Search This Blog

Wednesday 1 May 2024



The Scarlet Nightingale (published 2018) is another excellent novel from the talented Alan Titchmarsh. His output is varied, to say the least. This outing begins along similar lines to Shute’s Requiem for a Wren – in other words, the female protagonist Rosamund is dead. The post-war Rosamund was a successful novelist and she had left behind a buff folder: ‘souvenirs and accretions of a life that had mostly had its share of romance... but which had also put a young woman in danger. Rosamund might have come from a privileged background, but it was something that she had been quite prepared to sacrifice in the name of love and duty. This is her story’ (p3).

The narrative is mostly in the third person, however interspersed are small insertions from Rosamund’s notes in first person (a good writer’s ploy which brings the character to life at a deeper level).

As ever, Titchmarsh reveals his gift for short telling character descriptions: Dr Armstrong ‘wore a wing collar and his eyebrows were long and upturned, giving him the look of a rather frightening owl’ (p31). Rosamund’s French governess Celine has to break the sad news to her charge: the girl had become an orphan and was to stay with her aunt Venetia in London (in 1938).

Venetia, the sister of Rosamund’s father, had married well and was now Lady Reeves and lived in Eaton Square. When war came, her aunt was loath to hide in the nearby air-raid shelter, preferring the basement in her house. Quite a character: ‘her aunt, in a floral Hartnell creation, half reclined on a sofa so generously furnished with brocade-covered cushions that she seemed in serious danger of suffocation’ (p125). ‘She might give the impression of being unworldly and ethereal, but the razor-sharp mind was clearly in no need of a whetstone’ (p125).

Venetia’s cook, Mrs Heffer, had a helpful brother who did odd jobs: ‘He was not exactly a liveried footman, but he did wear his three-piece Sunday suit and employed a liberal amount of brilliantine to tame his unruly thatch, which, on a bad day resembled an exploded Brillo pad’ (p220).

Rosamund meets and falls in love with Harry Napier who seems to be involved in secret war work. Before long, like many socialites of the period, Rosamund joins the SOE and is dubbed the Scarlet Nightingale; she is landed in France with others to sabotage a factory...

There are details about her training and the actual mission. Naturally, the reader is aware that she will survive, even if captured, because she died at the ripe old age of ninety-three (p1); however, there is still plenty of tension concerning the other operatives involved.

Titchmarsh has a gift for creating sympathetic characters. As Aunt Venetia says, ‘If we do not approach life positively, if we succumb to the naysayers and the defeatists, then we might just as well throw in the towel now, because such negativity becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy... I cannot and will not be bowed down by a bunch of thugs who want to rule the world by bully-boy tactics. The only way to beat bullies is to stand up to them, and that – as you have discovered – is often painful and can have tragic consequences’ (p317). [That applies to any period, even today... – Ed]

A bitter-sweet tale, well told.

No comments: