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

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.

That flight, which eventually encircles the outcasts of the Raj and es pecially their evacuated children, began for me with The Tribute , a short story from The Sidmouth Letters (1980). Three retired colonial wives meet for a restrained celebration of the life of a former nanny, “a gent” to whom they never paid a penny, not even her social-insurance stamps. Retribution arrives in the person of a dazzling woman who greets them warmly: “Fanny Soane shut her eyes and opened them again. The niece. The niece so good at ironing.”

“Well, it’s a revenge story really,” says Gardam. “For my Aunt Kitty. People had been so mean to her. There are a lot of aunts and great-aunts in my fiction. Kitty was my mother’s aunt, and they were wonderful women. I remember how they went on keeping up appearances. They had hardly any education but I owe them a lot.”

Unmarried aunts
Gardam was born in north Yorkshire in 1928. In those times, unmarried aunts were not uncommon. “I loved my mother to bits, but she was stern and strict. Well, she had a difficult teenager on her hands. What had happened was that, when I was six, I had to move over: my brother was born and my mother became dangerously ill. When she came home, she didn’t seem to notice me much. My aunts rescued me by reading to me.”

They read poetry to Gardam. This call to Sandwich has interrupted her visits around the small medieval town, where she and a friend post poems in the shop windows. “I asked them if I could do it, and no one refused. We’ve been doing it for a long time now.”

Gardam’s mother made her go to church. The Church of England is often present in her work, beleaguered but part of the creative territory. At the end of Crusoe’s Daughter , Polly Flint reflects that she has emerged with a sense of God and resurrection.

David Gardam died in 2010; their daughter, the botanical artist Catherine Nicholson, died in 2011. Is Gardam’s faith daunted? “No, I still have a sense of God. As a young student I was far from devout, but faith seems to me to be the only answer really. That and taking myself every day to the desk and getting on with it. I recommend that boring discipline.”

Clumsily I try to identify her among the classics of English literature. “Oh, but that must change. The shape must change. I see its future as more like a play. Writers must experiment – as long as you keep in mind what you’re writing about. The well-made novel is probably over, although I can’t seem to get away from it.”

Jane Gardam will read at the Triskel Arts Centre, Cork, at 8.30 pm on Friday . The Stories of Jane Gardam will be published by Europa in June