Several of prolific author Rumer Godden’s novels have been recently reprinted to celebrate the one year anniversary of the addition of children’s books to the Virago Modern Classics list. The foreword to An Episode of Sparrows – first published in 1946 and one of the loveliest of Godden’s novels – has been written by Jacqueline Wilson, who was the Children’s Laureate between 2005 and 2007. Wilson writes that An Episode of Sparrows is ‘a captivating classic novel of a poor girl striving to create beauty among the bombsites of postwar London’.
In her foreword, Wilson goes on to say: ‘I’m not sure if Rumer Godden wrote An Episode of Sparrows for children or for adults… I know as I read the book that I’d be very wary of Lovejoy in real life – but even so, I cared about her passionately… Rumer Godden writes about Lovejoy so brilliantly you understand her utterly… It’s a masterpiece of construction… I think her [Godden’s] greatest strength is her accurate, unsentimental portrayal of London’.
The novel begins in the following manner: ‘The garden committee had met to discuss the earth; not the whole earth, the terrestrial globe, but the bit of it that had been stolen from the Gardens in the Square’. One of the story’s adult protagonists is a formidable and bossy woman named Miss Angela Chesney, who believes that she is deservedly at the head of this committee, and tells others in the neighbourhood that such things as wallflowers are forbidden because they are ‘common’. Her sister, Olivia, is the kinder and more pragmatic of the two: ‘Angela’s queer, dark, elder sister who often attended her’. She is endearing and rather lovely, and wishes often for ‘the chance to join in something real’. The Miss Chesneys refer to the local children as ‘sparrows’, due to the ‘vast, lively cheeping’ which they make in the school playground.
An Episode of Sparrows is set in Mortimer Square in London, ‘gracious and imposing, with its big houses’ and which can be found ‘on the edge of a huddle of much poorer streets’. It is one of these poorer areas, Catford Street, in which Lovejoy Mason, our protagonist, lives. Catford Street’s ‘flavour was of London; its streets and its sooty brick, its scarlet buses, the scarlet post-office van and the scarlet pillarbox… the starlings, pigeons and sparrows, the strange uncouth call of the rag-and-bone man’. Lovejoy, who is living with a kindly couple whilst her mother has supposedly gone on tour with a band of singers, is a multi-layered construct; she is feisty, headstrong, unafraid of violence, likes to speak her mind, and dabbles in petty crime. Lovejoy, Godden tells us, ‘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 at taking a parcel out of a perambulator while she pretended to rock it…’. Lovejoy is rather independent, and does her own washing and ironing, for example, whilst helping around the house which she would so love to call a permanent home.
As far as the child characters go in An Episode of Sparrows, Godden has focused upon Lovejoy and two others – the son of a newspaper vendor, Sparkey, and Tip Malone, a gang-leader of sorts whom we find is actually a real soft touch. Through these children, we meet many of the adults who also live on Catford Street, some of whom appear for just a moment, and some of whom are a more permanent feature of the narrative. The main thread of the story, which helps to unite Tip and Lovejoy, comes when Lovejoy discovers a packet of seeds and becomes convinced that she has to plant them. She finds a bomb crater which she decides to turn into a small garden, but her ambitions become larger the more time she spends there.
In An Episode of Sparrows, Godden has crafted almost a Secret Garden-esque story, but using a more contemporary setting. It is not as darling a novel as the original by any means, but her transplanting of the plot into a different setting and building such individuals up believably is nothing short of masterful.