‘O The Brave Music’ by Dorothy Evelyn Smith

‘O The Brave Music’ by Dorothy Evelyn Smith is a coming of age novel about a young child who experiences a number of losses, early on in her life. Despite the extraordinary and quite oppressive  circumstances of her childhood, this is a joyous novel which is rooted in the firm and deeply devotional love that she feels for a boy, five years older than her.

I wanted to write about this novel a day or two after I finished. I always find that it is hard to talk objectively about a novel that you strongly connect with, leaving you tongue-tied in instances. I become so involved with the characters and the story that it is difficult for me to talk about the novel constructively and I don’t want to merely gush about how much I adored the novel. However, I will try to put down my thoughts on paper…

The story of her life is told to us by Ruan Ashley in retrospect and she tells her tale in quite a sentimental, emotional voice. Although she relates the events of her life starting from the time when she was seven years old there are instances in which she jumps forward and reveals which turn her life takes in the future. For instance, quite early on in the novel, Ruan reveals the story of how she first met the love of her life. Rather than take away the surprise element of the story, I found these revelations to quite build up the emotional tension in the novel.

Sylvia and Ruan are the daughters of a non-conformist minister. They have an infant brother who has some kind of disability – we are not told about this clearly – but baby Clem cannot talk or walk like other children his age. The children’s mother is a beautiful woman, a skilled equestrian from a wealthy, landed family. However, by picking up the mantle of being a minister’s wife, in a run-down Manse, which is part of an impoverished neighbourhood. She misses the comfort, affluence and leisure of her previous life and after a few years her love for her husband is dimmed by a life of perpetual denial and hardship. The marital discord between the couple is quite evident, forming an uncomfortable shadow over the family.

Sylvia, the older daughter is beautiful like her mother and her only ambition in life is to marry a rich man and have many children. Ruan, only wants to read and write books and to spend time with her one true love – a boy called David.

David, an orphan, is the ward of a wealthy businessman and they live in a modern house on the extremities of town that is on the edge of the Yorkshire moors. A large part of Ruan’s childhood is spent in David’s home under the care of his older step-sister, especially during holidays. For Ruan, David’s house becomes a second home. They roam freely on the wild Yorkshire moors, make friends with the local village folk and it is here that David and Ruan forge their strong bond of friendship. The love that Ruan feels for David is one of great devotion and it is this love that lends her strength despite all the debacles that life places in her path. For life does present tremendous sorrow to Ruan and it is her love that is her salvation.

It’s quite hard to discuss this novel without giving away too many spoilers so I’ll refrain from revealing too much about the plot twists. 

‘O The Brave Music’ is a coming of age novel and the novel has been compared to ‘I Capture the Castle’ and ‘Guard Your Daughters’ by Simon David Thomas who is also series consultant for this excellent series. Certainly all the young female narrators in these three books have strong personalities, all of them with quite original voices and a way of very candidly expressing emotion, which is quite endearing. However, I would say that the feeling of melancholy pervading ‘O The Brave Music’ was quite deep – sometimes I was reminded of the hardships of Jane Eyre. Some of the descriptions of the Yorkshire moors was certainly reminiscent of ‘Wuthering Heights’, along with its pent-up passions. Another theme of the novel was that of loss and abandonment and it was particularly hard to see Ruan cope with these emotions so bravely during her young life.

Another emotion that is described most evocatively is that of Ruan wanting something very badly in life and then delaying the gratification of fulfilling her wish. She consoles herself with the thought that prolonging the realisation of certain dreams at least allows her to dream of them and hold on to them, rather than have them destroyed by unavoidable circumstances. These tender moments of philosophy that touch this book make it ever so special.

The topic of childhood love was dealt with great sensitivity in the book too. At no point in the novel do we feel that the love between David and Ruan is inappropriate. This is often quite a tricky topic for authors to address and Smith manages to convey the feeling of great love without any sexual undertones in her story.

I particularly enjoyed Ruan’s rather feminist character. Born at a time when marrying well was considered an achievement for women, Ruan is cast in a very different mould. Here is a heroine who cuts her hair short, wears boyish clothes and wants to educate her mind with books. I’ve always enjoyed bookish references within books. The multitude of books that Ruan received and collected was another lovely little detail of this novel. 

At the heart of the story, ‘O The Brave Music’ is a story about love. Ruan’s great love for certain members of her family, David, her books and the Yorkshire moors. But I think it  is quite an original love story and one I will remember for many days. Dorothy Evelyn Smith mingles intricate  social detail along with domestic detail and weaves an elaborate and often heart wrenching story. This will probably be my most favourite novel of the year and I’m still struggling to articulate why. Perhaps the best and most emotional novels do that to us. 

‘O The Brave Music’ by Dorothy Evelyn Smith was a gift from British Library Publishing and is part of the British Library Women Writers series, directed at shining a light on works of female writers that were popular in their time. As always, all opinions expressed about the book are my own.

‘Miss Plum and Miss Penny’ by Dorothy Evelyn Smith

Yesterday I finished ‘Miss Plum and Miss Penny’ written by Dorothy Evelyn Smith and republished by Dean Street Press as part of the Furrowed Middlebrow Collection. The e-book has been sent to me for review.

First of all I want to alert everyone that this particular book is the perfect one to read in the lead up to the Christmas season. The book starts two months before Christmas Day, on the day of Miss Penny’s fortieth birthday and most of the major events happen around and after Christmas. This is hence the perfect festive read.

The story introduces us to the world of Miss Alison Penny, unmarried and leading a comfortable life in the small Yorkshire village of Greeth, in a house, romantically called ‘The Laurels’ bequeathed to her by her parents. Alison Penny wants for nothing in life, except a suitable romantic interest. On the day of her birthday, her most pressing problem is with whom she shall while away the few hours of the evening, in front of the television. Will it be her faithful maid of many many years, Ada, the retired and slightly hypochondriacal bachelor, Stanley Hartley or the village vicar – the widowed Hubert Sturgess? 

All things come to a pass however, when Miss Penny steps into the village park on her birthday morning and thereby rescues a suicidal woman from drowning herself in the duck pond. Unsure of how to deal with the situation, kind hearted Miss Penny, decides to bring Miss Victoria Plum home. Since, Miss Plum has no relations, no friends and no place in the world- this seems to be the best option to her.

Miss Plum is brought home, much to Ada’s consternation and Miss Penny and Ada help her to regain her health and strength in a long convalescence. However, in the lead up to Christmas, Miss Penny doesn’t have the heart to turn Miss Plum out, or help her find a job at the local employment agency. Everything is postponed till after Christmas, especially as Miss Plum seems likely to have hysterics whenever the future is mentioned.

Ada and Alison both fall ill simultaneously and in that instance, Miss Plum nurses them back to health. Though her efforts at housekeeping aren’t up to Ada’s standards, she does seem eager to please and certainly seems aware of where things are kept and how the house is run. Everyone wonders about the new member residing at The Laurels. Hubert and Stanley are asked to help in resolving Miss Plum’s future but everyone’s plans are disturbed when a mysterious stranger from Miss Penny’s past, knocks on her doorstep on Christmas Eve and threatens to disturb the delicate balance of things at The Laurels and in the village, in general. 

Though the book is centred around Miss Penny’s simple life in the small Yorkshire village of Greeth, it is noteworthy that the title of the story is ‘Miss Plum and Miss Penny’ and not the other way around. Definitely, the character of Miss Plum is at the centre of affairs in the book. The reader’s sympathies wax and wane for Miss Plum as the story progresses. She certainly seems very alone in the world but is she more manipulative than is apparent at first glance? Why is it that the interests and sympathies of the entire village menfolk are aroused by Miss Penny’s predicament? What quality does Miss Penny possess, that makes her the centre of attention in Greeth?

I won’t say much more because this would reveal too much about the plot but suffice it to say that I thought that the writing and the character development in this book were excellent. Each individual character was beautifully fleshed out and seemed so real. I loved the quirks of character in the old-aged bachelor Stanley Hartley. So pernickety and used to having his comforts arranged ‘just-so’, it was a delight to read about his life and his domestic arrangements. At the other end of the spectrum was the widowed vicar and his estranged teenage son – in dire need of home comforts. Even minor characters were so well drawn. 

I found Miss Penny’s predicament most interesting – to give up the comforts of hearth and home or lead a more adventurous, exciting life abroad with a rakish character? Luckily, for Miss Penny, she was a woman of independent means, and she didn’t need to resort to the path of marriage as her only salvation, like many others.

On the surface, Miss Plum and Miss Penny is a delight of a story. Set in a charming Yorkshire village in the autumn and winter – there are idyllic chapters of night time carol singing, skating on frozen lakes in the depths of midwinter. Below these layers though, this is a more serious story about women and their struggle for financial independence. It is a story about homelessness, loneliness and the choices that women make in life to secure their future. It is a story of personal worries, anxiety, the need to do good but also the conflicting emotion of not wanting one’s life rearranged to please someone else. 

I’m so pleased to have read this heartwarming story. In my opinion, one of the best from the Furrowed Middlebrow publications so far!