A Garden in the Rubble: An Episode of Sparrows by Rumer Godden
In 1955, Rumer Godden wrote An Episode of Sparrows, about children planting a garden on a bomb site in post-war London. Three years later she would help to pen the screenplay for an adaptation of her novel, titled Innocent Sinners, which was directed by Peter Leacock and featured the talented child actors June Archer and Christopher Hey. Both film and novel are at least as much about evoking a setting as they are about any individual character, and by using an omniscient point of view Godden is able to richly interweave many perspectives, often conflicting ones: from Sparky, the five-year-old aspiring gangster, via Vincent, the tragically thwarted restaurateur with dreams too elevated for his working-class neighbourhood, to Miss Olivia Chesney, the elderly spinster looking wistfully out her window at the lively street below. However, the author boldly holds off on introducing the character who will be the heart of the novel until the fourth chapter: Lovejoy Mason, the little girl who wants a garden, and is absolutely determined to get one.
This is not an easy dream to realise for a child facing barriers of poverty and neglect. Lovejoy finds an ally in Tip Malone, a juvenile tough and a hero to the even younger Sparky. I have mixed feelings about Tip, whose first act is to incite his gang of young boys to trample Lovejoy’s garden. He reminds me of that type of 1980s romance novel in which the man can only be kind to the woman after he has brutalised her. The film, unfortunately, makes Tip’s change of heart seem even more jarring and inexplicable because we are missing the character’s internal voice. Once he is won over to Lovejoy’s side by the sight of her tears, he complains about the constant demands that she makes on his time and money. I find the way that he reasserts his control over Lovejoy interesting: he declares that the setbacks which they encounter are a result of her stealing money from the church’s donation box to pay for a gardening fork, and that she must do a penance that he himself will decide upon. There is probably a thesis to be written here about religion, gender, and power.
However, the unequal relationships in this novel don’t always follow the same gender lines. Tip’s mother Mrs. Malone, when called upon, steers her wayward son through the juvenile justice system far more capably than her husband (as he himself gladly acknowledges), while Vincent’s wife is helpless to prevent her husband from spending their last penny on his extravagant dream, and the elderly Olivia is bullied by her ultra-competent younger sister. Nowhere does this book claim to present ideal relationships—and so despite the flaws in the stormy friendship between Tip and Lovejoy, or maybe because of them, it feels both realistic for their ages, and emotionally essential. It is reassuring, at least, to see that Lovejoy is nobody’s doormat.
Her toughness is also encouraging because, despite its happy ending, I found both the book and the film almost unrelentingly sad. As a child, Lovejoy is at the mercy of those more powerful than her, and nearly every adult in her life lets her down—not only her mother, a selfish and irresponsible dancer, but also the mostly loving Vincent and his wife, who begin the novel taking care of her but ultimately make the decision to put her in a home for destitute children. In the constant tug-of-war of needs and opinions, redemption can only come through Olivia’s gift of listening, and at the price of the kindly spinster’s death, which produces one of those inheritances that can be so useful in resolving a thorny plot.
Two things lift the film, if not the novel, from this state of melancholy. The first is the actress June Archer. Although, like her young co-star Christopher Hey, she would disappear from the screen after a few more small roles, she shines here as the irrepressible, irreverent Lovejoy, endearing without being overly cute or pretty. The inner strength of Lovejoy as played by Archer, more than any inheritance, helped to convince me that she would ultimately be all right. The second is the cheery title song, which is whistled over the opening credits and some of the street scenes by the famed music-hall siffleur Ronnie Ronalde, and seems to promise that the movie is going to be a lively comedy. Perhaps it is because I read the book first, and knew just how bad things were going to get, but I sometimes felt as if the music was out of step with the ever darkening tone. Upon reflection, though, the contrast may have been intentional. After all, this story is about the hope and persistence needed to create something beautiful in the rubble of a bombed city.
Godden, who spent most of her early years in India, lived in England during the height of the air raids, and it must have been a personally very painful time for her as well, since it coincided with the final phase of an unhappy marriage. In 1942, she separated from her husband and moved with her two young daughters to Kashmir—itself far from safe at that time, in the unrest leading up to India’s independence—and remained there until the end of the war. Although Kashmir would be the setting of several subsequent books, as far as I know she never wrote about the early years of the war, and An Episode of Sparrows is curiously devoid of references to the period, even from the adult characters who would have had clear memories of the bombing. The Blitz’s significance in this novel lies almost exclusively in the transformation that it wrought on the urban landscape, and which the younger characters accept as normal.
It is significant that the nadir of Lovejoy’s emotional arc comes when she learns that her garden will be destroyed by the reconstruction of the bombed church. Godden knows that even apparently positive change can be traumatic for children who crave stability, which fits in with another of my favourite insights in this novel, articulated by Olivia, that what Lovejoy needs is not to be made rich, but to have a home with people who love her.
Rumer Godden was an incredibly prolific author of novels for adults and children. With its child protagonists facing grown-up problems, An Episode of Sparrows may bridge the distance between the two bodies of work, delivering a message of hope while never retreating from life’s painful realities. --Mary Thaler