Rumer Godden wrote this in 1946, inspired by the widow boxes on her mews house just off Eaton Square. It was published as a novel for adults, but its heroine is a ten year old girl and it is one of those books that can be enjoyed by anyone from eight to eighty.
Like The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett it is the story of a garden tended by children, but the garden in An Episode of Sparrows lacks the idyllic walled setting of Martha’s one. The garden Lovejoy (the unfortunately-named heroine of An Episode of Sparrows) creates is on an old bomb site in London right in the middle of the grime and noise of the city. It is created using a stolen packet of cornflower seeds and later, soil taken from the nearby posh garden square. A jobbing gardener filled Rumer Godden’s real widow boxes with earth and flowers and a few days later she received a visit from two ladies who lived in Eaton Square. ‘Not a social call,’ they said. Apparently the earth in her window boxes had been stolen from their garden and Rumer Godden was told she should have bought it from the Army and Navy Stores, at ‘seven shillings and sixpence the carton’. This episode forms the basis of the story of An Episode of Sparrows. Lovejoy lives in Catford Street, backing onto the Square where there are fine houses, a gardening committee and a formidable resident in the form of Miss Angela Chesney, who is determined that the ‘street children’ or ‘sparrows’ will not invade her fine garden.
Lovejoy’s mother is irresponsible and largely absent, her father totally so. She lodges above a restaurant run by the delightful Vincent, who dreams of serving a rich and discerning clientele, rather than the solitary Mr Manley, often his only customer. Tip Malone’s gang rules the Street, but Tip is not a bad boy and his softer side is exposed when Lovejoy bullies him into helping in her garden. She has glimpsed an Italian-style garden through a gate in Chelsea and this is what she wants to create on her bomb site.
Lovejoy has eyes ‘as cold and grey as pebbles’, fine fair hair and a fierce demeanour. She has learnt how to survive in the Street, not stealing big things, which she knows is wrong, but by taking what she needs. A strong friendship grows between her and the thirteen year-old Tip with surprising consequences, largely brought about by Olivia, Miss Angela’s quiet, unassuming, but perceptive sister.
It will not spoil the story to say that there is a happy ending; books like this have reliably happy endings, that is part of their charm. In the same way as the Secret Garden makes Colin and Mary happier and better people, so the pansies and cornflowers on the bomb site improve the lives of Lovejoy, Tip and Vincent. Jane.