Lovejoy’s mother lodges when she is home – which she seldom is. Some kind of performer, Mrs Mason is an infrequent visitor who pays Mrs Crombie to look after Lovejoy, and Lovejoy treasures her small stack of postcards, and hopes her mother will realise that the clothes she treasures and cares for so fastidiously are getting too small. Mrs Crombie is a good soul, but finding life hard, money is very tight, her husband, George runs a restaurant called Vincent’s where he cooks food gastronomically superior to the local demand, clinging to the dream of being discovered by who he considers the ‘real people’ – i.e. society people. Cassie, Mrs Crombie sister is happy to show Lovejoy how much she disapproves of her and her mother, never letting a chance to snipe pass her by.
Tip Malone, is the head of the biggest gang of boys, a being so glamourous that five year old Sparky can only sit on his doorstep wrapped in newspaper (to keep out the cold) and dream of speaking to. Sparky wants desperately to be allowed to join the gang, and yet as everyone keeps telling him – he isn’t even six yet. Sparky is a small sickly child, he adores Tip Malone, and passionately hates Lovejoy Mason.
When a packet of cornflower seeds fall into Lovejoy’s hands it fuels an obsession. Lovejoy wants a garden, and from that moment pours all her energy into making one among the bomb damaged ruins and squalor. Concerned that the quality of earth is not going to be good enough for her precious seeds to grow, what Lovejoy needs is some good garden earth – as stated on the seed packet, but where can she get such earth? When your clothes are already too small, and you have nothing, the cost of a packet of seeds, a small trowel or a box of pansies is an impossible sum to raise. Continually frustrated in her small, determined efforts, Lovejoy receives some unexpected help from Tip Malone and young Sparky.
“The packet had said that the seeds would come up, Mr Isbister had said that too; when Lovejoy had planted them she supposed she had believed it, but it had been more hope than belief. Now, on the patch of earth under the net, had come a film of green; when she bent down and looked closely, she could see that it was made of countless little stalks as fine as hairs, some so fine that she could scarcely see their colour, others vividly showing their new green. They’re blades, thought Lovejoy, blades of grass!”
There are several unexpectedly poignant moments in this novel; yes I did actually have tears in my eyes once or twice. It is actually very hard to convey the loveliness of this novel, the children exist in a difficult world, the people of the square live by different rules, which the sparrows of Catford Street fall foul of. Dreams and hearts are broken and then made better again before this story ends, of which, I loved every word.