Roger Moore, Associate Dean and Senior Lecturer in English at Vanderbilt, has mixed feelings about Vanderbilt in spring. “The campus is of course at its most beautiful right now, so I am enjoying my walks to and from work. There’s definitely some restlessness in the air, and lots of anxiety. I’m always torn at this time of year between relief that the semester is drawing to its close and melancholy over the many good students who are heading out to the next stage of their lives after graduation.”
Roger has himself recently reached an important milestone, having submitted his final manuscript of Jane Austen and the Reformation (to be published later this year). He’s happy to have it off his plate for the time being and is delighted to be reading something other than Jane Austen. Right now, he’s deep into Moll Flanders for the first time in 15 years and says, “I am really struck by how her struggles are not that different from those of many women today.” Next up: Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant.
An Anglophile (can you tell?), Roger keeps up with goings-on across the Pond. Today, he reflects on British culture and The Stories of Jane Gardam.
It is commonplace these days to observe that the British are undergoing a deep, enduring crisis of identity. For hundreds of years, the story goes, they were sustained and united by the Empire, the Church of England, and the monarchy. With the Empire gone, and the Church increasingly irrelevant to the lives of most Britons – the United Kingdom is usually characterized as “post-Christian”- the monarchy is the only remaining institution around which the people can rally. Even the monarchy, however, is on slippery ground: headed by an 88-year old monarch, this venerable institution faces deep challenges, as Mike Bartlett’s recent critically-acclaimed play King Charles III implies. How do ordinary British subjects react to the changes? How will they pick up the pieces and “carry on,” something they are famous for doing so calmly? What stresses, compromises, and possibilities arise in the uncertain space between the demise of one culture and the emergence of another?
These questions are of great interest to historians and social scientists, but they have also occupied Jane Gardam throughout her career, and they animate The Stories of Jane Gardam, an anthology of her short fiction published between 1977 and 2007. Best known as the author of the Old Filth trilogy of novels, Gardam has always had an affection for short stories, and these are among her finest. In them, she explores the lives of ordinary, middle-class Britons who must figure out how to function in a rapidly changing world. In some ways these stories resemble the late works of Barbara Pym, which sensitively explore the cultural changes in 1970s England, but they go beyond Pym’s in their cosmopolitanism. Gardam’s characters are often Raj orphans or former Imperial diplomats or civil servants, people whose lives were marked by international travel and contact with foreign cultures. Her stories move between Britain and its former colonies, and her characters often refer to the certainties of their lives in Imperial service, to the comforting institutions and rituals established over centuries of colonial rule. They frequently hold on to relics of the past, like the ladies in “The Tribute,” who refer to the “brasses and elephants’ feet” they collected on their travels with diplomat husbands. One character notes that they all possess them, but they “can’t bear” them and don’t know what to do with things that seem so out of place in their attenuated, colorless circumstances back in London.
Not surprisingly, there are lots of ghosts in these stories. The characters have ghostly memories of the past – old Ingoldby in “The Easter Lilies” remembers “the eccentric pink-faced English roaring about” in Malta during his service there, the decayed gentleladies in “The Tribute” search for a way to memorialize the nanny who raised their children, and the Partridges in “Rode By All With Pride” are aware that their household help is nothing like the staff of “five indoor servants” that had been employed in their Wimbledon townhouse before 1939. But actual ghosts take center stage in stories like “A Spot of Gothic,” where the main character encounters a mysterious woman beckoning to her along the road in the dark of night, and “The Sidmouth Letters,” where Jane Austen’s mysterious seaside love affair plays a significant role in the life of a contemporary woman. In “Soul Mates,” Francis and Pat, while on holiday, meet another married couple, Jocelyn and Evelyn, who are eerily similar to them. Both of the wives had married civil servants straight out of Oxford and Cambridge, and their experiences and interests match exactly. The foursome hit it off so well that Jocelyn and Evelyn invite their new friends back to their house to spend the night. Francis and Pat gradually realize that their friends may not be real, and the story ends on a distinctly unsettling note. Evelyn’s comment to Pat, “I thought there was nobody left like us,” is telling and might apply to any number of people in these stories. Gardam’s characters find fewer and fewer who resemble them, and Francis and Pat are themselves revenants of a sort, emblematic of an entire group of people who have been rendered useless and redundant in post-imperial, post-Christian Britain.
While Gardam’s stories chronicle life in a particularly confusing moment in British history, her stories confront a range of universal themes and subjects. In “Lunch with Ruth Sykes,” we learn of the complicated relationship between a mother and daughter; in “The First Adam” and “The Pig Boy,” we discover the great stress that long-distance marriages can undergo. “Rode By All with Pride” is a heartbreaking story of two parents who must deal with disappointment when the carefully laid plans for their only daughter’s acceptance at Oxford go awry. Gardam sensitively, sympathetically portrays every parent’s desire to provide the best for their children. During this season of college admissions decisions, this story will have special resonance for many.
Although Gardam writes about the difficulties of living in a time of wrenching change, she avoids pessimism. Her characters show remarkable resilience, and her tone is hopeful. The longstanding antipathy between Feathers and Veneering (two characters readers will recognize from Gardam’s novels), for instance, which began in Hong Kong and continued in their retirement in England, softens during an unexpected Christmas lunch in “Old Filth.” In “The Easter Lilies,” an old woman’s bequest saves the beloved church that had previously been scheduled to close. Early in the story, Miss White writes to a former pupil about the importance of churches:
“It is not a beautiful building but it stands tall in blocks of identical suburban streets, all so dull, all so tasteful, all with the same expensive curtain linings to the windows and the same flicker of the television screen, all silent of life otherwise as one walks the dog late at night, that it stands out as something different and serious and I truly believe that temples of worship are needed as I said when we spent the delightful day driving to the golden temples of Hagar Qum.”
The temples of Hagar Qum are megalithic structures on the island of Malta. Gardam’s allusion to them places the decline of traditional British culture into a larger historical perspective and surely indicates her recognition that, while societies may come and go, important human values and aspirations endure. Although in ruins, the Maltese temples testify to the ancient, ineradicable desire to explain the mysteries of human existence. Gardam also shares this desire. That she writes of the survival of Miss White’s church – appropriately named All Saints – in an age when so many British churches stand empty or have been converted to secular uses, demonstrates her confidence that something of the historic fundamentals of British identity will remain intact, despite the challenges of the last fifty years.