I belong to an online book club, which “meets” sporadically. The way it works is that from time to time someone will suggest reading a certain book, a few people will announce their intention to participate in a discussion of it, someone will set a date for the discussion to begin, and anyone who cares to will read the book at his/her own pace, finishing more or less in time for the beginning of the discussion.
There is a contingent that decries the dehumanizing effect of the internet, but as with everything in life, it has its enlightened and unenlightened side. I haven’t ever been much of a joiner, but this “book club” has enabled me to connect with many people from other parts of the world who don’t look, speak, or think as I do and consider them friends, even though I haven’t met them all face to face. So I looked forward to reading the current selection, Rumer Godden’s An Episode of Sparrows. I had read a few of Godden’s books in the past and had a vague memory of having enjoyed them; at least, I had no memory of having hated them.
What I didn’t expect was how much I would take to this particular book (I was about two-thirds through it when I thought I’d read ‘just a chapter or two’ at bedtime and found I couldn’t stand to stop reading until I reached the end). Nor did I expect, in view of Godden’s midlife conversion to Catholicism, that I would find it so…Buddhist.
Buddhism, if you recall, holds that all life functions according to a universal law of cause and effect, and that all life is interconnected. None of us is completely separate from anyone else, and neither are we truly separate from our environment. We don’t always believe in or understand this; although we are willing to believe in cause and effect in certain clear-cut cases (we are not surprised when, for example, someone falls down when pushed), but when the effect is not immediately apparent we tend to forget that there is one. Or that it stemmed from some prior cause.
Most (if not all) great literature follows this law; consciously or not, authors show how the destinies of individuals and families are interwoven, and how seemingly insignificant actions can have far-reaching, sometimes tragic consequences. That’s why some stories cannot support a happy ending, no matter how much a reader may have come to care about the characters, and want everything to ‘come out all right’ for them. If the author should try to force a happy ending, well, it feels forced. Dramatically incorrect. Unbelievable. And while we may expect that sort of thing in fairytale romances that end in love and marriage despite containing red flag behavior on the part of one or both parties (usually, but not always, the man) that in real life would more likely result in arrests and restraining orders, it has no place in any story purporting to be true to life.
An Episode of Sparrows does have a more or less happy ending, though not what you might expect. The titular ‘sparrows’ are the noisy flocks of children who throng the street where the rich Miss Chesneys live, and who give them that name. To the younger, more powerful sister, Angela, they are sparrows because they are “cheeky, cocky, and common”. To her older, but sickly and ineffectual sister Olivia, “nothing [is] common”; referencing the Biblical passage “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father”, she is all too aware that although God may not find the sparrows to insignificant to keep an eye on, they always seem to be “falling”-to “accident, illness, sorrow, sudden death”.
It is Angela, relentless doer of Good Works, who deals with the fallen ones. A woman of obviously superior executive ability, she would make a better corporate CEO than a distributor of alms, but as a woman of her time (post WWII) this path is not open to her. (Returning soldiers would have had first priority for jobs; Angela gives up her accountancy and sits on multiple boards of directors instead.) She has little patience with the vagaries of others; she expects everyone around her to fall in line according to her sense of order. Individuality, particularly when it leads to someone stepping out of his/her designated compartment, is distinctly not encouraged. Angela has no superior, and bows to no one else’s judgment. If there is a villain in this story, it is she; but as I was reminded by one of my book club friends, she is not really evil. She believes she is doing good, and no doubt does do good, but from a sense of duty alone. It never seems as though she actually cares about any of those she helps; she seems rather to despise them, whether she would admit to such feelings.
The principle “sparrow” is Lovejoy, a young girl whose second or third rate theatrical mother (it’s hinted she may also be none too respectable) has foisted her onto the Combies, a couple with troubles (mostly economic) of their own. Vincent (as he insists on being called, though his real name is George) is an utterly impractical culinary genius stuck in an area that doesn’t support the kind of restaurant he wants to run; his wife is incapable of reining him in, and also has to cope with the negativity of her spiteful sister, who tells her that Vincent only married her to get their father’s restaurant. The sister, Cassie (perhaps Godden was intentionally evoking the mythological Cassandra?), also unkindly yet ultimately truthfully predicts that despite Lovejoy’s belief to the contrary, her mother has no real intention of coming back for her.
The action that sparks the story’s beginning is Lovejoy’s acquisition of a fallen seed packet. She is not the first to reach it; the delicate Sparkey, another “sparrow” whose mother sells newspapers, gets to if first, but Lovejoy confiscates it from him through the expediency of punching him in the stomach. Lovejoy is not without honor; she would never steal from Sparkey’s mother, who has no assistant and sometimes must leave her stand unattended, trusting her customers to pay. But to someone so impoverished, who has so little of her own and few honest means to obtain any more, anything fallen or discarded is fair game. Sparkey, after all, has a mother who is present and who cares for him; Lovejoy doesn’t even know where her mother is, and the Combies have no money to spare. Her action, however, will not be without consequences.
The story begins with the Misses Chesney investigating the appearance of several deep holes in their garden. It is not theirs alone-it belongs to the enclosed community within the Square-but Angela regards it as hers. Discussing it with several of her neighbors, she concludes that it must have been the work of the street children, who no doubt stole it to sell.
She’s correct in identifying the culprits, but she’s all wrong about the motivation. The barely literate Lovejoy has puzzled out the contents of the packet (after nearly throwing it away), and figures out that the tiny seeds it contains are the source of flowers, which she admires. Thinking about and planning her garden also help ease the pain of her mother’s neglect. Her first arduous attempt at gardening comes to ruin when a gang of boys lead by Tip (who will soon loom large in her life) finds it and destroys it. They find out about it from Sparkey, who desperately wants to be part of the gang; he has no compunction about betraying Lovejoy, especially after that punch to the stomach she gave him. The person who does not betray Lovejoy (although she doesn’t know her yet) is Olivia, who surreptitiously destroys the evidence of Lovejoy’s footprint in the garden soil.
Later we will see Lovejoy stealing money from the church collection box, which appalls Tip; because she has no religious training, and knows nothing about offerings, she does not regard what she has done as a crime. To her the money is simply something she needs, and as it is attainable, she takes it. Of course, stealing is in Buddhism considered a “bad cause”, but in this context it raises questions about the meaning of offerings and who is to benefit from them. Because Lovejoy has no prior connection with the church, she in effect does not exist in its eyes, and therefore is not likely to receive any material benefit from it. Though she is fed and housed, she is rapidly outgrowing the few clothes she has, and she is starved for love and beauty. No one in her immediate circle has any money to give her, and she tries begging and busking to no avail, so her theft is an act of survival rather than one of malice. Even the church is poor; as a sanctuary it barely exists, having been bombed in the war, and funds to rebuild are slow in coming. From a spiritual standpoint, however, it still has much to offer, and if Lovejoy had belonged to it, she might well have been the recipient of the church’s charity.
Not that she would have been interested in charity as such. There are many more characters in the story, and it would take too long to recount the entire plot, but it’s clear that Lovejoy has a kindred spirit in the chef Vincent, whose desire for beauty and perfection overcomes not only his good judgment but his concern for others as well. In her zeal to capture the despoilers of the enclosed garden, it is Angela who engineers what at first will appear to be Lovejoy’s downfall. If she suffered from being neglected, she is no longer overlooked. Caught in thievery, revealed as abandoned, she is forced to accept the kind of impersonal charity that Angela doles out. In Vincent’s case, his stubborn attempts to create a high-end restaurant in an area that clearly cannot support it will bankrupt the Combies, and he does not even recognize opportunity when it appears in the guise of his one steady customer, a lord who offers him a job on his estate. Both Vincent and Lovejoy possess the kind of pride that is said to “goeth before a fall”.
Fortunately, Godden is not interested in sanctimonious sermonizing. If she were, the story might have ended there, and it would be a bleak tale indeed. Instead, she deftly weaves the strands of her characters’ lives together in the way that the lives of human beings interconnect. It is Olivia, the heretofore powerless sister, who “saves the day” in an almost, but not quite, deus ex machina way. Having suggested that she be allowed to adopt Lovejoy, and having that idea promptly quashed by Angela, she realizes that even as she feels herself becoming progressively weaker and more ill that there is something she can actually do to remedy the situation. Dying, she is finally able to achieve what she has not been able to do in life. Her will (which she is careful to make incontestable) provides for Lovejoy, for Tip, for the Combies, and ties their fortunes together so that they must connect if they are all to benefit. Furthermore, she humanizes Angela by naming her a co-executor of the will along with Vincent, the sympathetic police inspector, and Father Lambert. We see this when the Chesney brother, Noel (who had little use for Olivia when she was alive) wants to know what happens if Angela balks at sharing the duty with these others, and the answer is that they will be executors without her. It is this moment of self-realization that is perhaps the best gift that Olivia has ever been able to give to her sister.
I read a review of this book that quoted The New Yorker: “it is a sentimental tale, well told, with an unlikely and entirely satisfactory ending”. I’ll grant the “well told” and the “entirely satisfactory ending”, but I strongly disagree with the “sentimental” and the “unlikely”, the combination of which seem both patronizing and untrue. Olivia’s thwarted life gave her a keen sense of observation and an unusual sensitivity to the passionate longings of others, and she was able to affect their lives in a direct and personal way. It was unfortunate that she has to die to do so, but she died happy, and that is something we all wish for. It’s all too easy to underestimate how our actions can change other people’s lives, much less our own. The best time to find the connections between us, and the best time to become happy, and the best time to contribute to others’ happiness is now, while we’re still alive. Unlikely? Not at all. It’s our choice. We all of us have the power to make it so.