There is at present something of a fashion for novels reflecting other novels, ironically and obliquely (Peter Ackroyd’s The Great Fire of London comes to mind, with Little Dorrit behind it; or even Flaubert’s Parrot, though biography, fiction and all inform that eccentric piece of writing). These, at best, are neither extensions nor offshoots, but playful and original tributes to the work that’s set them off. With Jane Gardam’s latest novel the background book, and enriching ingredient, is Robinson Crusoe. Mrs Gardam is not new to the practice. The Summer after the Funeral (1973) has a heroine (aged 16 – it’s ostensibly a children’s book) who feels an affinity between herself and Emily Brontë, to the point of thinking deeply about reincarnation. Wuthering Heights has left its mark indirectly on this novel. Crusoe’s Daughter, with its heroine Polly Flint metaphorically cast away, and not cast down by it, is rather more open about its literary appropriations.
Polly Flint, though, is a good deal more than Crusoe’s parrot. Crusoe, for her, is both a solace and an exemplar, stuck there on his island – as she says late in the novel – ‘like women have to be almost always ... Imprisoned.’ Stranded, imprisoned, but calmly getting on with things, fashioning an umbrella for himself out of goat-skins (‘Very useful in the great heats’) and learning the skills of pottery and pastry-cooking. Among the children eventually fathered by Robinson Crusoe, after his 28 years of sexual abstinence, Defoe mentions a daughter: but this daughter promptly disappears from the history of the central character, just as Shakespeare’s sister (pace Virginia Woolf) disappeared from history. It’s a masterstroke of Jane Gardam’s to bag the role for a 20th-century woman, daughter of a sea-captain drowned in 1904 on the coal run to Belfast. This is the year when the novel opens. Motherless Polly, soon to be fatherless at six years old, is landed at a tall yellow house on a saltmarsh, somewhere on the Northumbrian coast. Nearby are a church, a nunnery, a folly, a Hall and an iron-works. All of these buildings, but especially the yellow house, which faces the sea, are obliged to withstand the battering of strong winds blowing from the north-east.
At the yellow house live Polly’s Aunt Mary and Aunt Frances, both too religious for their own good – a temperamental defect well understood by Jane Gardam: one is overtaken in the end by vagueness, the other by unaccountable flightiness, after a late marriage, on a voyage to India. Also their crabbed friend Mrs Woods, a knitter; and Charlotte, the faintly unsavoury servant, who boils up her knickers on the kitchen fire. A double wrong has been done to Charlotte, and she’s allowed her say in retaliation before exiting from the novel in a striking manner. Before this, she has instructed Polly (who is growing up) in the practicalities of menstruation – the aunts are too fastidious to do it – advising her, at these times, to avoid excessive washing. Polly’s isn’t exactly a jolly upbringing, what with Aunt Mary sleeping with the silver spoons to baffle burglars, Aunt Frances going ga-ga over awful Mr Pocock, the curate, and companions of her own age few and capricious. But there’s nothing particularly bleak about it either. Polly has a good many resources – conspicuous among them Robinson Crusoe. (They don’t, though, at any stage, include the one adopted by her grandmother, a Victorian archdeacon’s wife, who boldly inscribed her name in her own copy of Fanny Hill.) Only one complaint is voiced by Polly, very tentatively, in a letter to her beloved Aunt Frances, when she mentions that, had she been a boy, ‘the money would have been found’ to send her to school. We remember Defoe: ‘I have often thought of it as one of the most barbarous customs in the world ... that we deny the advantages of learning to women.’ And Moll Flanders asserting that courage was what women needed, and the power to ‘stand their ground’. As Virginia Woolf noted. The author of The Voyage Out has quite a lot to do with Crusoe’s Daughter, supplying an epigraph with her riposte to Dickens (he complained that Robinson Crusoe never made anyone laugh or cry), and even turning up on a lawn in Yorkshire at one point in the narrative, very thin and beautiful. The summer after the wedding of her Aunt Frances, Polly – aged 16 – is brought, via Darlington, York and Helperby, to visit someone called Lady Celia, who keeps open house for artists and writers.
Polly takes the place for a madhouse, and not surprisingly: Lady Celia encourages artistic behaviour in her guests. A Mr Thwaite, mysteriously present at Aunt Frances’s wedding, has whisked Polly off shortly after the ceremony; he is Lady Celia’s brother, as it turns out, but far more closely akin to Badger in The Wind in the Willows. A perfect English gentleman, all ‘gruffness, shyness and goodness’. ‘Fearful weather,’ Mr Thwaite keeps grunting. ‘Really frightful weather.’ Polly is charmed. The next minute, matters are arranged so that she may experience one of the sudden infatuations Jane Gardam is so good at depicting, along with the equally sudden retraction which is sure to follow. An earlier novel – A Long Way from Verona (1971) – contained a character who looked like Rupert Brooke: this one has someone who may be Rupert Brooke. ‘His profile is – oh Aunt Frances – most utterly perfect.’ Into the prevailing mood of steadiness, dictated by Robinson Crusoe, comes a romantic intrusion. It’s around this time that ‘The Lady of Shalott’ (misspelt ‘Shallott’) is quoted – or rather misquoted: it’s three paces, not three steps, the lady takes in her agitated state when Tennyson’s romantic attitude compels her to forsake the web and loom. All very picturesque and alluring: but it won’t quite do for Polly, whose comment on the poem is this: ‘all of her so lovely and never even been for a walk.’ Quite soon, she is contemplating Paul Treece, the Rupert Brooke figure, and thinking: ‘I wanted to kick him.’ Whom one meets is a matter of luck, as Polly reflects at the end of the novel; and the men who come her way – it could be Robinson Crusoe who is speaking – are ‘all duds or shadows’, not one of them, neither Paul Treece nor the more substantial Theo Zeit, a patch on Crusoe himself as far as vigour and tenacity are concerned.
A kind of fidelity, then, takes Polly back to the yellow house, where she and a competent young maidservant, Alice, are soon dug in; and keeps her there for seventy-odd years, while going on elsewhere, at various times, are two Great Wars (as the blurb has it) and a social revolution. ‘We are not free to choose by what we shall be enchanted, truly or falsely,’ goes the epigraph – from Auden’s A Certain World – to The Summer after the Funeral. ‘In the case of a false enchantment all we can do is take immediate flight before the spell really takes hold.’ Can Robinson Crusoe be designated a false enchantment? It seems so only when Polly starts translating it into German and then, that done, subjects the book to analysis as ‘spiritual biography’, all the time drinking a great deal of whisky, and indifferent to the kind of hat she jams on her head. ‘All washed up and marooned and far away’ is how Alice, the servant, sees her during this period. One or two of the lodgers – money is short – take fright at Polly’s peculiarities; but another, a schoolmaster once given to lurking behind his wardrobe door when breakfast was brought in (‘There were odd folk everywhere after 1918’), regains his confidence, and eventually provides Polly with a way to regain her equilibrium. Indeed, she really has no other course, with Crusoe’s briskness and resilience constantly in front of her, to be taken either as a rebuke or an inspiration, not to mention the absence of fatuous longings among her hero’s traits. Thus we find, on the day after the shipwreck, the following statement of policy by Crusoe: ‘It was in vain to sit still and wish for what was not to be had.’
During the greater part of the novel, Polly’s age is less than 20; and so Jane Gardam is able to re-do certain set-pieces like the one in which a nervous but determined young girl confronts someone’s grand, unlikable and disconcerting mother. Adolescence offers plenty of scope for the kind of high comedy, elliptically presented, at which this author excels. But Crusoe’s Daughter isn’t a novel of adolescence, or a social comedy, or commentary, or a piece of pure historical evocation (‘The dress was of pure silk muslin, golden-brown, with needlework bands and a high neck stitched with blue silk thread’), though it conforms to the rules of each of these categories in turn. It’s not exactly an allegory either, more a sustained salting of one set of fictitious memoirs with another – a subtle undertaking. Jane Gardam, following her usual practice, creates dazzling effects out of bits and pieces: an Edwardian pony-and-trap coming joyously along a beach, a train drawing away from the platform at Darlington station, a telescope on a roof. Nothing is out of place in the details of setting or mood; as with other novels which assimilate some crucial text (‘Crusoe, her King Charles’s head’), and thereby gain the freedom to shift away from straightforward narration, certain kinds of verisimilitude seem not greatly to the point. Jane Gardam, for instance, makes no bones about endowing her under-age heroine with an unnatural cogency; and truly, it wouldn’t have done to make Polly’s literary judgments correspond with those we might expect to hear from an unschooled 16-year-old brought up long ago in a house full of women. ‘Form,’ she declares – at this formless age, and in a bygone age, not that it matters in the least – ‘is determined by hard secret work – in a notebook and in the subconscious and in the head.’ And Crusoe’s Daughter, no less than Crusoe, could be said to bear out the effectiveness of the process.
Polly Flint, in adulthood and old age, is gloriously unaggrieved; another non-complainer is the heroine of a good first novel by Kent Haruf, The Tie that Binds, though the attitude of mind attributed to Edith Goodnough has more to do with stoicism than high spirits. The years covered, once again, are those of the present century. Edith Goodnough belongs in the tradition of sturdy females whose lives are ruined by some insufferable obligation. Born in 1897, to a couple of ill-matched homesteaders in Holt, Colorado – putrid father, futile mother – Edith grows up acclimatised to hard work and joylessness. Her mother dies, her weak-kneed younger brother isn’t too much of a help – and then her father goes and catches his miserable fingers in a threshing machine. Heartless, handless and with a cross-grained disposition, Roy Goodnough is as well placed as anyone in literature to poison things for a dutiful daughter.
Haruf uses the device of an uninvolved narrator to keep these events at a distance from the reader: Sanders Roscoe, who pieces together the dispiriting story out of his own recollections, observations and things he’s been told, and from a present-day perspective, is the son of the neighbour whom Edith would have married if it hadn’t been for her father’s disability and her own acceptance of the burden. Roscoe is very cynical and angry about the life imposed on Edith Goodnough (and, incidentally, on her brother Lyman) – ‘For over 7,000 days, for almost 20 years, nothing happened to the Goodnoughs’ – and spares us no detail of the miseries of farm work, down to mean-spirited cows and their shit-filled tails. It takes the bombing of Pearl Harbour to get Lyman away from the imprisoning farm – though not to any very rewarding pursuit – and when he goes, he leaves Edith stuck. In 1976 she’s still there, having replaced one unspeakable old dependant with another. The tone in which all this is recounted is grim, colloquial and energetic, as befits the out-of doors storyteller.
Hannie Richards, in Hilary Bailey’s novel of that title, gets about. This is tongue-in cheek picaresque, with an adventuress for heroine. Hannie, for a fee, accepts preposterous commissions. It’s nothing to her to snatch a putative messiah from the clutches of kidnappers, or pluck an arrow from her arm in darkest Brazil. Whenever she’s in London, friends at the Hope Club (women only) are regaled by Hannie with an account of her exploits. Where does this leave her husband, Adam? Before the end of the book we get the answer: doing Hannie wrong in Devon. As the blurb assures us, sounding like the editor of some publication for women executives who’s tiredly inserted the wrong subject into her sentence: ‘juggling the demands of home and work is no easier for an international smuggler than for anyone else.’
In fact, as pastiche, Hannie Richards doesn’t go quite far enough; for all its exuberance, it’s not sufficiently idiosyncratic or flamboyant to take off properly. The blurb mentions Buchan and Rider Haggard, but a more insistent comparison soon comes to mind: Nancy Drew. At one point Hannie’s on the trail of a missing will – as eager as any girl detective to set things right – skullduggery having endangered the claim to a Caribbean island of a sterling family (black to boot). Like Nancy, Hannie is for ever finding herself in a jam, with only the type of impending assault – battery in Nancy’s case, buggery in Hannie’s – separating the two. And each, in accordance with the scheme of the story, has a morally satisfactory outcome to look forward to: with Hannie it’s a plan, worked out by the Hope Club, to give women a go at mitigating the world’s ills. Sentimental? Well, yes: but the whole thing is presented with such gusto and amiability that the author gets away with her moments of indulgence – just.
A Fine Excess, a crisp first novel by Jane Ellison, posits a batty world of poetry competitions, those who enter and those who judge them, with plenty of peripheral chicanery to keep things humming. Among the poets are a rabid has-been, a doddering pedant, an anti-élitist fluent in jargon, and Violet Glasspool, a prey to befuddlement. The book is composed in a satiric mode, with the literary coterie gaudy and backbiting; innocents venturing close to it are liable to be overtaken by the most unnerving mishaps (‘Papers showered out, his journal, his notebook, his memory cards’) or find themselves losing their heads in Soho (‘Bacon turned round and went back to the Spanking Cinema’). The author’s flair for comic plotting doesn’t as yet quite equal her comic manner, which is thoroughly assured; however, her assets in the field – a light heart and hand – make her a writer to cherish.
This is traditional English comedy, harking back to Vile Bodies via A.N. Wilson, and altogether unfussy and astute. Americans do it differently. Ellen Gilchrist, for instance, goes in for a kind of sardonic coyness which extends even to her titles (‘DeDe’s Talking, It’s Her Turn’). Victory over Japan, a collection of 14 stories, gets to grips with comedy on a rather frenetic plane. Gilchrist’s heroines are all Southern women subject to derangement as pills, or drink, or some other unsettling substance, gets to work inside them; thereafter you find them acting with unnatural pep. ‘I started screaming out new words to the songs.’ They have names like sugary, red-cheeked dolls, Lady Margaret and Crystal and Nora Jane, and if life has gone wrong for them somehow, they are never too downcast to kick it in the face. There’s a whiff of precocious childhood about all of them, even those who have reached middle age.
The vivacious title story – set in 1945 – does have a child for heroine: Rhoda, with an instinct for drama, who latches onto a boy in the third grade suffering from squirrel bite. (‘It was a pet ... His brother was keeping it for a pet.’) In later life such characters continue to get in on bizarre events, ramming antelope pens in expensive cars, or singing their heads off to soothe agitated toddlers in the middle of an earthquake. Each of them thinks she is somebody special, a madcap or an anarchist or, as it may be, a campaigner against the practice of stocking brothels with teenagers, while the author – a specialist in Deep Southern waywardness – merrily takes an unglorifying view.