An Episode of Sparrows by Rumer Godden (1956)
By Francis Booth | On June 20, 2021 | Comments (0)
This analysis of Rumer Godden’s 1956 novel, An Episode of Sparrows, features its tenacious young heroine, Lovejoy Mason. Excerpted from Girls in Bloom: Coming of Age in the Mid-20th Century Woman’s Novel by Francis Booth, reprinted by permission.
Growing up in the colonial era, like the family in Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows are the sisters Bea and Harriet in The River, 1946, set in what was then Bengal by Rumer Godden (1907–1998), who herself grew up partly in India. Like many of the girls in these semi-autobiographical novels, Harriet wants to be a writer when she grows up.
“The middle finger of Harriet’s right hand had a lump on the side of it; that was her writing lump; she had it because she wrote so much, because she was a writer. ‘I am going to be a poet when I grow up,’ said Harriet; and she added, after another thought, ‘Willy-nilly.’ She kept a private diary and a poem book hidden in an old box that also did as a desk in an alcove under the side-stairs, her Secret Hole, though it was not secret at all and there was no need to hide her book because she could not resist reading her poems to everyone who would listen.”
Is it meant to be a children’s book?
But despite having been educated at what is now the very posh Roedean School on the South coast of England and having then spent much of her working life teaching dancing in India, Godden wrote a coming-of-age novel about the contrast between middle-class orthodoxy and poverty on the streets of wartime London: An Episode of Sparrows, 1956, which was made into the film Innocent Sinners, 1958. An Episode of Sparrows has been reissued several times as a children’s book, though it is not obvious that this is what it is meant to be. In her introduction to the Virago edition, Jacqueline Wilson says:
“I’m not sure if Rumer Godden wrote An Episode of Sparrows for children or for adults. It was originally published on an adult list but I read it when I was about ten, Lovejoy’s age. She’s the heroine of this book, a small, strong-willed little girl with the tenacity and determination of twenty adults.
She’s got a feckless mother, no father at all, and scarcely any friends. It’s not perhaps surprising. Lovejoy is fierce and selfish because she’s had to learn to be tough to survive. She snatches, she steals, she’s witheringly scornful if she doesn’t like anyone. I knew as I read the book that I’d be very wary of Lovejoy in real life – but even so, I cared about her passionately.”
A post-war London setting
An Episode of Sparrows is set in post-war London, on the borderline between a genteel, middle-class area and the much poorer houses nearby. Catford Street is on the poorer side, though it has working-class solidarity, making it rather like an urban version of the villages in Peyton Place by Grace Metalious and Shirley Jackson’s The Road Through the Wall. ‘Though Catford Street was in London it was a little like a village; to live in it, or the Terrace, or Garden Row, off it, or in any of the new flats that led off them, was to become familiar with its people.’ The children are a particular feature of the street, and especially of the novel.
“It was a strange thing that up to the age of seven children were noticeable in Catford Street; the babies in their well-kept perambulators and the little boys and girls in coat and legging sets were prominent, but after the age of seven, the children seemed to disappear into anonymity, to be camouflaged by the stones and bricks they played in; as if they were really the sparrows the Miss Chesneys called them they led a different life and scarcely anyone noticed them.
At fourteen or fifteen they appeared again, the boys as big boys that had become somehow dangerous – or was it that there was too much about them in the papers? – the dirty little girls as smart young women, with waved hair, bright coats, the same red nails and lipstick as the dancer in the bus queue; they wore slopping sling-back shoes and had shrill ostentatious voices.”
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Lovejoy Mason and her indifferent mother
As Jacqueline Wilson says, Lovejoy Mason, although only eleven years old, is a terrific character. Her mother is a musical singer on the stage, a coloratura, as Lovejoy says and is almost constantly away. She has left her daughter in the hands of the kind and caring but financially imperiled Mrs. Combie, whose husband is ruining them by attempting to open a gourmet restaurant in entirely the wrong part of London.
It is clear to the reader and to Mrs. Combie that Lovejoy’s mother prefers the company of men to that of her own daughter; she promises to come but doesn’t and promises to send money but doesn’t do that either. Lovejoy for her is very much out of sight and out of mind.
“It would have surprised Lovejoy’s mother, Mrs Mason, to be told that Lovejoy never had any pocket money; Mrs Mason was always going to give her some but, somehow, it was always spent. ‘I meant you to have an ice-cream,’ she would say to Lovejoy in the teashop or café, ‘but, look, I’ve only got sixpence for a coffee. Never mind. You can have the biscuit.’”
On the rare occasions the mother does come to see her, she brings a man whom Lovejoy is told to call ‘uncle’ and is gone again almost as soon as she came. Lovejoy has still not learned how to turn herself into stone, how to live without a mother in her life, still hopes her mother will come back permanently. When she stops, this will be her coming of age.
“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 …”
Thievery and gardening
To make up for her loss, Lovejoy cynically and ruthlessly steals things, quite prepared to fight boys if she has to, though even she has her limits. ‘Lovejoy did not steal big things, nor money; she knew that to take money was wicked; nobody had told her that ice-creams and comics were money and she was adept in taking a parcel out of a perambulator while she pretended to rock it.’
But Lovejoy is no tomboy and is very fastidious in her dress, keeping her room and herself immaculate at all times, though her clothes have grown too small for her and her mother refuses to buy her any bigger ones. However, Lovejoy is not a pretty girl.
“She knew perfectly well she was not pretty; she had studied herself too often in the mirror to have any doubts about that; she had a certain fineness and lightness, dear little bones, thought Lovejoy, but her slant eyes and flat nose were not pretty.”
All protagonists in novels need a goal or quest; Lovejoy’s is to build a garden in the bombed out ruins of London, a private garden that no one else will have access to; a place for herself in the world, somewhere she will be found and not lost, if only by herself. (The symbolism of her garden is reminiscent of that of the tree growing in Brooklyn in Betty Smith’s novel.)
“She had never heard of a vortex but she knew there was a big hole, a pit, into which a child could be swept down, a darkness that sucked her down so that she ceased to be Lovejoy, or anyone at all, and was a speck in thousands of specks . . . She knew how easily that could happen because once she had been lost. I was only six then, thought Lovejoy; she was nearly eleven now but she had not forgotten it. She was lost and she was a speck and there was no-one. It had been when her mother was out of work and they were moving restlessly about.”
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But even the few pennies Lovejoy needs to buy seeds and the most primitive of garden tools are hard to come by; she resorts to stealing from the candle box at the Catholic Church but she comes to be frightened of the statue of the Virgin Mary staring down at her; ‘it never looked at her, always into her, and she wriggled uncomfortably because, unaccountably, it seemed to find something in Lovejoy that matched it. How did it know that inside the hard tough Lovejoy was something as gentle as those eyes?’ Tip, the boy Lovejoy gets to help her, forces Lovejoy to repay the money as penance.
The first garden Lovejoy makes is destroyed by the boys who think she is encroaching on their territory but she and her friends find an enclosed, secret space behind the church and start to build again; ‘Lovejoy had never heard the word “sanctuary” but she knew she had found a safe place.’
“To Lovejoy it was very far from play. When the last bucket was tipped out and she saw the two flowerbeds filled with fine black earth, good garden earth, she had a feeling of such triumph and satisfaction as she had never known. ‘Who plants a garden plants happiness,’ says the Chinese proverb. In that moment Lovejoy was absolutely happy.”
But things soon take a turn for the worse. First, Tip is arrested for stealing the earth for the garden. His family prevent Lovejoy from seeing him.
“Lovejoy had thought she knew what it was like to be shut out; she had been alone when she was lost, alone lying waiting for her mother in bed, and sitting on the stairs while the gentlemen were in the room; she had learned to manage without her mother, for a long time now she had ‘counted her out’, thought Lovejoy, but there had always been someone, Vincent, Mrs Combie, then Tip. Tip! Lovejoy twisted her hands together as she looked at the closed door, gave a strangled little gulp and fled down the Street.”
“Mary, make me cocky and independent”
And then it turns out that Lovejoy’s mother is not coming back; she has not been with the singing troupe she claimed and owes money everywhere, even to her own agent. The Juvenile Court very kindly try to find Lovejoy somewhere to live as Mrs Combie refuses to keep her on, now knowing that there will be no more money from her mother.
”It’s not that she’s not a good child, sir,” said Mrs Combie, coming back to the Chairman, “she is, but she has ideas.” Mrs Combie spoke as if that were a disease.’ Lovejoy must go to the Home of Compassion, a home for orphan girls run by nuns, but makes one last attempt to persuade Mrs Combie, and in particular her sister Cassie, who has always disliked Lovejoy.
“‘I’d work for you,’ said Lovejoy hoarsely. ‘Even when I’m grown up. I’d work and give you all the money.’
‘Shouldn’t we think of the story of the good Samaritan?’ Mrs Combie had asked Cassie, and Cassie had said, ‘In the story of the good Samaritan Lovejoy would have been the thief.’
Mrs. Combie stirred her tea and looked firmly at the tablecloth, but in spite of Cassie a great lump came in her throat.
‘Please keep me,’ said Lovejoy.
‘We can’t even keep ourselves,’ said Mrs. Combie incoherently and she burst into tears.”
And they can’t. The restaurant her husband so lovingly built up is closed and all the furnishings sold. In the Home of Compassion the nuns are quite kindly towards Lovejoy, but she does not have her own room and hates the clothes they give her. Lovejoy sells the clothes and buys fashionable new ones but they are taken away; ‘“that spirit must be broken. . . You must learn to do as you’re told,” Angela told Lovejoy. “You’re far too cocksure and independent.”. . . “Hail, Mary,” prayed Lovejoy between her teeth. “Mary, make me cocky and independent.”’
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More about An Episode of Sparrows
- “The First Book that Made Me Cry”
- Reader discussion on Goodreads
- Original review on Kirkus Reviews
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Contributed by Francis Booth,* the author of several books on twentieth century culture:
Amongst Those Left: The British Experimental Novel 1940-1960 (published by Dalkey Archive); Everybody I Can Think of Ever: Meetings That Made the Avant-Garde; Girls in Bloom: Coming of Age in the Mid-Twentieth Century Woman’s Novel; Text Acts: Twentieth Century Literary Eroticism; and Comrades in Art: Revolutionary Art in America 1926-1938.
Francis has also published several novels: The Code 17 series, set in the Swinging London of the 1960s and featuring aristocratic spy Lady Laura Summers; Young adult fantasy series The Watchers; and Young adult fantasy novel Mirror Mirror. Francis lives on the South Coast of England. He is currently working on High Collars and Monocles: Interwar Novels by Female Couples.
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