This is one of the British Library’s new, beautiful Women Writers reissues, which I was fortunate enough to be sent by the publisher – I need to apologise for the gap between receipt and read / review but here it is now for you to hear about. And what a super book it was. Quite a few bloggers have reviewed it already and I’ll be off to read those reviews when I’ve published this one! Another pretty cover, too, with a pattern I’d be pleased to have as curtains or a feature wall! I’ve only read one other D.E.S. novel so far (“Miss Plum and Miss Penny”, reviewed here) and on the basis of these two I will hastily gather in any more that I encounter!

Dorothy Evelyn Smith – “O, The Brave Music”

(29 August 2020)

A super coming-of-age novel which reads like a wonderful autobiography equal to the London Child of the 1880s and other similar ones. The essays around it make it clear that some parts are drawn from the author’s life, especially her love of the moors, similar to but more positive than that of the Brontes.

Our heroine, Ruan, is small and seven with bad hair and a lively imagination – and an imaginary friend – loves literature and travel and poetry and is potentially too big a personality for the cramped life of a Non-Conformist manse – like, indeed, her beautiful mother, who’s very much beating her wings against a very much not gilded cage. We see things through Ruan’s innocent eyes, gradually realising or having the truth revealed to her, sometimes not fully.

Tragedy strikes again and again, but Ruan always has her friend Rosis, Rosie’s adopted son David, the home farm of their rather soullness nouveau riche home and the moor. Later she has the local vicar as a friend, and Uncle Alaric, his library and the ancestral home – although not a Mallinson by looks, she certainly is by spirit, and that spirit remains with the books. In her bookish pursuits and refusal to follow feminine convention she reminded me of Vita Sackville-West and her “Orlando” persona, and the book is also reminiscent to me of “The Go-Between” and several of Winifred Holtby’s novels. Oh, there is a dog, and the dog is OK; there are horses, and likewise. Phew!

There’s a very interesting depiction of attitudes towards Black people and the hypocrisy that lies therein as concerns the Chapel. I found this quite unusual in a novel of this period, especially the close observation of how the character Hally reacts to the racism he encounters, knuckling down to keeping being kind but more quietly.

The writing is often beautiful and lyrical as well as observant of human nature and relationships, with nature depicted gorgeously and often. There are wonderfully closely observed scenes such as a bittersweet evening with Ruan and sister Sylvia’s mother. There are moments of wistfulness and nostalgia and by the end we are overshadowed a little by the threat of World War One – the book was written as partly a comfort during the days of World War Two (it was published in 1943) as the Preface explains.

A lovely long book and very satisfying – highly recommended and a real classic.

There’s a timeline of the 1940s, a biography of Smith and an afterword discussing clothes and differences between the period covered and the date it was written to round off this lovely book.

Thank you very much to British Library Publishing for sending me a print copy of this book in return for an honest review.