I have read, and very much enjoyed, many of E. Nesbit’s books for children over the years, but was somehow unaware that she had also published eleven books with an adult audience in mind. It was with delight, then, that I picked up a copy of The Lark in the library, and read it outside on a gloriously sunny day – the perfect setting, I feel, for such a novel. The novel was first published in 1922, and has been recently reissued by both Penguin and the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint of Dean Street Press.
In 1919, nineteen-year-old cousins Jane Quested and Lucinda Craye leave their boarding school, only to find that their guardian has gambled away all of their money. He leaves them with only a ‘small cottage in the English countryside’, and quickly flees, checking in on them only very occasionally. One the pair realise that their fortune has been squandered, and all they have is the aforesaid small cottage in Kent, and £500 to live on, Jane declares: ‘Everything that’s happening to us – yes, everything – is to be regarded as a lark. See? This is my last word. This. Is. Going. To. Be. A. Lark.’
The girls, both orphaned, hope to secure their independence, and in doing so, ’embark on a series of misadventures’. They begin a flower-selling enterprise, and soon realise that they will have to relocate to larger premises in order to meet the demand of working men for their posies. A plot ensues which is filled with more money-making schemes, misunderstandings, two very plucky heroines, and so much heart.
One gets a feel for the protagonists, and their differences, immediately. Jane is by far the more outgoing cousin, who spouts annoying and endearing comments to her cousin throughout. At the outset, she says to Lucinda: ‘But we shall never do anything if we think of ourselves as two genteel spinsters who have seen better days. We must think of ourselves as adventurers with the whole world before us. Frightfully interesting.’ Lucinda is more quiet and cautious; she is the serious and pragmatic one of the pair, whilst Jane is comically headstrong, and unrelentingly in charge.
Nesbit’s customary lighthearted amusement peppers the book, and proved such an enjoyable element. She lends a commentary to proceedings, filled with asides and gentle satire. She writes, for instance, ‘John Rochester was young and, I am sorry to say, handsome. Sorry, because handsome men are, as a rule, so very stupid and so very vain.’ Rochester soon proves to be the sole exception to this rule, and becomes involved in the lives of the cousins. Jane tells Lucinda, who appears quite taken to him, that they will take none of his nonsense, however: ‘We’ve got our livings to make, and we don’t want young men hanging round, paying attentions and addresses and sighing and dying and upsetting everything. If he likes to be a good chum I don’t mind, but the minute I see any signs of philandering, the least flicker of a sheep’s eye, we’ll drop Mr Rochester, if you don’t mind.’
Nesbit’s descriptions are exquisite, something which strikes me in her work for children too. She has such a glorious way with words, and is able to quickly build vivid pictures of characters and surroundings. Of Rochester’s first glimpse of the cousins, for instance, she writes: ‘He saw a glade, ringed round with rhododendrons and azaleas, their big heads of bloom glistering in the wan light cast from the Japanese lanterns that hung like golden incandescent fruit from the branches of the fir-trees. In the middle of the glade a ring of fairy lights shining like giant glow-worms were set out upon the turf.’
Nesbit conjures up such a sense of nostalgia in the imagery which she creates: ‘It was a very nice dinner – the cold lamb from yesterday, and what was left of the gooseberry-pie, and lettuces and radishes, and what sounds so nice when you call it (fair white bread). The sun shone, the green leaves flickered and shivered in the soft airs of May. The peonies shone like crimson cannon-balls, and the flags stood up like spears; the birds sang, and three very contented people ate and talked and laughed together.’
There are a lot of recognisable elements of the children’s adventure story within The Lark, and this, I think, made it all the more enjoyable. The story takes twists and turns, some of which tend to be a little melodramatic, but due to Nesbit’s plotting and prose style, this approach works very well. The novel can become a little farcical at times, but this further ensured that there were a lot of surprises in the plot. The whole plays out rather well, and I very much enjoyed its blithesome tone.
The Lark is very of its time, but it still feels modern and relevant in many respects. It is a novel which would sit perfectly upon the Persephone and Virago lists; it has a similar charm to works by Dorothy Whipple and Marghanita Laski, to name but two authors. It is a real treat to read, and I hope that this review will encourage others to pick it up.