Monday, July 25, 2022

Flambards by K.M. Peyton, one of my favorite orphan stories

Title: Flambards
Author: K.M. Peyton
Illustrator: Victor G. Ambrus
Publication: World Publishing Company, hardcover, 1967
Genre: YA Historical Fiction
Setting: England, 1908-1912
Description: In the first of this four book series, orphaned Christina is forced to go live with her Uncle Russell, and his sons, Mark and Will, at their home, Flambards, 40 miles outside London in the countryside. Mark and his father are obsessed with horses while Will is obsessed with machinery and aviation. Christina, just 12, is an heiress but used to be shuttled from relative to relative, all indifferent to her wellbeing. Just as she arrives at Flambards, Will has had a bad accident while hunting so Christina is nervous when her uncle says she must learn to ride so she can hunt as well. She is also worried because she saw a letter speculating that Uncle Russell covets her fortune to support Flambards. Unwillingly, Christina is drawn into the conflict between her cousins and their brutal father, and is also forced to recognize how technology is changing their world.

My Impression: I found this book in my elementary school library when I was 11 and it has been one of my favorites ever since (I think as a result of this book, I also fell in love with the work of illustrator Victor Ambrus). It has all the elements I most like: an orphan (Christina is more doormat than intrepid), a rambling house in the country, romantic triangles and, while horses are not an essential part of the equation for me, Peyton is such a skillful writer she made me care about them too. This book is a coming of age for Christina: she is wary but fairly clueless young girl when she arrives in Flambards, brought up by prim female relatives. Her cousin Will is responsible for making her aware of class issues for the first time, as he points out it is just [bad] luck that the servants at Flambards are forced to work for a living while he and Christina are now. Christina is aware that Dick, the kind stable boy who teaches her how to ride, is a better rider and has more skill with the horses than Mark, who always seems to lose close races because he is too impatient or mistreats his mount. That is a clue early on that he is a jerk – no English writer is going to turn an animal abuser into a hero! Prominent character, yes.
Among the strengths of the series are the vividly drawn characters. Uncle Russell, who suffered an accident while hunting and has been disabled (and violently angry) ever since reminds me of Joss Merlyn, the violent innkeeper in Jamaica Inn. Flambards is an isolated household and although a tutor comes twice a week to teach Mark, Will, and Christina they don’t go to church and she rarely sees anyone except those she meets hunting and, occasionally, the local doctor. The falling-apart house is cared for by tired Mary, the housekeeper who was once a ladies maid to the boys’ deceased mother, and sulky Violet. Fowler manages the stables. In contrast to the decaying Flambards, Christina sees that Will’s friend Mr. Dermot, also presiding over a bachelor household, has created an attractive and welcoming home where Will comes alive and has received the encouragement he should have got at home. Although initially skeptical of airplanes and motor cars, Christina also begins to see the future, that Mr. Dermot and Will see: 
with everyone traveling by motor or soaring over the countryside on their dragonfly wings. Not only William, but Mr. Dermot, and Joe and Jack, believed in this future. She could see their devotion in their eyes, just as in Dick and Fowler she saw the ingrained, inborn faith in the horse. And who was right? Before today, she had never known these possibilities existed but these people were not fools; she felt humbled by their faith, excited by their courage; her mind all shaken up, inspired, suddenly confused. Just for a moment the visions dazzled her.
As I observed recently, no one does yearning better than K.M. Peyton, whether it is Christina or Ruth Hollis or other characters. Once Christina has learned to love hunting, she settles into life at Flambards, although there are many disturbing events to mar daily life in the strange household where the horses are coddled but nothing is spent on keeping the house in good condition. Initially, all Christina wants is a friend now that Flambards is her home, but eventually, she wants more. It was interesting to read that Peyton was planning an adult novel but as has happened with other writers, having a child protagonist made her publisher decide the book had to be classified as a juvenile, according to a 2014 interview with The Guardian:
So it's an irony that Peyton did not actually intend Flambards to be a children's book, but the first in a series of romantic novels. "The first one was definitely an adult book but it started with the girl at about 13, that was my mistake, and then carried on with her love life later on."

She recalls a tussle with her publisher at the time over how it would be published. She didn't want it to go out under a children's imprint. Her editor offered to give it a more adult cover, but the disguise didn't work. "I got the most vitriolic letters from mothers saying they knew what my work was like, and they were shocked at this book," she says. "It was quite sexy actually."

Nowadays Peyton's stories of adolescent romance would be published as teenage or young adult fiction. As these didn't exist as separate categories in the 1960s, the books were addressed to girls of indeterminate age, their burgeoning sexuality sometimes more or less buried in their passion for horses and at other times exploding out of the stable yard and into romances with a series of dashing young men.
The GNYBT Group is discussing Flambards tonight if you are a fan and want to join us! There is also a miniseries that was quite good and is available on DVD. It does not cover the controversial fourth book but that discussion can wait for another day.  No spoilers allowed, as my friend Emily G found out the hard way.
Source: Personal copy (from a library book sale in Durham, NC). This reread was my eighteenth book in the 2022 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge led by Marg at The Intrepid Reader.
I also reread The Edge of the Cloud, second in the series, a few days later, which is just as good!


LyzzyBee said...

Lovely to see this one talked about, I really loved the series as a child and through my life since - and I have a soft spot for Ambrus' illustrations, too. Interesting about the audience - these are quite tame but there's a really quite racy one about climbing mountains and Dear Fred has some saucy bits, too.

Katrina said...

I loved this series, although I must admit I saw the TV series before I read any of the books.

Emily G. said...

Ha ha, Constance! Of course I thought of my spoiler experience when I saw you were posting on Flambards. What, me bitter after all these years? :) I didn’t know Peyton had wanted to publish the book as an adult novel—very interesting! Thanks for that info.

Buried In Print said...

Funnily enough, I had not remembered just how horrible the house was (as you say, how many resources were allocated to the horses rather than the people, particularly those people who "didn't count"). In my mind, I remembered Christina hanging out with Will during his recovery and what a retreat his room seemed to be, and that remained the image of the house for me until I reread.

Thank you, by the way, for messaging me about the plan for the BTGroup to read this, this summer; I would have liked to have joined, but this has been a challenging year and my reading has been all over the place.

Marg said...

So often the books that we loved when we were young don't stand up to a reread now. Glad this one did!

Thanks for sharing this with the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

JaneGS said...

I discovered this book via the TV series and absolutely fell completely in love with it. It took me awhile to find the book--those were pre-Internet days--but I have treasured and reread my copy ever since. I was so shocked to see Peter Settelen, who played Sandy, as George Wickham in P&P, 1980.

I did love the juxtaposition of horses and airplanes, and how Christina was caught between the two worlds.

CLM said...

Did you read the whole series, Jane, or just the first book? My library had the first three but they are definitely hard to find in this country these days, although I think still in print in the UK.