Probably my favourite “YA” novels are K. M. Peyton’s Pennington novels, which I own in library discard copies and reread often. I’m sure I read Flambards in my youth too, but I had only a hazy memory of it, except that it involved a big house and horses. I was helping find books for my daughter at the library last week and, happening upon the handsome Oxford Children’s Classics edition of it on the shelf, grabbed it up for myself–and what a treat it was! It’s such an intelligent book, bringing together a range of historical changes all effectively dramatized through the clashes of personalities and values at Flambards, the house where young orphaned Christina is taken in by her bitter, violent uncle. His desire to hang on to a fading way of life is thwarted by his fallen fortunes as well as by his having been crippled in a fall so that he can no longer ride and hunt. His older son Mark is handsome, arrogant, and determined to follow in his father’s footsteps, a goal for which he will need Christina’s fortune, but it’s the younger son William, whose strengths are intellectual and who loves, not horses, but flying machines, who wins our sympathy as well as Christina–though not before she has a sort of romance with Dick the groom, thus bringing class, also, into the whole vexed business of personal lives that can’t help but reflect the conflicts of their times.
Peyton is a wonderful writer. I think Flambards actually lets her show off her descriptive talents more than the Pennington books do, and she’s very good with the landscapes especially. But she also captures the thrill of physical sensation as channeled for Christina through riding–along with its social themes, Flambards is very much about Christina’s maturation, including her coming to sexual awareness, and horseback riding is a time-honored way of displacing explicit discussion of those rising feelings in young women:
[Dick] grinned at her, and neither of them wanted to stop. It was too good, with the winter grass beneath them and the horses with their ears raked forward, their grey manes flying. Dick stood up in his stirrups and Woodpigeon started to gallop, Sweetbriar beside him, and this time Christina was confident, utterly trusting in her own ability, and in the infallibility of Dick. She looked across at him and laughed. Now it was right to be galloping: a great joy surged through her. And all the while the glory of it filled her with this new and incomparable happiness, she was conscious right at the back of her mind of a pity for William, and a little pit of contempt.
At this point William has yet to grow into the new model of masculinity he will embody, which will be marked by its own version of high daring and risk, but when his turn comes he will bring to it a scientific power that differentiates him from the more brutal passions of his father and brother, shown here as personally destructive and as part of a system of careless oppression: nobody but Christina is particularly concerned, for instance, when Dick is dismissed for helping her with a somewhat quixotic plan to rescue a lamed horse from being turned into dog meat. Christina becomes aware of social injustice even as she has to consider her own possible marriage to Mark and whether she will put her own resources into rebuilding Flambards or into the modern world that is making everything it represents obsolete.
It’s hard, reading Flambards today, not to see that it anticipates a lot of the themes and stories of Downton Abbey! It also fits aptly into my Summer of Somerville, at least in its historical setting. I’ve put a hold on the next volume in the series, The Edge of the Cloud, which takes us into WWI. I can’t remember it at all and am trying to avoid spoilers, but I don’t much like William’s chances if he goes into the war as a pilot…