It is worth noting that I have read 4 of Jane Gardam's novels prior to "Crusoe's Daughter," (Old Filth, The Man in the Wooden Hat, Queen of the Tambourine and God on the Rocks) and have her "Last Friends" on my list for this year. Outside of John Irving, and excluding fantasy or science fiction works, Jane Gardam may be my most widely read author of fiction. The novel is her admitted favorite among her already quite long list of works and was inspired by Gardam's own mother. Going into "Crusoe's Daughter," Ms. Gardam would have had to write something truly abysmal for me to dislike it and I am happy to report that of the many adjectives one could use to describe "Crusoe's Daughter," abysmal is most decidedly not one of them.
Elegant would be more appropriate; moving, graceful, poetic, rich and bitingly witty also apply here. In short, everything that makes all of Jane Gardam's works so very "her" are in full supply here, evidenced by lines like: "Fortunately, it was the beginning of influenza-or something in the nature of the week had informed the influenza it might be worth calling in." Polly Flint's life story, from early childhood to old age proves simply fascinating. Raised by her two aunts, Polly experiences little of what many would call a normal life, even by the standards of an early 20th century rural English life. With no father figure, and little in the way of motherly affection, Polly finds herself completely unsuited to the realities and expectations of the world outside her yellow house, Oversands, situated on the marshes with a view of the sea.
Polly finds herself consistently surprised and thus unprepared for the realities of an adult life, from societal and class differences and the necessary steps one must take in order to secure money for food, lodging and the like. Her one source of wisdom and comfort is books, specifically "Robinson Crusoe," by Daniel Defoe. While those around her may not universally share her love and admiration for the book, "Crusoe" becomes her life's obsession and guidepost.
One could argue that through Crusoe Polly finds strength and support when she feels she has none, but alternately one could also reasonably argue that Polly's fixation with Crusoe in some ways becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. There are segments of Polly's life where I wondered if the island apart Polly inhabited was a self-inflicted condition rather than the result of the world turning away from Polly. Responding to Alice's insistence that "everyone" in town was discussing her, Polly replies "Who is everyone? Everyone's no one to me." Are these the words of one life has put outside the rest, or one who simply found themselves there and has chose to remain?
Gardam has a way in everything of hers I have read of using her characters and plot machinations to address, and often criticize English societal norms in the 20th century. Her depictions of women's rights and freedom, the importance of religion and propriety are biting and hilarious.
"Crusoe's Daughter" is no exception. The reader is left to wonder what her life would be like had she had been raised outside of the closeted world in which she came up. We see glimpses of that life in other characters, like the housekeeper Charlotte, the Zeit family and the adorably endearing Mr. Thwaite. Class, religion and propriety bring heavy consequences for each of these characters in their own way.
Gardam also opines on the state of fiction, as well as what a novel can and should be in "Crusoe's Daughter." Characters could easily fall into positive/negative categories based solely on their expressed opinion of "Robinson Crusoe" and its worth to literature. It is yet another way Gardam subtly challenges class structure, one I have not seen her wield so deftly or clearly in prior novels.
I've not read "Robinson Crusoe," thus I do not know if Gardam's plot moves forward in much the same way or if there are significant parallels between the two stories. I do know that Polly is among the most fully-formed, developed and rich a character I've read in some time. She inhabits this work so completely that I felt what she did; I mourned and celebrated with her, discovered and despaired at the twists of fate life pulled her through and thought, this is someone I would gladly sit with and have a cup of tea. There are passages I connected to on such a personal level, "Had Moll Flanders, Cleopatra, Emily Bronte loved Theo Zeit they could not have told him so with more passion and with less restraint. And they were I dare say the wiser women," reminding me of the times I have felt the same way.
"Crusoe's Daughter was a welcome addition to my collection of Europa Editions by Jane Gardam. If you are a fan of her previous works, or looking for a great way to jump into them, you will enjoy this. I'm glad it was not my first however, seeing many of her familiar themes flowering at their fullest here was appreciated more because of my familiarity with them in prior works of hers. "Last Friends" has a pretty high bar to meet.