The Flight of the Maidens recounts the summer of three young women, friends in a small town in Yorkshire, after each has received a generous and prestigious scholarship to a different university. The basic theme of the book is the process of separation of daughters from their family. It is 1946, and Britain is just beginning to recover from the Second World War. Gardam provides each of her heroines with a different struggle. One, Hetty, is deeply enmeshed with her mother and suffers an attendant obsessive and painful separation process on both sides. Una has middling relation to her somewhat distant and eccentric mother and is progressing nicely. Lieselotte is a Kindertransporte child, that is her Jewish parents sent her from Germany to England for safety in 1939. Presumably, they have died, but at least at the beginning of the book they are absent even from Lieselotte's memory. She lives at first in a kind of stunned forgetfulness in a silent Quaker household.
The three girls and Hetty's mother and father are fully drawn, effective characters. Two of the threads are peopled by some exotic and eccentric figures who might have wandered in from Evelyn Waugh or even P. G. Woodhouse. They are viable in their context, which is idle wealth.
No fighting is described in this book, but both the First and Second World War hang on with a chilly hand. Una's father, a doctor, has killed himself as a result of what we would now call posttraumatic stress syndrome. Hetty's father suffers from similar psychological war damage, more of him later.
Besides Lieselotte's terrible story, the aftereffects of the Second World War remain in ration books, ruined buildings, and memories of friends killed in bombing raids.
In the middle section, Lieselotte takes long, obsessive walks through the ruin-scape of bombed out London that recalled for me Martha Quests' similar walks in Lessing’s The Children of Violence Series. Another daughter trying to separate.
It is also a story of daughters with absent fathers. Lieselotte of course, but note that only her father is mentioned, her mother never appears even in her memory. Una's father is a suicide. Hetty's father is present but damaged. Although an Oxford graduate, the only other character within scenting distance of the university, he works as a gravedigger and wanders through the town rather aimlessly looking in from the outside. In that sense, he is absent. But he is also the one who gives straight answers to Hetty when she asks questions, a relief for her from her mother's responses are always distorted by her intense fantasies about her relation with her daughter.
In terms of style, the book falls into three parts. The first part, before the maidens leave their homes, begins like any realistic novel, except with wittier characters and writing and better descriptions than most. This is very sharp writing. Each character is witty in a way appropriate to her particular personality.
It shifts into a period when the maidens are away from home in which they have adventures that rather resemble fairy tales. The fairytale quality rings true because, particularly for young women, entering the world maybe like entering the dangerous land of the skriker. It returns to realism toward the end as problems pile up and are resolved.
The characters in this book are sufficiently complex and vividly draw that you think about them rather as you might think about people you know. How successfully will these young women progress as autonomous individuals in the rest of their lives? I'm dubious about Lieselotte and Hetty. I feel the terrible stress on Lieselotte about who she is will leave her forever tense about how other people see her. I feel Hetty's wrenching struggle with her mother will always grip her. It's to the book's credit that I think about such things.