I read Jane Gardam’s Old Filth before I started this blog, and it occurs to me now that, since starting this blog, I don’t know if I’ve seen anyone else reading her. This surprises me, because Gardam is phenomenal, at once tender and biting. I was very happy when I saw that Europa Editions was bringing back to print Gardam’s own favorite novel (according to her new introduction, “by far the favourite of all my books”), Crusoe’s Daughter (1985). Boy, this is a lovely book, perfect for a long summer day when you’re looking to brush against loneliness.
Our narrator is an old woman named Polly Flint. She’s lived out most of her life and we benefit from her reflection, which has a purpose: “Bringing the years to an end as a tale that is told.” This is a book about a life and a book about narrative, and it succeeded beyond my expectations in both regards. In fact, each level is complementary to the other; the sum is greater than its parts.
The book takes us back to 1904, when six-year-old Polly Flint is delivered by her sea-faring father to her two aunts. They live at Oversands, the yellow house on a sand-marsh in Yorkshire. Her mother died years before, and her father, unbeknownst to anyone, has two months until his own death at sea, effectively leaving Polly stranded. It’s to Gardam’s credit that the sense of being stranded is mixed in with the genuine love and affection Polly feels toward her new life and her two aunts. Emotion, and its many layers, is handled well throughout.
On one level, this is a book about a woman’s life in England throughout the twentieth-century; abandonment and loneliness, introduced in the first pages when Polly’s father dies, flare up all the time, even amidst joy. In fact, maybe it’s the loneliness that makes any joy feel more pronounced, though Gardam never flirts with sentimentality. On the narrative level, then, it’s the compassionate story-telling, the subtlety of the emotions, and, perhaps particularly, the wry humor that make this book a pleasure as we move with this stranded soul through the century and its atrocities.
And the humor comes often. One of my favorite passage occurs early on when Polly explains that even as a young girl she didn’t feel any need to follow her aunts’ religious devotion. They are indignant when she rebels (as someone explains to Polly, what else do they have, these two old maids?). Still, despite her affection for them, Polly cannot bring herself to be confirmed. It may have all started when she was young and misunderstood what “suffer the little children” meant:
For perhaps five or six years — perhaps many more — I thought that ‘suffer the little children’ meant that Jesus had been all for measles and mumps, and this made me thoughtful. In spite of all the care and generosity and approbation and the lovely security that breathed everywhere in the compelling yellow house, I became wary of God there. Oh very wary, indeed.
Maybe I’m the only one who finds that humorous. Most often, humor comes with the characterizations. A bit later in the book, Polly moves in with the Thwaite family for a time. Many artists find refuge with the Thwaites, the Lady being a great patron of the arts, but, where Polly hopes to experience invigorating conversations about art, she instead finds a bunch of pretentious imbeciles — and it’s a lot of fun! Yes, a lot of fun, even while we see its effects further isolating Polly.
Sadly (but in a good way) the book is not all humor. Polly is denied most things in which humanity conventionally installs value (reminding me, somewhat, of Alice James (my thoughts Jeane Strouse’s magnificent biography of Alice James here)). Besides that, there’s a string of deaths that threaten to obliterate Crusoe’s Daughter itself as we wonder just how much this narrative can take before capsizing. But the narrative overcomes.
In fact, it’s the book’s examination of narrative itself that I found most compelling, and it certainly strengthens the story. Here we have a girl whose earliest memories are of staring at the row of books in Oversands. As we can glean from the title, one book had a particular influence on Polly: Robinson Crusoe. When Polly feels abandoned in real life, it’s with Crusoe she finds companionship, and not really just as a literary friend. It becomes a conscious choice when she is twenty and her childhood crush, Theo, leaves.
Monumental, godlike Crusoe. Monumentally and deistically taking control of his emotions. And I, Polly Flint, after the knowledge of my loss, set out to be the same. Theo’s face and being and presence at her shoulders, Polly Flint blots out, and lets the noble and unfailing face and being and presence of Crusoe become her devotion and her joy.
Crusoe is her idol and her king.
Crusoe’s mastery of circumstances.
Crusoe, Polly Flint’s father and her mother.
Polly looks back on this time and her elderly perspective kicks in, still a bit in shock:
Sitting in the yellow house with nothing in the world to do. Polly Flint. Twenty years old. Might there be time?
I became very odd. Oh, really quite odd then.
By the end of Crusoe’s Daughter, the narrative, which has been flirting with Robinson Crusoe from the beginning, merges with that early novel. It is less clear whether Polly herself has ever achieved the virtues she instills in Crusoe himself. Certainly, both are stranded, abandoned, lonely, and both step back from the situation to get some perspective and control, but while Crusoe could manipulate his environment to overcome some of his problems, Polly can only change herself.
Really, a sublime book. Let’s stop being silent about Jane Gardam.