The music of life and living

Dear Dorothy,

We are forever exiles of our childhoods, but sometimes the smallest details can bring us back to our neverland. It takes one song, a slant of light, or a voice in a book, and we are back in the realm of the lived and the unlived. The voice in O, The Brave Music (1943) has this particular kind of incantatory power.

When the story opens, seven-year-old Ruan Ashley is talking to her Little Man. In her imagination, she is about to cut out a piece of silk ribbon into a new suit for her imaginary friend; in real life, it’s Sunday and she is attending her father’s sermon. As it is about to end, she will not have time to cut the imaginary ribbon. Soon, she will have to leave her realm of make-belief and join her family, as they walk home from the chapel. It’s Ruan’s birthday, but everyone seems to have forgotten it.

She has seen the pink silk ribbon in someone’s hat and longs to possess it ever since, but only in her imagination: “I felt, confusedly, that while I never possessed it, it was most truly mine. Afterwards, it would be lost to me.” If she never cut the silk, it will always be there, locked as a secret treasure in the realm of possibility. Ruan is an inventive child and her most cherished possessions are the gifts of her imagination: she dwells in possibility/ a fairer house.

She is a tomboy, a misfit, an awkward, bookish girl, and a lonely child: from the first, we cannot help but fall in love with her voice. We are in England, sometime before World War I. Our protagonist’s family is impoverished, and sadness looms over her house. Her father is an austere minister; her mother a rebellious, embittered woman of landed gentry who had defied her family by marrying beneath her class (and now defies her husband by refusing to conform to what a minister’s wife should look like). It’s a mismatched couple. “The sight of Father praying as a preacher was familiar enough; but Father praying as a man embarrassed me. I knew I ought to go away, and yet I couldn’t.”

Ruan has two siblings: Sylvia, the empty-headed older sister who has taken after their mother and is the family’s beauty; and the toddler Clem, a younger brother who suffers from an undisclosed impairment.

Clem will give Ruan her first glimpse into the distant drum of impermanence: her “first, salt knowledge of the sorrowful thing love can be”. We will follow our protagonist through childhood into her teenage years, until she is about fourteen. She will attend the local school and make friends with a fine collection of misfits. “I learned a lot from Vera. Some of it, no doubt, would have been better left unlearned, but a great deal was helpful. I learned the rudiments of tap-dancing, three swear words, how to make coconut-toffee, paper-boats, and tiny furniture with acorns and pins. I learned the gentle art of self-defence by kicking, and how to make a ha’penny into a penny by laying it on the tramlines. I learned to manage my laughter in class so that somebody else got the blame. I learned a choice song which began: “Can your mother ride a bike, in the park, in the dark, with her feet upon the handlebars?” And I learned the best method of catching and killing fleas”.

She will prove to be an intelligent child, but will always refuse to fit in: “I had no objections whatever to becoming “the cleverest girl in the school.” What I did object to was being made into “a good influence,” and Ada had a hard struggle with me before she finally gave up this darling project.

Ruan will later have the opportunity to attend a boarding school for upper-class girls, a place where she will fit even less. “Kettleby School, as all the world knows, stands high on the cliffs, exposed to all the winds of heaven. Everything that is not normal and decent and right is blown away from Kettleby, along with everything that is unconventional, and a good deal that is beautiful, too. (…) The school was old, as girls’ schools go, but it had every modern amenity. Large, airy classrooms; trim, tidy grounds; a well-fitted gymnasium; a good library; an excellent Staff. It catered for everything on earth—except the necessity of calling your soul your own. (…) These are my chief memories of Kettleby. I dare say I had happy moments there. I was not bullied or neglected or overworked. I had plenty to eat, friends if I had troubled to cultivate them. But I could not be myself, and that seemed to me important, as it still does.”

Ruan will suffer loss and experience privation and death. Throughout everything, she will never lose the particular beat of her soul, and her wild imagination will prove to be her most valuable possession: it will give a special flavour to her circumstances. Like the local moorland, her imagination will be her inviolable room, a place where she can expand, transcend her life, and reach to the other side; it will give her the ability to get a better view and see through the people around her. “Up there, in the pure, clean moorland air, the pattern of life showed more clearly, on a larger scale. I lifted my eyes to the hills; and I perceived how minute, how unimportant, a portion of that pattern we made, all of us; and we no longer seemed to matter greatly”.

Ruan will fall in love with the moorland, and will meet a kindred spirit, David, the only person with whom she will be able to share her Invisible Man. David is an orphan boy raised by a wealthy industrialist in whose house Ruan will spend much of her childhood. He is about five years older than her. With David, she will roam freely through the vast expanse of the moorland, as well as through the vast expanse of her childhood.

They will eventually grow up, and life will do what life does: it will drum its distant drum. “David was growing up. The day’s beauty took on the added, wistful glamour of impermanence. David was growing up. (…) I sat still. A sudden weight of loneliness fell on me. David was growing up. He was going away from me, walking away, whistling, unconcerned, eager for life whether good or bad. He was going where I could not follow. He would never, never come back”.

This note of impermanence is the silver lining running through and illuminating the novel’s delicate fabric. ‘O, the brave music of a distant drum!’, the verse from which the novel borrows its title, lends the book its particular heartbeat: “I thanked her politely; but I knew now that I didn’t want to go to the circus. To go, would spoil the splendour that I now possessed. Like the pink ribbon out of Rosie’s hat, if I never had it I could never lose it. O, the brave music of a distant drum!

It is a melancholic tune, coming from a place far away: perhaps it exists only in imagination, or in memory, or in the brief space where these two touch each other. “The heart of a child of thirteen is a strange, complex thing—and who am I that I should profess to understand it?”

The story is told by Ryan in retrospect, from some point in the future, but with the lively voice of a child of the past: as if past and future were touching each other at an undisclosed point. Perhaps that is what melancholy means – a way of looking back into the future. A distant sound beating nearer and nearer, drumming through time; never stopping, but never, never arriving.

Yours truly,


N.C. Wyeth , ‘Louise Loved to Climb to the Summit on One of the Barren Hills Flanking the River, and Stand There While the Wind Blew’,1907

I am supposed to have no ear for music, and perhaps I have none. But I have an ear for sound. Sound of words, silver and sonorous; sound of water, deep green, rushing between dark rocks, or breaking in shallow kisses on flat, yellow sands; sound of birds’ wings in sudden, upward flight; of marsh grasses rustling secretly; of rooks’ voices harsh against an evening sky; of the clash of steel on steel from the black, thundering factories. Sound of a ship’s siren from the fog-bound river; of the creaking of row-locks as a dinghy pulls inshore; of rain on winter windows. … All these are my music; the music of life and living. –  Dorothy Evelyn Smith. O, The Brave Music


Remembering. Remembering. … How strange a thing is memory! Something happens; something horrific, beautiful, or poignantly sad; something that changes the whole course of life. And looking backwards to yesterday, and through a thousand yesterdays, the only things remembered clearly are the colour of somebody’s tie, a wrong note played on a piano, the tuppence lost down the back of a sofa. … The heart keeps the stone that splashed into the quiet pool; but the brain remembers only the shallow ripples that ran glinting across the surface—that will go on running for ever and ever, until they reach the ultimate shores of time. … –  Dorothy Evelyn Smith. O, The Brave Music


For it was she who made me understand that death in itself is not a terrible thing, nor even necessarily a sad thing, but more often the answer to a question; the lifting of a burden; a sudden light in a dark and tortuous passage.-  Dorothy Evelyn Smith. O, The Brave Music

About the book

  • British Library Publishing, 2020, 320 p. Goodreads
  • British Library Women Writers series
  • The title of the book refers to the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, Edward Fitzgerald’s 1859 translation of poems attributed to the Persian astronomer Omar Khayyám (1048–1131)
  • First published in 1943
  • My rating: 4 stars
  • Project: Classics Club

6 thoughts on “The music of life and living

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