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.
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.