Bittersweet tales about the recent past from a quietly impressive British author
by Lindsay Duguid
MANY PEOPLE will have been pleased to see the 85-year-old British novelist Jane Gardam among the younger names on the debut shortlist for the Folio prize recently. It felt apt that a new award should acknowledge a long and distinguished career, particularly one of such literary finesse. Although she only began writing in her forties, Gardam has twice won the Whitbread prize, was shortlisted in 1978 for the Booker for God on the Rocks, and has created in her children’s books, novels and short stories a world that is very much her own. This collection of 30 of her own favourite stories from the past 37 years shows that world at its best.
Gardam’s fictional territory is an England of the recent past, a country with an empire and embassies, a land in which families are correct rather than warm, and where nannies and governesses make what they can of the children in their care. It is a place where long friendships are sustained by letters from abroad and game old relics of British Rule remember the glories of Penang and Pankot in modest bungalows with oriental rugs.
Gardam’s characterisations often begin with a keen eye cast over odd hats and slippers, unsuitable trouser suits and too high heels. Old Filth, the hero of her prize-winning trilogy of novels (Old Filth, The Man in the Wooden Hat and 2013’s Folio-shortlisted Last Friends), appears in two stories here, one from 1996, and another from 2007 in which he is appropriately impeccable in “a magnificent 20-year-old double-breasted three-piece suit”, while his disreputable old legal rival, Veneering, wears “a dreadful anorak”.
It is not simply melancholy nostalgia. The nicely observed detail mirrors a system of intricate social values, finely tuned to disguise personal damage and pain, things “kept under wraps”. Many of the stories turn on the revelation of long-nurtured passion and grief; looking back over their life’s journey, successful men and women are pierced by regret. Cocktail parties and hotel lunches are the occasion for home truths delivered in Kensington voices. In family quarrels, the young attack parental values. “Do you think”, the secretly sorrowing grown-up Rosalind says to her mother in Lunch with Ruth Sykes, “that just once you could express a single original thought?”; the tragic failure of the parents in Rode by with all Pride, who thought they had done so well, was that they offered their only child a middle-class education instead of love and attention. More than one story is powered by feelings of abandonment.
Gardam’s narratives are sharp and disconcerting. The prose is plain and strong with short, informative sentences and long sections of dialogue. The tone is intimate and confiding, at times resembling that of the garrulous women who retell an old tale, and the well-structured plots often enact a poetic justice. It seems right that the valuable pearl necklace belonging to the unpleasant Lady Hatt in the story "The Easter Lilies" (Hatt is one of several colonial dipsomaniacs here) should, by a series of accidents, be the means of restoring the leaking roof of All Saints church, and right, too, that the long-lost cache of Jane Austen love letters in "The Sidmouth Letters" should be destroyed on a beach by an overlooked modern woman writer with a man on her mind.
Elsewhere, there are poignantly apt legacies, apposite comeuppances and more than a little humour. The elderly narrator of "Groundlings" decides to drive to London: “I didn’t tell anyone at home that I was going so early because there’s opposition nowadays on account of my leg and the time I didn’t see the Sutton roundabout.” In "The Pangs of Love," a reworking of Hans Christian Andersen, the Little Mermaid’s youngest, feminist sister coolly describes the prince as “not at all bad in the bath”.
Gardam also takes us into more gothic regions, with the skewed thoughts of the Green Man in his piece of suburban woodland ("The Green Man"), the death in hospital of a old man born with a diamond in his neck (Grace), and a lovelorn boy ("The Boy Who Turned into a Bike"). The juxtaposition of the modern and mysterious recalls the deftly numinous stories of Sylvia Townsend Warner.
In the end, what Gardam’s admirers find in her writing is a compelling mixture of the strange and the familiar, well-told tales in which love, death and sorrow are properly valued. These moving and diverting meditations on the past offer a simple lesson: they don’t make them like that any more. This collection is very welcome.