Oriel Malet’s name has been wafting past my attention now for years, probably decades, and I’ve never paid much attention to her before now, which is a bit shocking. She was an accomplished novelist, Welsh, from a titled family, and her second novel, My Bird Sings, won the John Llewelyn Rhys Prize in 1946, and (according to the snippet of obituary in the Times visible outside their paywall) she bought a motorbike with the prize money. Rhys would have approved. Malet is probably most famous now for her long friendship with Daphne du Maurier, and her edition of their letters.
My Bird Sings is a very engaging read, but I put it down with exasperation because it seems to promise more than Malet felt able to deliver. It could have been a fascinating French version of Margaret Irwin’s Still She Wished For Company, as its excellent prologue gives us a dreamy young woman looking into a green glass mirror, which indicates a timeslip plot filled with adolescent girls and young married women. But this goes nowhere: the prologue and epilogue, both set in the then present day, hint strongly at a fantasy novel, but they are only a frame for the historical novel which has no fantasy elements at all. Similarly, a Gothic thread creeps in with the introduction of a set of child-size puppets, also French, but these do nothing: they’re a wasted motif which aggravated me even more.
Instead, the reader is given the story of three French orphan sisters in the nineteenth century. Pauline is wilful and proud, Camille is anxious and loving, and the toddler Cosette refuses to speak after having fallen from a carriage soon after their mother died. They are living with their uncle and his wife in the village of Ardelais. He is a gumpy and greedy clockmender, and Louise does her best in the circumstances. One of her jobs is to show visitors round the castle, as it is uninhabited but still grand. The little girls treat the castle as their own, then one day not only does Camille encounter a travelling puppeteer in the forest, and meets the Countess Isolde and her puppet companions, she also looks into the green glass mirror in the Flower Room and knows that someone special is coming to the castle.
The castle is bought by Mélanie the beautiful opera singer and her new husband M. de Chancerey, and Camille becomes an intimate, to keep Mélanie from boredom. Then Mélanie and M. de Chancerey decide to adopt Camille and Pauline and Cosette, because they are clearly of better stock than their village guardians, and it’s also obvious than Pauline will come to a very bad end unless she is educated and given some guidelines for her life.
There is also an undercooked plot about an English spinster educationalist and her horrible sister who take an interest in the girls, but otherwise the novel is a coming of age story that loses its power as the girls grow older and become young ladies. Camille is alive and happy in the Ardelais forest and the castle, but when she is sent to school and to polite society, she loses her individuality. When she meets a nice man she becomes two-dimensional. I wonder if Malet had been reading Villette, Little Women or Good Wives when she wrote this novel, because I was constantly reminded of details of their plots. By the end of My Bird Sings, two of the sisters marry … and that’s pretty much it.
The novel’s appeal is in Malet’s very good writing: she was definitely accomplished, but I wish she had had a better editor to push her a little more, and make more plot out of the meandering story of Camille’s life and Pauline’s frustrations.