Jane Gardam: tales of unmarried aunts and the outcasts of the colony
Novelist will read from third book of trilogy on characters in colonial administration in Cork this week
Jane Gardam: ‘When I was six, my brother was born and my mother became ill. She didn’t notice me much. My aunts rescued me by reading to me.’ Photograph: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Getty
Six-year-old murderers are not frequent heroines in fiction, but Jane Gardam has a way of making the unimaginable acceptable. She does this so subtly in Old Filth , the first of her trilogy of novels about returned expats, that the reader is hardly conscious that something of this redemptive information has been on its way throughout the book.
Old Filth (2004) was followed by The Man in the Wooden Hat (2009), and Last Friends (2013). These intertwine the stories of characters involved in colonial administration: Filth, for example, is Sir Edward Feathers, queen’s counsel (QC) and judge, whose nickname is an acronym derived from the condescending slogan “Failed in London, try Hong Kong”.
Jane Gardam has never been one for the headlines, but that doesn’t mean she hasn’t been noticed. She was given an OBE, and her name has cropped up on significant shortlists, including the Booker Prize.
Gardam’s reading at the Triskel Arts Centre for the Cork World Book Festival on Friday will be from the last book of the trilogy. At 86, she is unlikely to resent an emphasis on Feathers, his wife, friends and rivals. Last Friends may be the latest book, but it’s not the last word.
“It’s very hard to leave these people,” she says, speaking from her home in Sandwich, Kent. “I have been asked to write another, and I’m thinking about it. I can’t quite forget them, and I think there’s to be a film, a series for the BBC about Old Filth.”
Gardam’s late husband, David, was a distinguished QC; these novels suggest familiarity with that legal background and what she regards as the profession’s enviable camaraderie, but she didn’t write about him. Not that he would have noticed. “He never read any fiction at all. He was a good and passionate painter, but he said fiction was all made up. So that left one on one’s own a bit.”
No going back
Gardam began to write fiction
when she was left on her own after her third child left to go to school. Her first novel, A Long Way from Verona (1971), is a book one closes with a smile. It also points to her psychological perception in dealing with adolescence, with coming of age or fitting in. “I was trying to show that girls on that edge are starting something, not finishing. They’re going to live in a world without home in it. I never wanted to go back home when I left for college in London.”
In her short stories, such as Blue Poppies and The Hair of the Dog , older daughters and their mothers (fathers are often absent or absent-minded) are explored in contests of forbearance, resistance and affection. She’s discreetly lusty with sex, and has a brisk satirical wit. Yet not even in Crusoe’s Daughter (1985), a brilliant, courageous novel that is both enchanting and elusive at the same time, does the craft become weighted. She writes as if flying over a familiar landscape, dipping here and there to take a closer look before cruising on towards the landing strip.