Britain’s multi-prize-winning author Jane Gardam was virtually unknown in America until the publication of her delightful novel Old Filth in 2004. That book brought her the long-overdue attention she deserves.
Gardam’s writing is smart, bright and impressionistic: she colors places and characters deftly but never lingers too long on description or dialogue. Her novels are remarkable for their insinuation of the emotional undercurrents of ordinary lives.
Old Filth brought to life the unusual and unpredictable character of Sir Edward Feathers, a staid barrister recently retired and widowed whose life story courses through the waning years of the empire. (“Old Filth,” his nickname, is an acronym for Failed In London Try Hongkong.) The Man In the Wooden Hat is Gardam’s equally fascinating reprise of the story told from the perspective of Old Filth’s wife, Mary. In these two novels, which act like facing mirrors, we discover the complexities of their long marriage: fidelities and infidelities, jealousies and desires, unspoken kindnesses and remembered cruelties.
Crusoe’s Daughter is Gardam’s own favorite among her many novels. Again, with the fine tip of her word-brush, she paints a portrait of an intelligent, bookish girl who, at the turn of the 20th century, goes to live on the isolated northeast coast of Yorkshire with her spinster aunts and remains there into her own old age in the 1980s.
Crusoe’s Daughter, Gardam explains in her preface, was the “deeper” book she wanted to write after her initial successes, a story imagined from her mother’s experience of an “old-fashioned” world that had ceased to exist. Gardam says: “But it would not be a nostalgic, romantic or historical novel of bonnets and bustles and tea parties and endless summer days. I would show women of the early nineteenth [sic] century as I knew they had been—starved of money, employment, sex and the love of men who were not their ‘class’. Their success in life in these immovable, unrelenting country places was judged by their ability to get married as soon as possible to a suitable man who could support them, to breed, to live chaste and never to think of working for their living.”
That description pretty well sums up the book she wrote. It is quiet and exciting at the same time, full of ordinary events and emotion, much of it repressed. Protagonist Polly Flint’s attraction to the story of Robinson Crusoe becomes a leitmotif, and although the theme at times feels overdone (its use at the end is odd and not quite satisfying), Gardam creates a female character who is as determined, strong, rational and sexless as Defoe’s.