If Charles Dickens and George Eliot had lived to experience the world they helped create, their fiction would have eventually condensed into that of Jane Gardam's. Gardam, a British writer whose thirty-year career has enjoyed some praise in her home country but little notice stateside, has, more successfully than most novelists, navigated the narrow stream between the stingy shores of modernism and the grand cliffs of the nineteenth century novel. I have a standing bet that future writers will return to this era and rediscover Gardam as a serious innovator of the novel form, one who rescued narrative fiction from both the laboratory of postmodernism and the lockers of irrelevance.
Crusoe's Daughter, now available in the U.S. thanks to Europa Editions, is, we're told in Gardam's new introduction, her first real novel and still her favorite. It's not hard to see why. This early text features all that comprised her later masterpiece Old Filth: the refracted plot; the carbonated dialogue; the spry touch with death, longing, and repression; and the characters who spring suddenly open to reveal whole huge passageways behind their dowdy British facades. (We also find few of the regrettable contrivances that hobbled novels like The Man in the Wooden Hat.) When Gardam claims Crusoe's Daughter as the first salvo of her maturity, we have no reason to doubt her.
It is also a work by a novelist who knew even at this early stage of her career the elemental contradictions of her chosen form, and the number of centuries writers before her had devoted to resolving them. Crusoe's Daughter, its literary lineage highlighted in the title, twines its serious take on the novel's history and challenges so finely into the biography of its heroine that the two are virtually identical. As they are in life: our time on this planet is always a struggle to order experiences into a narrative, to dig out the hidden causes and discern the multitudinous effects. We all wrestle with the questions posed by Defoe and Eliot, even if we don't do so as overtly as Polly Flint.
As for this Ms. Flint (never Mrs.): she is born at the end the end of the nineteenth century and rapidly orphaned, a clear descendent of the Becky Sharps and Esther Summersons and Daniel Derondas before her. Especially for Dickens, the orphan was a central existential conceit, and his best novels traced the two helixes of this singular state: the orphan in Dickens was always pure, having neither literally nor figuratively inherited Christian society's two millennia of moral compromises, but he was also entirely beholden upon this same society for survival. Dickens's plots proceeded by untangling this isolated yet dependent condition; their resolutions in secret wills and fortuitous genealogical revelations set the narrative template for the English novel for two generations' time, a reign that ends just as Polly Flint loses her parents.
Polly soon finds herself the ward of a pair of sisters who are already implicated in the rigor mortis of British Empire, with all the ossified rituals of Christianity and prohibitive class divisions and contingent marriages that this implies. Polly revolts against her aunts' moral dogma even as she internalizes much of their ethics, rejecting their religion but taking charge of their home, and after both aunts die she carries on these oppositions as a perverse tribute to the structures that allowed her to live by bending her to its deformed shapes. Along the way, Flint nears a couple of men whom she might, under different circumstances, have married; instead, she shies from them and they from her as if her tragic twisted self were visible as Esther Summerson's smallpox scars.
All the while, Polly retreats further into Robinson Crusoe, rereading Defoe's tale of self-sufficiency even as others scoff at the old kid's book. "But my child," chides Polly's furtive mentor when she catches the girl with a copy of Crusoe, "no poetry, no trace of poetry." Polly, of course, would say the same about the world into which she was born. Paul Treece, one of her would-be lovers, is a poet, or at least thinks so; nobody else is very convinced. If Treece had been born at another time -- the great if of the twentieth century -- he might have lived to prove them wrong. Instead, he catches a German bullet; his poetry doesn't actually arrive in Polly's hands until years afterward, and she doesn't realize that much of it was for her until it's far too late. Treece's ineffectual poems form the opposite pole of Defoe's timeless tale of survival; literature, once man's approximation of immortality, is now a thin shield powerless before the terrorizing forces of modern warfare.
Soon, writers realized that the real isolation of man is to be in the midst of people trying to shoot him. "Are they really coming to kill me?" wondered Rostov as he stood alone in a battlefield watching a sizeable chunk of Napoleon's army charge him, the world historical forces somehow having singled him out. One war later, over one million British soldiers died equally alone on similarly crowded fields; no doubt any of them would have happily traded places with Robinson Crusoe on his silly little beach. Meanwhile, Polly rapidly loses almost everyone important to her --and Gardam can be rather Old Testament in the disinterested way she dispatches with her creations -- surviving the war only to be left by herself on an island of guilt-deformed strangers, shipwrecked not away from others but among them, not severed from society but intimately threatened by it. Crusoe searched out signs of life; Polly Flint spends her novel recoiling from them. We have arrived at the twentieth century, when other people are mere glances produced by our own troubled spotlight, and we run from them as the soldiers who shared a trench with Paul Treece avoided sunrise: being seen is how you get shot.
When the imagining of others is a dangerous act, fiction is backed into a corner. This was the bit in the teeth of the twentieth century novel: from Dickens's and Eliot's sprawling and multivoiced narratives, the novel narrowed into slim works so scared of empathic imagination that the limits of their first-person narrative's experience were mistaken for art's cage itself. Indeed, at roughly the same time Flint's story ended, a war-exiled Samuel Beckett was resting his case on man's inability to so much as affirm each other's existence. "He is not a native of the rocks!" Mr. Hackett cries when Mr. Nixon is unable to say a single thing about one-shoed Watt walking lonely down a train platform. "One does not part with five shillings to a shadow." One hundred years prior, Dickens expertly guided his orphan protagonists to their true parents and real inheritances; by the time of Beckett, nobody has a past, nobody has a future, and there is no will hiding in a desk drawer somewhere that explains and exonerates. Watt, adrift in a contextless haze, unfathomable to anybody else, is a walking island, stranded not by himself but inside himself -- truly Crusoe's modern son. Gardam's title is less another name for Polly Flint than a warning that this fate could await her as well, the inevitable consequence of the obliteration of human ties, as if she were a native of the rocks.
Polly comes to this realization herself, as she nearly completes her slide into anonymous spinsterhood: "Everyone's no one to me," she sneers at one point, thinking this a fine epigram, mostly because she's drunk. Whereas the entire novel has been in Polly's point of view, a myopia creeps over it so gradually that the reader barely notices. This cataract of solipsism stops both Polly and the reader from catching quite how much she's drinking, how little she leaves the house, and how strange she appears to others.
Fortunately, Polly has a servant named Alice, who has lived with her since the war, long enough to have seen Polly's barriers constructed and sharp enough to know they are still scalable. Alice takes the booze away and gets Polly a job teaching English to a bunch of boys at the local school, boys whose fathers and older brothers are gone, the war having left everybody in England part-orphan. Polly manages to shake off her dowdiness to lecture on Defoe and the birth of the novel, even if the lads don't quite understand what she's talking about. "Every serious novel must in some degree and unnoticeably carry the form further," Polly tells the boys. "Novel must be 'novel'. To survive -- like the blob in the ocean, the seed, it must hold in itself some fibrous strength, some seemingly preposterous new angle."
As the class looks back at this rambling pedant in awe and horror and farce, the scene becomes a wonderful metonym for the novel, and even the world itself, as it must have appeared at the other end of World War Two: mangled, unable to account for its fissures and fractures, yet somehow still standing. Polly lectures breathlessly, as if she has returned from a distant shore, sand stuck to the bottoms of her feet, holding a hand-drawn map of where she thinks she ended up, for when the next group inevitably get themselves lost, too. As we know they will: Gardam was writing in 1986, after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam, an arms race with Russia, and the rest. To stand her protagonist up at the doorstep of this dread, after all Polly has survived and in the face of the children's nuclear-charged future, is an act of extreme hope by Gardam. She allows Polly to begin to reconstruct the connections that Dickens and Eliot had once charted, connections that, at any point in the twentieth century, seemed to exist merely to be blown up, and may still be yet.
But the novel, Polly reminds us, must be "novel"; recreation is its task and function. Sure enough, children tromp about the latter pages of Crusoe's Daughter, not just the students in Polly's class but an old almost-lover's progeny who escape Hitler's reach just in time. The march of generations is, after all, the second half of the book's title: "Crusoe" suggests isolation, but "daughter" populates and continues. Even as Polly spends much of her life looking back through the centuries, her position as Crusoe's true heir carries his story and hers forward, restoring the past and the future to us from Beckett's barren existentialism. This is how Polly survives, and moreover it is how, in Gardam's hands, the novel swims on, holding in itself that fibrous strength that keeps these tales afloat into the new millennium.