‘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.