For much of her career, Jane Gardam has been compared to that other Jane, whose inch of ivory has proved such a resilient myth. Like Austen, Gardam is a great deal more than she may first appear, both as a writer of short stories and as a novelist.
These collected stories – by no means all, and chosen by the author – come in the wake of Gardam being the only British writer selected for the 2014 Folio Prize, and give some measure of her range. Many have links with the Far East, especially Hong Kong, where her greatest creation, the barrister Old Filth (Failed In London Try Hong Kong) and subject of her three latest novels, gained his fortune and lost his heart. However, the huge cast which peoples her imagination includes tramps, the Little Mermaid’s seventh sister, the Green Man, ghosts and monsters. These are, above all, stories of the kind that one has almost given up hope of encountering in the 21st century – funny, affecting, beautiful and with a twist at the end that makes them powerful cocktails in the literary cabinet.
Why aren’t the magazines and news-papers which claim to champion the form, clamouring to publish them? She is easily the equal of Katharine Mansfield, Alice Munro and Helen Simpson, but strangely obscure in this country, despite winning the Costa/Whitbread prize twice, being short-listed for both the Booker and the Orange and holding the Heywood Hill Prize for a lifetime contribution to the enjoyment of literature. Perhaps it’s because she has the Austenesque quality of being satisfying and disquieting, conventional and experimental, and is much more artful than she appears. One of the stories in this collection is, in fact, about Austen. The narrator is inveigled by a grasping American academic into a pre-emptive purchase of some letters, possibly written by Austen to the mysterious man said by Cassandra Austen to have been “worthy of Jane”. Such a discovery would be sensational. Little does the academic, a much-married fortune-hunter and plagiarist, know that the letters belong, in fact, in the narrator’s own family – never opened but unmistakably authentic. She has a moral choice, respecting not only her own background but the women whom the academic has relentlessly exploited. What she does is both heart-breaking – and right.
Gardam’s style is part of her hypnotic ability to make you believe that what she tells us is true. Conversational, lucid, realist yet fantastical, she can be outrageously funny, gradually revealing her characters by what is not said, and not seen. The elderly ladies in “The Tribute”, gathering to commemorate “poor Dench”, their former nanny, seem engaging at first, but their exploitation of a heroic servant is increasingly repulsive, right down to a tiny detail which, in the final paragraph of the story, springs back with a stinging smack to punish them. Equally haunting is “Rode By All With Pride”, a story about a Wimbledon couple who, being Oxbridge-educated and serenely certain that their only child will follow their own privileged path, get the worst news possible.
Few of Gardam’s stories let the reader off lightly. She knows the world of the educated, affluent, middle-class elite inside-out, but also outside-in, so that what seems at first to be a celebration of privilege becomes a devastating critique of selfishness, smugness and blindness. The impoverished spinster, trying to save her dilapidated church’s money by importing the Easter lilies which grow like weeds in Malta, ends up giving it a greater gift. The lonely engineer working on construction sites in the Far East has, as his “tender mistress”, the figures and drawings of his latest project, “something that will be there when we’re all dead, up and finished,” rather than the woman who offers him her body.
Some of the funniest stories remind us that the author also writes for children. The animals in “The Zoo at Christmas” speak to each other, but their conversation is far more odd than we might like to believe. The Little Mermaid, who almost persuades her dead sister’s Prince to join her under the sea, has her feminist furies stoked by experience, though her Sea King father remarks dryly: “It is a mistake to base a whole philosophy of life upon one disappointment.”
Not every story is as top-notch as these and in selecting some of her own favourites Gardam loses the satisfaction of the interlinked characters in her collection Black Faces, White Faces, as well as some of her best meditations on love and death. Yet those which are here give a flavour of her brilliance, originality and wit. She shows us that what matters in life is kindness, imagination, community and work. It’s an old message, but in the hands of one of our greatest living writers, refreshing.