I am sitting in the garden, having just finished Ursula Holden’s Unicorn Sisters, and feeling slightly cast adrift. My usual way of “rediscovering” forgotten classics is to visit the Persephone Books shop, or the Capuchin Classics website, or to look at the Virago Modern Classic back catalogue. But this time, the route has been quite different. The inside page of my copy of this book has “95p” scrawled in pencil and so this must have been what I paid for it when I picked it up in a charity shop. I have certainly been hoarding it for a couple of years, unread. This book is living proof of how easily a work of excellent writing can slip out of the cannon – disappear down the side of the literature sofa. It is excellent, and yet it is barely known at all.
Unicorn Sisters is a wartime novella charting a few months in the history of Bonnie and her sisters Tor and Ula. Bonnie narrates their tale of woe and awakening in the first months of 1939 when they are abandoned by their glamorous and negliegent mother in a remote west country boarding school for girls. This school is haphazardly run by two spinster sisters of wildly divergent opinions and an elderly gardener who has found that his wartime role has been expanded to cooking and cleaning. The other children are upper middle class girls, each with a smattering of french, and mostly rather affected. Hard upon the heels of Bonnie and her sisters a batch of evacuees from London’s Clerkenwell arrive, sporting ill fitting clothes, common accents and tales of boyfriends and homely families. The isolation of the school and the seige mentality caused by the war combine and before long mutual suspicion has given way to friendship and confidence, the grammaphone has been wound up and girls dance long into the night to the tune of “Roll out the barrel”. The joy of such vistas will not last forever. Soon Bonnie and her sisters find themselves on the stage of tragedy. Worse, they are propelled into an anarchy of knowledge and experience which will horrify them.
This short novel deals with many things, but for me its main theme is displacement. All of the children are displaced by the war – they are far from home in an unknown and disintegrating place. The Boarding school girls and the Clerkenwell evacuees are also displaced by contact with oneanother. Gone are the comforts of a class identity; here are people who live differently and speak differently, and yet seem to manage; maybe there is not only one proper way to live? For Bonnie and her sisters, the displacement is still greater. They are new girls, and so they properly belong to neither group. Whatismore, they suffer from social inexperience and the dark and long shadows of their family history. Between then they have inadvertently caused the deaths of two other children before the war, and how can a child ever be free of such an awful secret?
Bonnie is a complexnarrator of an atmospheric tale and a splendid period piece. She is a bossy girl who is teetering under the heavy strain that her absent mother has placed her under - to look after her younger sisters. Their sibling love is powerful but will be tested, as Bonnie’s love for her scented mother will also be. Ursula Holden writes compellingly of the monstrous misunderstandings and miscommunications that can befall a parent and their child. The destruction of class barriers and the sudden revealation of an adult world, which is as sordid as it is liberating will provoke a crisis in Bonnie’s mind which seems as real to the reader as any declaration of war.
A novel this good deserves not to be forgotten, and the good news is that it is available from £0.01p on Amazon. Let the rediscovery begin!
Because this book is so obscure, I cannot find my usual picture of the author. To celebrate the coming of the summer therefore, I have posted some pictures of our garden, the place of my reading and ruminations.