by Lisa Peet
The names alone hint at underlying complexities: Old Filth, Polly Flint, Fred Fiscal-Smith, Bilgewater (whose given name is Marigold). Jane Gardam’s characters have enormously involved inner lives, but rather than waste time telling us this, she instead grows them—like a patient, experienced gardener—as we read. Like late-season flowers, or heirloom tomatoes ripening slowly on the vine, the people in Gardam’s stories become who they are organically; and the results are intensely rewarding. Gardam’s gifts as a writer are many: a sly black humor alongside true compassion, the ability to paint a vivid picture of the English countryside with just a few verbal strokes, and an ear for the way people speak past each other in service to their own marvelous trains of thought. Her characters unfold, mysteriously and in their own time, demonstrating both her love for them and her unobtrusively steely control as a writer.
Hers is clearly a mature talent: Gardam didn’t sit down to write what would become her first collection of short stories until she was 41. But even in her first works, written for children, a reader can sense a lifetime of thoughtful observation—and the even hand of a veteran gardener, which, it turns out, she is. While the precocious young narrator of her first novel, A Long Way from Verona, opens her story with a firm refutation of the author’s method—
I ought to tell you at the beginning that I am not quite normal, having had a violent experience at the age of nine. I will make this clear at once because I have noticed that if things seep out slowly through a book the reader is apt to feel let down or tricked in some way when he eventually gets the point.
—Gardam takes great pleasure, here and in the more than 30 books that would follow, in proving her wrong.
Jane Gardam was born Jean Mary Pearson in July of 1928, in Coatham, a former fishing community in North Yorkshire. Her father was the son of a farmer turned schoolteacher, and a well-loved housemaster at Sir William Turner’s School. Her mother’s formal education ended at age 12—she had a bad heart and wasn’t expected to last long, though she ended up living to 90—but she was a dedicated letter writer, possessed of great faith in the power of words.
Gardam always knew she wanted to be a writer. She wrote stories as a child, but furtively, and hid her first efforts in the chimney of the unused fireplace in her bedroom. “In those days in Yorkshire, you never had a fire in your bedroom unless you were very ill,” she told Lucasta Miller in a 2005 Guardian interview. The winter she was six she came down with chicken pox, a fire was lit before she could protest, and all her work literally went up in flames. That year would also provide another trauma by fire, in which she burnt both hands severely in an accident; at 85, she still bears the scars. And soon after that, her mother nearly died of scarlet fever after giving birth to her brother.
That year of pain and uncertainty changed something in her, she recalls: “That was the end of the happy little girl.” Books were a deep source of comfort, and when a library opened in her hometown when she was eight, she decided that she would someday go to London “to be among people who cared about books as much as I did.” And indeed, at 17 Gardam earned a scholarship to read English at Bedford College, University of London. She planned on a career in literary scholarship, and did good work on a thesis on Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. But she was forced to abandon it after running out of money, and on graduating went straight to work.
She put in time as a researcher, then as a Red Cross Travelling Librarian for hospital libraries for two years, and eventually as a journalist, first as sub-editor at Weldon’s Ladies’ Journal, and finally as an assistant literary editor at Time and Tide. She had met David Gardam, an up-and-coming young barrister, at a party while still at university, and they were married in 1952. When she gave birth to her first son, Timothy, in 1956, she left her job at Time and Tide, vowing to be back in three weeks. But as her other children came along—Kitty, and then Tom—she settled into life as a wife and mother at home.
David Gardam’s law career provided comfortably for the family. He was often away, however, traveling abroad in the service of construction litigation, and keeping the home front together was a full-time job. It wasn’t until her youngest son started school—that same morning, as she tells it—that she finally found the time and space to write. And the floodgates opened.
Gardam wrote and wrote. “Without writing,” she told the Guardian, “I would have been bored and unfaithful, maybe both.” Instead she finished a collection of short stories for young adults, A Fair Few Days, in 1970, and promptly sent it off to a publisher. Having no idea how the business worked, she called back three weeks later to see what was taking them so long (“‘There’s an awful woman on the phone,’ was the first response. ‘Get rid of her.’”) But an editor at Hamish Hamilton liked it, and contracted her for a second as well, and she was on her way. In a recent interview, she admits, “I think I would have died if it hadn’t been published. I was desperate to get started—I was possessed.”
As of this year, Jane Gardam has published 12 young adult books, 10 adult novels, and eight short story collections, as well as a retelling of the Green Man myth with illustrator Mary Fedder and a work of nonfiction about the landscape of her childhood, The Iron Coast: Photographs of Yorkshire. She is the only writer to have won the Whitbread Award—now the Costa—twice, for The Hollow Land in 1983 and The Queen of the Tambourine in 1991, and has been awarded countless other prizes as well. God on the Rocks was nominated for a Booker; Old Filth for the Orange Prize, and in 1999 Gardam received the Heywood Hill Literary Prize for a lifetime’s contribution to the enjoyment of literature.
Her lifetime’s contribution covers a lot of ground, but a dedicated reader will recognize recurring themes. She is interested in England, of course—Gardam’s characters and general tone are quintessentially British, even when the story is set elsewhere. And along with that particular Britishness comes a fascination with Empire, the bill of goods sold to an entire nation which began to exhibit its first fault lines as her generation came of age.
Even more than the cracks in the façade of England’s nationalism, Gardam is fascinated by the ways its people construct personal walls—which are also prone to crumbling at inopportune moments. Life doles out its misfortunes to her players, and she shines, as a writer, when she chronicles the struggles between their inner and outer lives. She is never heavy-handed here. Characters move through their emotional and psychological battles under her sympathetic gaze—an awareness that the line between decorum and breakdown can be very thin indeed. Or, as Courtney Cook describes Gardam’s novels in the LA Review of Books, “they are a taxonomy of ordinary madness, and by that I mean the kind of madness that does not require a visit to an institution, or at least, not often.”
Perhaps her best portrait of this “ordinary madness” is that of Eliza Peabody in The Queen of the Tambourine. This epistolary novel traces Eliza’s mental descent and ascent—although it’s never quite so clearcut a progression as that—through a series of letters she writes to Joan, her neighbor across the street, who has abandoned their proper, middle-class suburb for a series of exotic locales: Prague, Kurdistan, India. Or has she? Is there, in fact, a Joan? Eliza’s state of mind is never quite identifiable enough for the reader to relax into knowing that this is one kind of story or another, and Gardam obviously takes pleasure in letting us proceed in this fashion.
Eliza is ditsy—“You have a grasshopper mind,” a friend’s husband tells her—but also serious, pained, and terribly funny. Her husband leaves her, neighbors fuss over her condescendingly, she sees an Oxford don suddenly dissolve and trickle down a drain, and through it all she muses with a dispassionate eye, pathetic one moment and hilariously arch the next. Through her letters, Gardam captures the sudden realizations of middle age as only a fellow-traveler could:
I looked along my skinny body, half a century old: the purple ridge, the appendix scar, the blotches of the old-fashioned vaccination marks on my thigh, but all still serviceable enough. A body not much noticed since the womb. Unused.
What might it have looked like? If I had married a man who thought sharing a bed important? Fat and flaccid? Covered in stretch-marks and Appalachian ranges? I’ve never seen a stretch-mark and don’t know what it looks like. I have never seen a contraceptive pill. I have never seen pot or hash or heroin. I’ve never actually examined a condom, and steel feel they are rather secret, nasty things.
Bosoms. Scarcely there. They might, I suppose, by now be hanging like old leather bottles? The children saying, “Mother’s letting herself go. Such a shame.”
But I’d have looked used.
Yet Gardam is not above having some fun at her own expense, and Eliza’s description of a self-important neighbor who writes children’s books is catty, self-deprecating, and extremely funny:
With the solicitor husband and his international practice, the five healthy children all now at boarding-school and scarcely needing her, with her own effulgent bounce and so much money she doesn’t know what to do with it, she now writes fiction. . . . She is always being interviewed on television as the fully mature woman with the perfect life. She is asked her views on Margaret Drabble and Proust, at least she was until she confused the two.
Among other afflictions, Eliza lost her mother young. In fact, many of Gardam’s characters are orphans of one sort or another. There are the literal kind, like the eponymous Faith Fox, or Polly Flint of Crusoe’s Daughter, whose mothers die at birth and are given up to relatives or friends by fathers who are unable to care for them, and also the children known as “Raj orphans”—born to parents stationed in the colonies and sent back to England at a tender age, alone or with siblings, to be raised and schooled in civilization, without their parents. Gardam may have grown up in an intact family, but she is consistently interested in exploring how the injured child informs the outwardly functional adult. These explorations into the reverberations of loss echo through her 40 years of writing, but are probably most skillfully—and most touchingly—realized in the three books that make up her “Old Filth” trilogy: Old Filth, The Man in the Wooden Hat, and Last Friends.
Old Filth, considered by many to be Gardam’s best book, is the story of Edward Feathers, a Queen’s Counsel barrister who made his fortune practicing in Hong Kong. His nickname, Filth, comes not from any lack of personal hygiene, but from a vaguely derogatory acronym used about lawyers who fled the home country: Failed In London, Try Hong Kong. The book opens on his final years; he and his wife, Betty, have retired from Asia to the quiet countryside of Dorset, and Betty dies one afternoon while planting tulips.
Feathers has spent the better part of his life cultivating an impression that everyone around him seems to agree on: he is exemplary, immaculate, and a bit boring. But Old Filth is not quite what he seems, and Betty’s death begins to unmoor him—not all at once, of course, and here Gardam is at the top of her form, building her story, and the characters who inhabit it, with great subtlety and perceptiveness. Old Filth takes the reader on a journey as complex as that of Feathers’ inner workings, which turn out to be very complex inded. Based partly on Rudyard Kipling’s tales of his own Raj orphanhood, particularly his short story “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” Gardam has given her protagonist some terrible—and terribly sad—secrets to carry. He explains his and Betty’s childlessness to a young woman:
If you’ve not been loved as a child, you don’t know how to love a child. You need prior knowledge. . . . I was not loved after the age of four and a half. Think of being a parent like that.
Gardam never hurries to unburden herself of Feathers’s burdens, though, and neither does she condescend to her readers. He’s as complicated a character as anyone you might meet, or know, or simply wonder about. And she carries these dense lives through the rest of the trilogy, The Man in the Wooden Hat—Betty’s side of the story—and 2013’s Last Friends, which brings in several peripheral characters and manages to make the story interesting all over again. Clearly this is a labor of love—she referred to Feathers as “my little boy” in a recent WNYC interview—but the time she has spent with these characters also reflects a willingness to let a story grow at its own pace—a gardener’s sensibility.
In a Publisher’s Weekly article that explicitly dubbed her a “Late Bloomer,” Gardam explains,“I couldn’t have written any earlier. I wasn’t ready. I was a very anxious sort of woman.” Clearly she waited just long enough: there is no anxiety to her work. Rather, she has a kind of authorial green thumb. Gardam understands the beauty of coaxing something to unfold over time, and trusts her readers with the patience to watch her stories grow.
Lisa Peet is a writer, editor, artist, Library & Information Science student, proprietor of the literary blog Like Fire, and a card-carrying bloomer herself.
Lisa Peet’s previous features: Experience Required: The Middle of the Road, Thomas Van Essen: The Ekphrasis of Ecstasy, Q&A with Thomas Van Essen, Experience Required: Back to School, Jon Clinch: Telling Stories on His Own Terms, Q&A with Jon Clinch, Kate Chopin’s Artistic Awakenings, Deborah Eisenberg: Small-World Stories, The Bitten Word: Dracula for Everyone, Isak Dinesen: Her Own Heroin, Walker Percy: The Original Moviegoer