“Oblivious Olivious,” said Jack. “Oblivia Olivia!” It became quite a joke.
The eighth of Jane Gardam’s stories is bookended by the sight of Marjorie Partridge weeping over her hydrangeas. It’s tempting to have that simple image stand, as well as any, for Gardam’s short fiction: a perfectly delightful English setting for unlikely, unexpected, but somehow earned misery. This is an author fascinated by what will eventually go wrong, and how she might leave her characters stranded as the sucker punch arrives. It’s cruel and mesmerizing, and it seems borne of a fury at hubris or disparity.
“Rode By All With Pride” offers another revelatory moment detonating a foundational belief. Yet, crucially with Gardam, as well as wanting to show us the temporary permutations of such an eruption, we are left in no doubt that everything will necessarily be pieced back together. A life carefully nurtured for so long cannot be abandoned simply because it’s based on falsification or misapprehension. What we see is the glimmer of acknowledgment of chaos that will soon be buried and forgotten. How else to survive?
Marjorie has cultivated a role as part of the Wimbledon ‘enclave’: these are people who speak in a kind of self-reverential code when greeting each other on the common, and who passively ostracize all those outside said enclave. Those not granted honorary enclave membership pass the anointed “like shadows.” The enclave also ignores the fair which pitches up on the common for two weeks each year; they treat it as they treat the world beyond their postcode. It’s just noise, a temporary nonsense, the terrible world beyond the tree line trying to get in. They refuse any such attempt: they are permanent guardians of their domain and they are permanently aggrieved by the looming clamor of invasion such a travesty represents.
But of course they’re not actually permanent, and Marjorie knows this. Gardam suggests as much by including three consecutive paragraphs just before the close of the story that serve as insistent, deliberate concatenations of the objects and events of a life in order that, in juxtaposition and combined force, they stand for something. Marjorie dearly wants them to; and here she places them all before her involvement in her daughter’s emotional life. To her, they’re less slippery, less subject to change.
The calls said that there had been many shared years — first with prams, then push-chairs, then small bikes, then ponies from the riding school: changeless Miss Thompson’s dancing class, Guy Fawkes parties and Hallowe’ens; that there had been year after year of birthdays on the Common, the cake carried, with candles separate, to be assembled in the long grass with the flowers in it by The Causeway or The Pound or in the secret, woody parts round Queensmere. The calls said that all nice children have clean hair, that to Christmas tea parties they bring small presents, prettily wrapped, and the boys wear bow ties and the girls long white socks and pretty dresses, not jeans.
This is why she tends her garden so keenly, why she stoically observes the absolute decorum expected of her, why she rigidly positions herself, not inside anything, but against a growing outside. Her distaste for a younger, less-discerning generation is exemplified by her comment regarding their spending money “on idiot beautification.” They have no class and drink too much; she is upholding something dignified and timeless. Her idea of feminism — which she feels has been taken up by a younger generation of women solely as a kind of heedless and brazen hedonism — means supporting a husband and any children, and putting off any leisurely frivolity until the kids have reached adulthood. Yet, unlike those other aspects of the life she has carefully constructed, parenthood isn’t a symbolic gesture simply to be played out, a fact she fatally fails to comprehend.
Her daughter Olivia had been an only child, and, confusingly for them, very much her own person. They’d pretty much left her to it, not wanting to impede her sense of self-sufficiency. Marjorie, walking the dog past a young Olivia, who is playing rounders with her classmates, makes a pointed decision to ignore her daughter. She doesn’t want to invade or impede Olivia’s life, forgetting that, day-to-day proximity aside in the “family” home, it might need some invading from time to time, that Olivia might want or need recognition.
This characterizes Marjorie’s, and her husband Jack’s, parenting. There isn’t any, really, beyond a distant stewardship. They view Olivia as a bit of a curio, a lovable alien set amid their lives, who will nonetheless seamlessly follow a pre-designated path without any fuss or bother. She will go to Cambridge (like Jack) or Oxford (like Marjorie); she will pass any assessments and negotiate any interviews, which will surely be a formality (for what else are enclave credentials for?); she will not befall the same calamities that did for a surprising number of other local children. She is “special.” But she’s kind of merely there, until she isn’t. Even when she’s born it’s all very proper.
Jack Partridge had loved his daughter from the day he first met her in St Teresa’s Maternity Hospital along the Ridgway.
Met! He later attests to Olivia being “beautiful” but that’s as emotive as Jack gets about his daughter. Fittingly, he is on another continent when she kills herself, an act we don’t see, as her parents won’t see, or ever understand, or possibly ever feel in any way responsible for. Olivia was always “not of this Earth!” even before she prematurely leaves it.
There is more than a heavy hint that to Marjorie, the preservation of said fantasy world is paramount; her life, resting as it does on nursed presumption and denial, is a tightly structured illusion susceptible to nothing, neither reality nor change.
Olivia has failed to seamlessly slip into this illusion and has ideas and quirks of her own. She reads ravenously (thus unhelpfully filling her mind with the world at large rather than a contrived fragment of it) and sneaks off to the despised fair until gone midnight. She is, though, far from wayward. The problem is that Marjorie can only survive by rejecting all things that cannot be subsumed into her world, her daughter included.
So Olivia withers on the family periphery, her gaunt unraveling passed over as fleeting academic stress, until it’s too late. Marjorie regularly chides herself not for failing to act but for worrying; and then not because she feels mistaken, but because she cannot allow for the possibility of things going awry. There is no room for any turbulence. Waiting by the train station for Jack to return from work, she can’t abide the familiar sight of the trudging, exhausted men she has watched gradually decline, facial lines deepening, shoulders sagging, and tells Jack he must get a taxi in future. She is gradually shutting out more and more of a world that isn’t consonant with hers.
So we return to that opening shot and the grieving pilgrimage to a project more easily, less mercurially cultivated.
Marjorie at the end of the garden savaged the earth around the hydrangeas. She wept and dug. Dug and wept.
And we feel as abject as Marjorie does. But the mild savagery on display, probably the most ostentatious act she has performed in years, is meaningless and wasted. The flowers will come to no harm — this is the limit of her outward grief, a petulant mimicry. She has an enclave to rejoin, and a stiff upper lip to showcase.