Happy New Year! I spent last week in a country cottage with neither internet nor television signal. Although this made for a quiet New Year’s Eve, it certainly gave me a chance to read. Among the books I brought with me from Edinburgh was an early edition of Rumer Godden’s An Episode of Sparrows. It has joined the list of books I think are wonderful examples of Catholic literature.
Rumer Godden was received into the Roman Catholic church in 1968, but An Episode of Sparrows was published in 1956. Nevertheless, it is a thoroughly Catholic book in that it expresses solidarity with children and the poor, it shines a sympathetic light on both Catholic priests and laity, it illustrates how Grace through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary enters into the life of a neglected, unchurched little girl, and it tells the truth.
I have a particular interest in the first pages of books, for it is often the first page that determines whether or not a prospective reader will bother to read the second. And although Rumer Godden’s book is not what we would call a thriller, it certainly begins with an engaging mystery:
“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 Garden in the Square.”
This is also a clever first sentence in that the author contrasts the majesty of the planet with the littleness of dirt stolen from the capital-G “Garden” from the capital-S “Square”. But at the same time with those caps she contrasts the middling importance of the planet, in the minds of the Garden Committee (more caps), to the paramount Garden and Square.
Godden goes on to describe this Garden Committee:
“The three members of the Committee were the big gun, as Lucas the gardener called Admiral Sir Peter Percy-Latham who lived at No. 29, the little gun Mr. Donaldson who had the ground-floor flat at No. 40, and Miss Angela Chesney from No. 11.”
Thus Godden invokes the British class system still going strong in the 1950s, accepted as Gospel not only by people near the top, but by Lucas the gardener, who is rather nearer the bottom. Thus we learn as much about Lucas’s values, as we do about the members: Lucus admires power.
Godden goes on to describe where Miss Angela Chesney fits into the pecking order:
“To Lucas, Angela was not a big or little gun, she was the gun; she ran the Committee, she ran the Gardens, ‘And she won’t let us have wallflowers, says they’re common, said the Admiral, but behind Angela’s back; when she was present he deferred to her; Lucas looked only at her; it was like a court around the queen, thought Olivia.”
So now we know that Miss Angela Chesney is the sort of women who can bully an Admiral and awe her gardener. We also know she is a snob about whatever is “common”—a British euphemism for “lower class.” But who is this observant Olivia?
“Olivia, Miss Chesney, was Angela’s queer, dark, elder sister, who often attended her.”
By describing the older sister as “Miss Chesney”, Godden underscores that, according to the system, Olivia ought to be socially superior to her equally unmarried sister. But she isn’t. She is merely “Angela’s sister.” And by describing her as “queer”, Godden means she is deemed socially awkward.
Having answered our question about Olivia, Godden returns to the mystery.
“They all stood looking at the holes, round pits of holes that had been made in the shrub bed at one end of the garden.”
This is the scene of the crime, the least noticeable spot in a garden from which dirt can disappear.
“‘It’s the Street children,’ said Angela.”
Angela’s first words both illustrate her firmness of belief in her own opinions and introduces the villains—or heroes.
“She did not mean any street but the Street that ran behind the Square down to the river, Catford Street.”
And this sets up a contrast between the grand Square and the poorer Street. To emphasize this, Godden describes the Square:
“Mortimer Square, gracious and imposing, with its big houses, stood, like many other London squares, on the edge of a huddle of much poorer streets.”
Now we also know that the city is London, and that the contrast between rich squares and poor streets is a feature of London as a whole.
“That had always bothered Olivia.”
Why? Is she a snob like her sister? Does she object to living so near those poorer?
“It’s too rich,” she said, meaning the Square, “and too poor,” meaning Catford Street.
No. Olivia, whom we already know to be observant, has a keen conscience and a thirst for justice. And this emphasis on justice, in the clash between the Square and the Street, especially between the Street children and the Square adults, is the theme of the novel.
In 245 words, Godden has depicted five living characters, hinted at central characters to come, introduced plot, setting and theme and given us a voice to trust: Olivia’s.
Just 245 words. Without cant. Without a single word wasted.
Olivia, like most of the characters of this very Catholic book, and most of the people in London then and now, is not a Catholic. Nevertheless, as we will see, her heart cries out to God, and God responds.