Tuesday, December 15, 2009


Reading in bed is one of those insurrectionary activities that bonds insomniacs at cocktail parties. All of you must go home early to sleep--but you can NEVER sleep--so you will instead finish Bleak House, Brat Farrar, or the Pogo cartoon book. Astonishing all the books you’ve read in the dark. Reading in bed is staunchly forbidden by doctors, who swear that the bed must not be associated with incendiary reading. Doctor, if we could sleep, we wouldn’t be reading in bed in the first place.

You manage to finish Nancy Mitford’s Christmas Pudding while your partner snores beside you, and then, bored by an obscure novel by Barbara Comyns, Mr. Fox, you tiptoe out of bed, “ ...and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse...” but in the living room you stumble over a pet toy aka Christmas tree ornament, and now EVERYBODY’S awake and you come back to bed with the first book you grab, Flambards in Summer.

But, guess what, it’s not bad. It's good. It's entertaining and well-written, the third book in K. M. Peyton’s award-winning Flambards tetralogy, which has certainly enchanted my young, middle-aged, and elderly friends. The second book, The Edge of the Cloud, won the Carnegie Medal in 1969. The first three novels, Flambards, The Edge of the Cloud, and Flambards in Summer won the Guardian award in 1970. A fourth book, Flambards Divided, was published in 1981. And Yorkshire Television made a television series out of the first three books in 1978, available on DVD. These are children's books 'for all ages," as they say.

Set in the early 20th century, before, during, and after World War I, the novels center on a likable heroine, Christina Parsons, whom we first meet as an orphaned teenager, sent to live with her equine-obsessed, crippled uncle on his dilapidated estate, Flambards. He has two sons, Mark, an excellent horseman but a womanizer who is cruel but paradoxically popular; and Will, an aviation-mad genius who cripples himself deliberately to avoid the hated riding and secretly pursues his interest in flying. Christina loves to ride, the only thing that matters at Flambards, but she is a humanist and appalled by her uncle and Mark's callousness. At the end of the first book Christina and Will elope: Will finds work as a plane mechanic, engineer, and stunt-flier; she works as a receptionist at a hotel. Then World War I breaks out and and Will, a pilot, crashes. The third novel describes Christina's return as a widow to Flambards, where she is determined to succeed as a farmer.

The plot sounds simple, but the characters are not. Christina is very sad, angry, devastated by loss, irritated by the class snobbery and stasis at Flambards, lonely, but also self-reliant: she resents very deeply the war and the absence of men to help with the farm. When she finds out she is pregnant, she is more determined than ever to renovate the estate. And she loves horses, so one of the first things she does is buy a horse no one else will take a chance on.

The following passage moves me because Christina expresses what many of us feel when we are down and have had a loss. Christina is at a farm sale, and the past fuses with the present as she looks at a car: Will had taught her to drive a car.

“Someday I shall drive to sales in my own motor-car,” Christina said to the smart Ford. It would not be for preference, only to show status, and her success with wheat. Will had taught her to drive a motor-car. A picture of Will, leaning out of Sandy’s Model-T with his arm stretched out to pull her up, his dark eyes laughing, cap on back to front, came into her mind very suddenly, very vividly. For a brief instant Will was as near and as real as he once had been in fact. Christina gripped the horse’s halter and shut her eyes, but the dream was past almost before it had come. Her mind reached to recall the vision, but it was irrevocable, dissolved like thistledown.”

It's really very good, and still in print! I very much enjoy these books.


verity said...

Another one of my favourites! I got hold of the TV drama earlier this year but it was such a disappointment compared to the books. Have you read much other KM Peyton>

StuckInABook said...

I thought this post was going to be about the awesomely-awful 'theme park' Flambards in Cornwall (for some reason it has a constant exhibition of wedding dresses through the ages) - but this sounds much better!

Frisbee said...

This was my introduction to K. M. Peyton and I haven't read her other books.

I didn't know there was a theme park but I look forward to seeing visitors shuffle in who have googled the theme park. Off to look at the park's web site!