The novel begins with three girls sitting in a sunny graveyard one year after “the atomic bomb had been dropped on Nagasaki” (2). Set in Yorkshire in the late summer of 1946, The Flight of the Maidens follows Hetty (Christened Hester), Una, and Lieselotte through August and September after they have learned of their scholarships to university and while they wait to begin their new lives away from the village. They are all seventeen.
The Flight of the Maidens is more than a simple coming of age story. It captures a moment in time when not only the lives of its characters are poised to take a new direction but so is England. The initial euphoria engendered by the end of the war is being replaced by the stoic disappointment of austerity. The undeniable revelations from Auschwitz and Belson and the power of the atomic bomb cast shadows on post-war optimism. And yet, for the most part, the three girls are, if not optimistic, then hopeful. They know themselves at pivotal junctures in their lives. The future offers them something if not more than they had had, then something different. themselves at pivotal junctures in their lives.
In their individual ways, each young woman hesitates before her future, and at times we are afraid she will make a dreadful mistake and so negate the possibilities opening before her. What risks is Una taking in her bicycle expeditions to youth hostels with Ray “the ex-fish-and milk-boy” now “appointed clerk on the London and North Eastern Railway” (69)? What are the effects of Hetty’s relationship with her mother who is “filled with high-church guilt” (7) and with Eustace who was “not adept” (9) at kissing, but who was a “lance-corporal in the Army Pay Corps” with a university place awaiting his completion of his army duties and who “believed she had the most unusual mind” (8). And then there is Hetty’s grave-digger father, so traumatised by the last war that he cannot do anything but dig graves, despite having been to a “private boarding school in the country” (40), the kind of school Hetty’s mother regrets not having been available to Hetty because of the family’s poverty. And what awaits Lieselotte, the German Jewish girl who arrived in Britain in 1939 on the last train of the kindertransport? Is she an orphan? Where does she belong now that the war is over?
In common with others of Gardam’s works that I have read, the search for and definition of a place that is home lies at the heart of this book. In her subtly comic characterizations, especially of her supporting characters, and often slightly acerbic prose, Gardom evokes the atmosphere of a small Yorkshire community, a community that her main characters are outgrowing, a community they know they must leave if they are to find their own places in the world. The world of East and West Shields is not a bad world—we recognize it in both its strengths and weaknesses—but it is a place to come from, perhaps even return to, but it must be left even if only for a time.
While the novel does evoke nostalgia for what for many of us is that last golden summer between leaving school and beginning what we thought would be “Life” with its capital L, it is never saccharine. Gardam’s observations of the restrictions of class, poverty, and creed are too finely drawn to allow for sentimentality. Although her characters are, as I commented earlier, often comic in presentation, occasionally even Dickensian in outline, the possibility of tragedy and the shadows of past sorrows are too clear. Gardam underscores the irony of the silences at the heart of so many relationships, the unspoken longings and secrets, silences without which, perhaps, we would not be able to survive in anything approaching social harmony. She reminds us, too, that death, loss, and change are constant.
The Flight of the Maidens puts a particular time and place under the keen scrutiny of an ironic, insightful, and empathetic observer. Those observations reveal truths that resonate far beyond the pages and setting of the novel itself.