A review of The Fledgeling by Frances Faviell
One of the undoubted highlights of my 2021 is finding Frances Faviell, an author whom I would probably not have read in ordinary circumstances, even if her books had been readily available. She, sadly, went out of print but thanks to the heroic efforts of Dean Street Press under its Furrowed Middlebrow imprint, her works are now available for the curious modern reader to discover.
Although not a patch on her standout A Chelsea Concerto, The Fledgling, her last of her three novels, originally published in 1958, a year before her death and while she had been diagnosed with cancer, certainly has its moments. Perhaps one can detect Faviell’s sense that her time was drawing to an end in the book, as there is very much a sense of wanting to put things right and creating order of chaos in her developing portrayal of Mrs Collins, the bedridden and terminally ill grandmother.
The story is compressed into a long day and most of the action takes place in Mrs Collins’ pokey flat and, in particular, her bedroom which she rarely leaves and then with great difficulty and supreme physical effort. Her life is tedious, lying in bed, looking out of the window trying to catch a glimpse of a sparrow or a cat, brightened only by the appearance of a young girl, Linda, who has taken to visiting her and playing games. Mrs Collins is looked after by Nonie, her granddaughter, who is married to Charlie, and receives a weekly visit from a sort of social worker, Miss Rhodes, a well-meaning but unwelcome intrusion into her routine.
This rather uneventful existence is about to change in a dramatic, if not melodramatic, way.
From January 1949 the UK had a system of National Service when all physically fit young men aged between 17 and 21 were called up for service. By 1957 the scheme was restricted to those born on or after October 1, 1939, were exempted and the last call ups were made in November 1960 and the last conscripts discharged in May 1963. For many national service was character forming, like Mrs Collins’ eldest grandson, Len, who was killed in action in Cyprus and was awarded a Military Medal, but for some, like Nona’s twin brother, Neil, it was a nightmare. He had already deserted twice before the story starts.
Having been systematically bullied by Mike Andersen, Neil is persuaded to desert for a third time, this time to enable Mike to abscond as well. Neil’s arrival at his grandmother’s flat triggers a day where Mrs Collins’ routine is disrupted by a procession of visitors, mostly unwelcome, and the moral dilemma as to whether to assist Neil in his plans. The arrival of Mike adds a darker dimension to the tale, especially when he attacks Miss Rhodes and threatens the bedridden old lady. In a dramatic finale, which is out of character with the rest of the book, Mrs Collins’ intervention allows Neil to free himself from his tormentor, to find his self-esteem and resolve his future.
However, the reader is left with the sense that the way events turn out are as much a means for Mrs Collins to find peace and to settle her family’s affairs as best she can as they are for freeing Neil from his tormentor.
Faviell’s last novel was entertaining enough, beautifully written, with sharp characterisations and a profound sense of place, but for me it failed to hit the heights of her earlier works.