A novel can afford to unveil its secrets slowly. Not so a short story. With its constricted circuitry, it has to be a stairway of surprise (in Emerson’s phrase) or the reader will stop climbing at the second or third step. The most incisive stories by Jane Gardam, a writer well known in Britain for children’s books and a host of novels (including the “Old Filth” trilogy that has recently won her new readers in America), are constructed, more often than not, around a double take. From colonial postings abroad, from buried love affairs, from the lists of the presumed dead (or “near-dead,” as they are called in one of Gardam’s ghost-ridden stories), a once-familiar figure suddenly looms. The unsettling appearance of such revenants — as in Proust or Anthony Powell’s “A Dance to the Music of Time” — brings about, in these deftly written tales, a shift, a re-evaluation, a fresh sense of what really happened in the past and an opening into a possibly altered future.
“Hetty Sleeping,” the first and one of the best of the stories assembled here, opens with just such a double take. An English woman on holiday with her children on Ireland’s Connemara coast is abruptly brought up short. “Seeing the tall man’s long back she thought with a lurch, ‘It’s like Heneker’s back.’ Then as he turned round she saw that it was Heneker.” With the lapse of years, Heneker Mann has become a famous painter; Hetty, his former student (and lover) at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, has sacrificed her own career for a comfortable marriage and a family. “The long brown hand, 10 years older but as familiar as her own, at last fastened over hers. ‘Stop. Don’t go.’ ” Will she? Will they? Not before a final twist, which gives Hetty another perspective (these are painters, after all) on hunkish Heneker. “What a piece of work,” he himself observes, “is Mann.”
The music of time speeds up in “The Dixie Girls.” “Eighty years ago, or thereabouts, Nell had shared a governess with the Dixie girls, Vi and V. and May, the daughters of a Major in the Blues and Greys.” Nell writes vivid home-front letters to the “formidable Dixie family” in their exotic colonial postings in India, Kenya, Malta and Singapore. Then comes a reversal straight out of Jane Austen: “The Major had died of drink and Mrs. Dixie of desiccation. There was no money left. Said V. ‘We are in penury.’ ” For Nell, who “had believed for so long that the Dixies were significant,” it’s a revelation. One day, years later, out sightseeing with her own glum daughter, Nell glimpses “a woman, lean, shoulderless, colorless, in faded clothes” and vaguely familiar. “It’s V. She is not dead,” Nell thinks, not quite accurately, as it turns out. And then, to our complete surprise, Nell — after her own daughter and the Dixie girls are all, definitively, dead — finds an odd way to pass for a Dixie girl herself.
In the superb story “The Sidmouth Letters,” the double take (“He recognized me and I think would have pretended not to had I not called out ‘Oh!’ ”) is built into something like a theory of the short story as literary genre. Shorty Shenfold is an American professor of “enormous size” (think Little John) with a “predilection for the short: short story, short polemic, short but searching criticism, short shrift.” Annie, one of his students, writes “a short piece which in my innocence I had thought might interest him about Jane Austen’s only — and putative — love affair on a seaside holiday on the Dorset-Devon coast.” Shorty gives Annie’s essay, entitled “Love and Privacy,” the briefest of looks. He assigns it a low grade, then brazenly publishes it under his own name.
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Five years later, Shorty gets wind of a bundle of Austen letters in the hands of an old lady in Dorset. Conveniently having forgotten his sleazy treatment of her, he asks Annie’s help, unaware that she herself has close ties to the owner of the letters. In a twist reminiscent of “The Aspern Papers,” Annie opts for privacy over what Henry James acidly called publishing scoundrels. Along the way, she implicitly rejects Shorty Shenfold’s notion of the short story as, by its very nature, nasty, brutish and short.
Gardam’s most ambitious retrieval of the past, encompassing three backward-glancing novels as well as short stories, involves her indelible character Sir Edward Feathers, a lawyer and judge in the colonial service nicknamed (by his own “well-worn joke”) Old Filth, for “Failed in London Try Hong Kong.” In “Old Filth,” a novel with some of the downbeat vigor of the later Kingsley Amis, Feathers, a “Raj orphan” raised by sadistic strangers in Wales, survives a traumatic childhood borrowed, with acknowledgment, from Kipling, though with an exacted (and long-concealed) revenge that Kipling never achieved. Feathers’s distinguished career abroad is complicated by his rivalry, legal and romantic, with a slick barrister named Terry Veneering.
A shrewd and finely tuned story called “Old Filth,” which will be familiar to readers of the Edward Feathers novels, describes his afterlife in the English countryside — “No place in the world could be less like Hong Kong.” After 30 years, who should show up unannounced in Dorset, literally next door, but “swashbuckling Veneering” himself, “the only man in either his professional or private life that Old Filth had ever detested.” As in some far-fetched romance, a snowstorm and a locked door throw them together, and Veneering, whose name is filched from Dickens while also suggesting a deceptive surface, turns out to be not quite the man Old Filth had long assumed him to be.
Another story, “The People on Privilege Hill” — one of a clutch of Christmas stories at the end of the collection — also features Veneering, who has lost his only son. (“Bullet,” he bluntly explains. “Soldier.”) “Been playing the Blues,” he remarks, sitting down at the piano. “Last Friends,” the concluding novel of the Old Filth trilogy, gave Veneering a picturesque past consistent with such revelations.
Stories that consistently look back to an earlier time, with regret or remorse, run the risk of seeming old-fashioned, while Christmas and Easter tales with supernatural (and occasionally saccharine) elements can seem atavistic in a secular age. But Gardam (who is now in her mid-80s) generally steers clear of these dangers. Among the holiday tales she has included here, “Swan,” with its uncanny rapport between a reticent immigrant child from China and a revenant swan (“It’s stone dead,” someone says. “But the swan was not dead”), is particularly appealing.
Gardam’s sly and bighearted stories will give Americans another welcome opportunity to become familiar with her varied body of work. In their finely tuned mastery of Shorty Shenfold’s chosen form, but missing the nastiness, they should inspire a well-deserved double take.