Jane Gardam, “Crusoe’s Daughter”

There are a lot of books on the market that are more or less interchangeable,  and I read ‘em and like ‘em. But then there’s Jane Gardam, whose work sounds so conventional. Crusoe’s Daughter, for instance, is about a woman named Polly Flint who grows up in an isolated house on the North Sea and ends up as a school teacher. But the novel — like Polly herself — is just slightly weird.

We are used to this odd quality in Gardam: her lovely diptych Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat presents shards of a pair of lives that intersect but also contain vast secret stretches. You never know, in her books, who or what will turn out to be important because the narrator doesn’t weight the information for you. This could be baffling, but instead it’s rather delightful because Gardam is just such a good writer.

Lady Ottoline Morrell by Adolf de Meyer ca. 1912, courtesy Metropolitan Museum

Her foreword to this book proclaims it as her favorite, despite the much greater success of later books. It’s based on the life of her mother, who grew up in North Yorkshire like Polly Flint. The world of women in the early twentieth century was limited even before you factor in the geographic separateness of her home. And what’s most striking about Crusoe’s Daughter is the way Gardam places the reader very deeply in Polly’s awareness of the world. Much of the time Polly is puzzled. As a six-year-old she is deposited with a pair of aunts in a vast yellow house and her father departs back to the sea, where he is a merchant marine captain. The aunts and their peculiar household absorb her seamlessly and she soon takes for granted her life there though it is true that her best friend is Robinson Crusoe.

This sounds twee, but it’s not. Polly Flint (as unsentimental as her name) is a bookish girl and Robinson Crusoe is her particular lifeline. Or perhaps her alternate life. The good news is that, although Polly is as evidently marooned as Crusoe, she shows little awareness of this fact and the similarities are left to the reader to tally up. Or not. (I didn’t, having left Defoe alone since college.) Maybe there are point by point likenesses between the book but Gardam is a subtle, tricky writer, so I would doubt it. Over and over she subverts your expectations so that the most comfortable way to read her is to have none. Here is Polly, defending the unfashionable Robinson Crusoe to an aristocratic literary patroness (possibly based on Lady Ottoline Morrell?):

I said, ‘It is wonderfully written. It is true to his chosen form. Because of this verisimilitude it reads like reality. I have read it twenty-three times. In a novel form is not always apparent at a first or second reading. Form is determined by hard secret work — in a notebook and in the sub-conscious and in the head.’

‘You speak of journalism.’

‘Yes. Why not? With glory added.’”

If Jane Gardam, speaking through her protagonist, wanted to think of her fiction as “journalism… with glory added,” I’m fine with that. But I would stress the glory.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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10 Responses to Jane Gardam, “Crusoe’s Daughter”

  1. I think I’ll put Crusoe’s Daughter on hold at the library.

    • carolwallace says:

      I think you’d like it, Cheryl, but if you haven’t read “Old Filth” and “The Man in the Wooden Hat,” you should read them first. They have a magical quality that I think would be right up your alley! XXXX

  2. Alex says:

    I’ve loved Gardam ever since I first met her in the school library when I started teaching many many years ago. Her children’s books are every bit as wonderful as those she was later to go on and write for adults. Do you know ‘Puss in Boots’ or ‘Horse’, both of which have a plot which appeals to children but also a sense of societal interconnectedness which resonantly with the adult reader. My own favourite of her later books is undoubtedly ‘Queen of the Tambourines’.

    • carolwallace says:

      Alex, I don’t know the children’s books but will look for them. I bet she’s excellent; there’s wonderful stuff in “Crusoe’s Daughter” about teaching; Gardam obviously has that sense of how children’s minds work. You probably share it with her!

  3. Judith McKinnon says:

    I reread ‘Crusoe’s Daughter’ earlier this year and found it, like all her books, full of atmosphere and wonderful characters and clever dialogue. Jane Gardam has to be one of my favourite ever authors, and I have probably read ‘A Long Way from Verona’ 23 times, or just about.

    • carolwallace says:

      Oh, Judith, thank you — I’ve never ever heard of “A Long Way from Verona” and will track it down instantly. Gardam is just a treasure.

  4. Barbara says:

    Yes, yes, yes to Queen of the Tambourine. How I love Jane Gardam and am so happy to see your review of this book which I have yet to read but now must expedite to the top of my pile. One of my favorite things about Gardam’s writing is that she doesn’t bludgeon the reader into an emotional response like so many modern-day authors do. She presumes a certain level of intelligence and awareness in her reader which is so satisfying. There is a wonderful feeling of being in good hands when you read her. And Penelope Lively……

    .

    • carolwallace says:

      I so agree, Barbara, about Gardam’s confidence in her readers. It’s not even flattering, it’s more as if we were partners in the same enterprise. And of course you’re right to refer to Penelope Lively. Still in my TBR pile… “Moon Tiger.” Clearly must zip to top.

      • Barbara says:

        I love how you put it, Carol. “Confidence in her readers.” That is exactly it!!!! And I’m so glad you got my subtle hint on Moon Tiger. Remember our discussion a while back about “unlikeable” protagonists. Lively has enough confidence in us that she presents real people, warts and all. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!!

  5. Pingback: Follow my book blog, “Book Group of One” | | Carol Wallace BooksCarol Wallace Books

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