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The New York Times's feature on Jane Gardam

Date: Jun 27 2014

SANDWICH, England — Jane Gardam’s most famous novel, “Old Filth,” begins with stage directions and elliptical dialogue, which it’s tempting to imitate in describing Ms. Gardam, a writer who unites literary critics in puzzlement over why she isn’t more famous.

Scene: The living room of a beautiful old house. A lemon drizzle cake, a teapot and china cups (delicate) are set out. A woman with white hair and upright posture, and blue eyes that compel the clichéd adjectives (piercing/sky/cornflower) faces a journalist who is typing on a computer.

Journalist: You published your first book at 43.

Woman: I always knew I would be a writer.

In “Old Filth” and two later volumes that continue the story of an elderly lawyer, his wife, his rival and their friends, Ms. Gardam intersperses such scenes with conventional narrative, flashbacks, changes of perspective, letters and unreliable reportage to chart their lives. Sir Edward Feathers, called Filth — it stands for Failed in London Try Hong Kong — is a “Raj orphan” from a generation of between-the-wars children whose parents served the Empire in the East. “Old Filth” follows his childhood exile to Britain, adult return to the East and retirement in a Dorset village.

“If Rudyard Kipling was the laureate of the British Empire, then Jane Gardam is surely the closest thing we have to a laureate of its demise,” Elizabeth Lowry wrote in The Times Literary Supplement last year, reviewing “Last Friends,” the third volume in the trilogy.

Ms. Gardam, now 85, has been acclaimed by reviewers for her structural brilliance, acute psychological insight and compulsively readable storytelling since she began publishing in the early 1970s. “The Stories of Jane Gardam” has just been published by Europa Editions in the United States, and has been greeted with rapture by the British press. Included in the collection is the genesis of the “Old Filth” novels, a story of the same title that was commissioned by Richard Ingrams for The Oldie magazine in 2002. (Another Filth-related tale, “The People on Privilege Hill,” is also in the new book.)

Though the “Old Filth” novels have won Ms. Gardam a cultlike following, she remains what the author Stacy Schiff called, in an email, “a secret-handshake novelist.” That may change if the BBC goes ahead with a six-part “Old Filth” series now in development.

“I’m told I will hate it, and I should keep out of sight, but I shan’t,” Ms. Gardam said, looking delighted at the thought.

“My publishers want a fourth Filth novel,” she continued. “We’ll see.” Isobel Ingoldby, a peripheral though pivotal figure in the novels, would be the focus, “but she’s hard,” Ms. Gardam said, and elaborated in an email: “She has Filth’s built-in English class background but fights its restrictions, and she has the confidence to disregard them, and the ferocious emotional temperament to overcome them.” She added, “I had better say that yes, I would like to write about Isobel.”

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Although Ms. Gardam is friendly with a number of writers, including Alison Lurie, Ian McEwan and Margaret Drabble, she is not part of a fashionable London literary circle, nor has she ever been. She was born and raised in North Yorkshire by a mother she described as having “hardly any education, but a tremendous letter writer,” and a schoolteacher father. Her father’s family were farmers in northernmost Cumbria, close to Scotland: “an enormous influence,” she said, recalling “the way everything turns into a story there, the music of how they tell a tale.”

She won a scholarship to Bedford College at London University, worked for the Red Cross, then married David Gardam, a barrister, whose career was to provide much of the material for “Old Filth.” The day her third child started school, she said she sat down and began to write.

“I always had this feeling that if I took my attention away from the children, something bad would happen,” she said. “So I waited.”

After Ms. Gardam finished her first novel, “A Fair Few Days,” written for children, she walked up the road and posted it to the publishers Hamish Hamilton. “After three weeks,” she said, “I rang them up, and said, ‘I haven’t heard from you.’ Afterwards, I learned that they thought they had a crazy woman on the phone.” But fortunately, someone at the publishing house found the manuscript, she recalled, “and said, ‘You know, I think this might do.’ ”

Ms. Gardam wrote steadily from that time on; to date, she has published 16 novels (some for children) and eight short-story collections. She was shortlisted for the Booker Prize (for “God on the Rocks,” in 1978), and twice won the Whitbread Book of the Year, among other awards.

Ms. Gardam’s books are at once contemporary and satisfyingly crammed with old-fashioned narrative intrigue. “People die, wars come and go, houses rise and fall, people go mad and come back again, children grow up, whole continents are traversed,” the critic and writer Courtney Cook wrote in an email. But, she said, the “prose is spare and understated — so you get the high adventure of Dickens with the deft lightness of a late-20th-century author.”

Since 1987, Ms. Gardam has lived here in Sandwich, a pretty market town close to the southeast coast, a leisurely two-hour train ride away from London. Her house, in which she has lived alone since her husband died in 2010, dates, in part, to the 14th century (“Chaucer may have stayed here on his way to Canterbury,” she wrote in an email. “Whoever can tell?”), and has a glorious walled garden, filled with flowers.

The inspiration, perhaps, for Betty’s superb garden in the Old Filth books? “Betty would have managed it better than me,” Ms. Gardam said, referring to Filth’s wife, the central character of “The Man in the Wooden Hat,” the second novel in the trilogy.

Ms. Gardam’s dispassionate attitude toward her characters, her capacity to see them as mysterious, is perhaps one of the secrets of her ability to create multiple, interwoven narratives and strangely compelling personalities, often driven by the hidden scars of childhood.

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“Every character is just immediately him- or herself,” Ms. Schiff said. “No one folds and unfolds time as Gardam does; she works origami with it, so that in a single moment, we’re three places at once.”

Whether writing a short story or a novel (“a form has to hit you between the eyes”), Ms. Gardam said she always begins with an image. The character of Old Filth, she said, was spurred by a glimpse of a man emerging from the Ritz Hotel in London. “He was a wonderful-looking man, wearing beautiful clothes, carrying a briefcase, like David’s, very battered. I thought, he must be a ghost from the past. I told David, and he said, if he was a ghost, he would have been wearing a hat.”

Like Sir Edward Feathers, David Gardam specialized in construction law, and once the children were grown, Ms. Gardam traveled with him frequently to Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and elsewhere. Her first short-story collection, in 1975, “Black Faces, White Faces,” came out of a trip to Jamaica. “It was heavenly,” she said, “the colors, the people, I came back almost mad, full of stories.”

Although Ms. Gardam has been slowed recently by back surgery, and was cautious about the topic of new work, her desire, perhaps even her need, to write remains strong. In the email, speaking of writing something new, she said:, “I might steel myself! But I am beginning to think of other prey! A last fling.”

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