REVIEW: The Fledgling by Elizabeth Cadell
At Edmund Brooke’s insistence, his ten-year-old daughter, Vitorina, leaves the closed world of her old and strait-laced great-aunts and their Portuguese mansion—complete with chapel—and journeys to a boarding school in England. Edmund readily accepts the offer of a golfing acquaintance to act as chaperone for Tory.
Once on the train, however, Tory learns quite a bit more about Mr. Darlan, her traveling companion, than he would prefer. And so Tory is called upon to let down her facade of meekness and to reveal her real nature: she is shrewd, imaginative and—as the situation calls for—brave. She is determined to outmaneuver this malicious mastermind, Darlan, and his French female accomplice who poses as his sister.
She reaches London without her companion. But as planned, Tory is met by her father’s delightful distant cousin and ex-fiancée, Philippa. Immediately drawn to Philippa, Tory goes so far as to fake chicken pox in order to stay longer with Philippa. This gives her time to settle some loose ends involving Mr. Darlan’s plot and to create one of her own: for wasn’t Tory’s father Philippa’s great love and isn’t he all alone now?
This is an odd little book. It’s told via an omniscient narrator but mainly focuses on the title character of Vitorina Brooke – usually referred to as Tory. Tory is a ten year old girl but thinks much older than her age. Tory is self possessed, intelligent and reserved. She watches everyone, says little and thus confounds most adults around her. It is because of this that she manages to foil a dastardly plot by Mr. Darlan, trip up his accomplice then arrange things in England as she wants them to be. Tory is not a young person to dismiss or take lightly.
I found the book to be an interesting contrast of old and new. Written in the mid 1970s, it begins with a long-ish description of the old, stately mansion in Lisbon in which Tory and her family live. Tory is surrounded by either her old aunts and grandmother, who are steeped in their lives as deeply religious, aging grand dames, or by the peasant Portuguese servants who all dote on Tory and all of whom Tory loves.
Her relationship with her father is much different as Edmund Brooke lost his beloved younger wife soon after the birth of their daughter. Edmund has a reason why he then basically leaves Tory to her Lisbon relatives and the servants and travels extensively but one can’t help feeling that he’s dropped the parental ball. Others in the story feel the same and finally one person attempts to do something about it.
Most everyone might not like the idea of Tory leaving for school in England but her father has decided so that is how it will be. We get our first glimpse of Tory’s views after she boards the train. To her it’s freedom. She loves her family but she wants something new. She also dumbfounds the obviously shady Englishman who has volunteered to accompany her. There is no attempt to obfuscate that Mr. Darlan is no good, nor what he’s managed to steal from the Lisbon household. There is a scene in which Mr. Darlan is described in a way that gives me the creeps. He doesn’t do anything to Tory but, yeah, he gives me the creeps too. The story focuses on how Tory discovers what’s happened and the clever way she manages to throw a spanner in Darlan’s spokes.
What then? She arrives in London and decides to be a little devious in order to get what she wants. Since Tory has obviously been a fairly obedient little girl up until then, I didn’t begrudge her. What she finds on her arrival is a fresh breath of air in the person of Cousin Philippa. Oh, didn’t her father tell her that he was once engaged to Philippa? Well, he was and Tory finds Philippa delightful. Her London house is bright, colorful (she might have managed to be the one person who decorated in the colors and styles of the mid 70s and didn’t make it look hideous), she talks a great deal and she gets on well with Tory who immediately adores her.
It is because of this that Tory confides in Philippa and thus propels the next stage of the book into action. As Tory explores London, she discovers new people in whom to be interested and a modern viewpoint. It’s not made superior to Lisbon, just different; the new era of modernity contrasted to the age old way that would keep going until her ancient aunts finally died. Edmund is forced to come to England where events put him in close proximity to Philippa who has had to contact another former beau in order to right the situation involving Mr. Darlan.
The story pretty much abandons that after a while and though it is wrapped up in the end, it’s not the main focus. That is on Tory and Philippa and Edmund. In a way, Edmund is also stuck in the past. Will he be able to break free and move forward or is he forever stuck there like the aunts? Will Tory keep Philippa in her life? What kind of relationship will she and her father develop?
There is a vague romance here and the book does have a happy ending but it’s low key and a lot is off page. Quiet Tory helps a lot of people including a real Cockney theater woman whose words paint a picture of life in London for much of the 20th century and a young boy who lives with her. Honestly I’m still not sure about their inclusion beyond nostalgia for Elizabeth Cadell and showing how Tory can observe those around her while unobtrusively helping them. She manages one last effort to try and shift things the way she wants and with a fade out, she imagines how life will proceed from there.
I liked the book and the characters and once I figured out that the theft would only set in motion the following events, I was fine with putting it in the background. More of the romance on page would have been nice but I also figured out early that this probably wouldn’t happen so que sera, sera. Some might find Tory’s quietness to be unnerving – as did a few of the characters – but I liked her and delighted in how she cleverly gets what she wants. B-