This is one of the British Library's Women Writers series, the second I've read of them, and another surprise. For no particular reason I'd missed Simon at Stuck in a Book's original enthusiasm for it, and after deciding to read it imminently I've avoided the recent spate of reviews of it (which I'm now going to have to go back and search out). The surprises were twofold - the first was that I hadn't expected it to be a coming of age novel told initially from the perspective of a 7 year old girl, the second which unfolded in all sorts of ways was that there were a remarkable number of parallels with my own life in it starting with the disintegration of Ruan's parents marriage when she is 7.
Smith is one of the many writers who had all but disappeared from view until about a decade ago when the enthusiasm of people like Simon, and Scott at Furrowed Middlebrow have rescued her a bit. There's still not a lot of information out there about her to be easily found, but 'O, The Brave Music' is meant to have a strongly autobiographical element to it.
Our narrator is Ruan Ashley, the book opens on her 7th birthday, in chapel, where she's half listening to her father deliver his sermon. Asides throughout the book let us know that she's looking back on her early life which effectively accounts for how old beyond her years Ruan can sometimes seem. It's a smart move on Smith's part, it stops Ruan from seeming unbearably precocious at some points, and I think she nails how we remember our pasts.
Ruan is something of a misfit in the family; to imaginative to fit comfortably into the straight laced respectability demanded by both the provincial setting and her fathers role as a nonconformist minister. Her parents marriage is unhappy, her mother, a considerable beauty, left her grand county family for a love that seems to have quickly burnt out, her father is tormented by the knowledge that he loved a woman's body better than hos god, however briefly. It's not really a recipe for a happy family life, and inevitably the marriage falls apart in the kind of juicy scandal that must have delighted the congregation gossips.
Even in the 1970's when my parents split people were unwilling to discuss such things in front of the children - Ruan's experience of a proprietorial and pitying sort of kindness rang all sorts of bells for me. But for Ruan there's one great consolation - her friendship with David, which is central to the book. She more or less falls in love with him the moment they meet - on her 7th birthday when she's in disgrace, and he's 12.
I know the age difference has bothered Simon slightly, but it doesn't worry me. Initially they form a partnership based on a certain amount of common ground. Both are lonely children, both are struggling with class - Ruan and her sister are caught between their mothers standards and their fathers ideals and relative poverty. David's father was considered gentry, but he was a swindler and a suicide. David himself is being bought up by the self made man and business partner he tried to swindle.
Class, and class distinctions run throughout the book. David is less of a snob than Ruan has been taught to be, but despite his fathers history he still benefits from the unconscious mannerisms that he's picked up as a child, and which mark him as a gentleman. Both children find a natural sympathy in each other, David is kind to her, and Ruan adores him for it, they both share a love for the moors around them - and here I found echo's of 'The Secret Garden' - or at least the elements that I remember of it, rather than the book it turned out to be when I re read it.
Ruan's friendship with a black boy who attends the same free school that she and her sister are briefly sent too feels like it could be a direct comment on Frances Hodgson Burnett's attitudes. It's guess work as to when the book is set, it was written in 1943, but takes place in a pre first world war England. Smith was born in 1893 though, and it's reasonable to assume that it starts around 1900, when she was 7 herself, it can't be more than a year or two later because there's only the very beginning of speculation about a coming War when around 7 years later, David is setting off on a year of travel. That Smith takes a goodish chunk of time and book to condemn racism, and the hypocrisy around it for either Edwardian England, or war time England is noteworthy.
The sympathy between Ruan and David survive his going to school, and the various changes in both their lives. It's never quite a sibling relationship - and again, the way Smith draws relations between Ruan and Sylvia is a perfect portrait of sisters with little in common but family ties, they love each other, but neither understand or have much affection to spare each other. For Sylvia, who in her way is perhaps braver than Ruan, her younger sister is a social drag. Sylvia has inherited her mother's beauty but doesn't have Ruan's intelligence. What she does have is a determination to make the best of her gifts, it's not clear that Ruan shares that strength of mind - she's too happy to drift along, living in her books.
There's a lot more than I want to cover in a single post happening in 'O, The Brave Music', but one thing that I can't finish this post without discussing is how often Ruan refers to David as her love, and how often she does it in the past tense. This too is something that saves their relationship from being troubling, despite her growing physical awareness of him by the end of the book, or his apparent acceptance that he will come back for her. That past tense could mean nothing, for readers knowing that War is coming for both of them, for readers in the middle of the War this book was published in, it could mean David never gets the chance to come back. It might mean that Ruan is looking back on an innocent first love with the perspective of a later love, or that it's burnt itself out in the way her parents relationship did. Smith gives no clues, just the suggestion of possibilities.
It is a wonderful book, one I'm really pleased to have had the chance to discover. This series is shaping up to be genuinely interesting with both books I've read from it offering as much challenge as comfort. There's sentiment in 'O, The Brave Music' but nothing sentimental despite it's nostalgia.