A Long Way From Verona, Jane Gardam’s superb first novel, was originally published in 1971, and here’s Gardam at the beginning of her career exhibiting the energy, love of life, and strong narrative voice characteristic of her writing. The engaging heroine of this tale is the unusual, confident, independent, curious and intelligent Jessica Vye; it’s a 13-year old Jessica who narrates the tale, and while I usually pass on novels with adolescent or child narrators, Jane Gardam skillfully avoids all the tired clichés. Instead Jessica Vye’s voice is fresh, witty and bursting with life as she records her rich inner life and observes the adult world around her. There’s the underlying sense that while Jessica will grow to become a remarkable woman, we’d like her to stay like this: unique and unspoiled.
It’s WWII, and Gardam fans already know just how well this author has mined this era with her other novels. For the most part, the war is in the background like distant thunder–but it shapes Jessica’s life and a couple of traumatic incidents lead to a quiet maturity. This is how the book begins:
I ought to tell you at the beginning that I am not quite normal, having had a violent experience at the age of nine. I will make this clear at once because I noticed that if things seep out slowly through a book the reader is apt to feel let down or tricked in some way when he eventually gets to the point.
That somewhat awkward opening illustrates perfectly Jessica’s personality, and we very soon discover that Jessica wants to be a writer, and while some of this wonderful novel concerns Jessica’s aspirations, the plot follows Jessica in her school life, with her friends and family, and her first tentative romance. Although WWII is in the background, it clearly impacts Jessica’s life and alters how she sees the world, and Jessica has experiences unique to the time: Air-raids, rationing, and city refugees seeking safety in the country. While sad things occur when the war breaks through into Jessica’s childhood, there’s a delicate, gentle humour here–mostly through Jessica’s voice and the gaps between what she sees and records and her precocious understanding.
One of the most dramatic changes to Jessica’s childhood slips into the narrative without much explanation. Gardam captures the reality of childhood when the adults make decisions behind closed doors with the children witnessing the result. Jessica’s father was a schoolmaster, but the family moves to another part of England, “the vilest part of it” according to Jessica’s mother following the father’s decision “to stop being a schoolmaster and to become a curate.” Jessica, as our narrator, is not privy to the discussions, and presumably the arguments that took place before the Vye family pulled up roots and left behind their lovely home and took a definite step down to a harsher life in Cleveland Sands. How easy it is, for us, the reader to recall similar incidents which occurred in childhood, and then years later when we dredge up memories, we then realize that we saw only the front drama, and somehow missed all that took place backstage between the adults. We can imagine the scenes that took place between her parents, but here’s Jessica recording the final scene at their old home, giving us clues about the family dynamics:
We were in the station taxi and mother was crying and Rowley, my brother, was crying too–he was still extremely young and it was about all he ever did–and my father was talking to the taxi man about whether there was going to be a war or not and trying not to look back at the house which still had all our curtains hanging in the windows, and the garden seats on the lawn, and even the swing in the pear tree because the house belonged to the school and most of the things had to be left for the next schoolmaster and his family.
Later Jessica notes that while her mother was “marvelous at being a schoolmaster’s wife,” she’s not coping well with being the wife of a curate. Jessica’s mother is now “a bit red in the face … and her clothes are vile.” She’s also angry a lot, unable to cope with the work load and all the church functions. Again, there must be pressures behind the scenes, but these escape Jessica and will no doubt return for her consideration in her adulthood. This puts us, the readers, into a peculiar position as we grasp a few things that Jessica cannot.
Jessica attends the High School at Cleveland Spa and notes that while “people often start by liking me very much,” any initial popularity “faded away.” Trying to buy popularity with toffees fails, and after some thinking, Jessica realizes that there are several reasons why she’s not popular, and these reasons include her outspokenness. Jessica also falls foul of most of the schoolmistresses who find her honesty, confidence and opinions pert and far too forward. Jessica’s character disallows conformity, and since school is all about conforming to the rules, Jessica falls foul of her teachers upon many occasions. But just as Jessica is at the point of despair and alienation, she encounters a few adults who challenge conformity, accept her and make an impression on this very special girl. At one point, given a homework assignment of an essay titled “the Best Day of the Summer Holiday,” (and can’t we all remember that one) Jessica writes 47 pages and is asked “what was the meaning of this?’ Jessica’s enthusiasm and oddness is construed as rebellion. On that day, after receiving no less than three order marks, Jessica makes a significant ally in Miss Philemon, an elderly schoolmistress who finds Jessica refreshing. Gardam captures so perfectly that moment when the adolescent realizes that our misery is overstated, the relative freedom of adulthood is not that far off, and the tyranny of conformity is only as strong as we allow it to be.
One of the most interesting things about Jessica is that while she’s sensitive to punishment and opinion, she’s also impervious to it as seen when she’s finally sent to the headmistress who asks her “to try to behave like a gentlewoman.”
I was silent and then I said, “I’m terribly sorry but I’m afraid I can’t.”
“And why not?”
“Well I’m not one. I’m not a gentlewoman.”
“I will try to be good, I really will. As a matter of fact I do, I think that’s another reason I’m so unpopular, but you really have to be in our house, it’s part of father’s job. but I can’t be a gentlewoman because father doesn’t believe in it. He’s a member of the Labour Party.”
She said, “I see,” and looked at her fingernails. “Well, never mind. Shall we leave it at that then, that you will try to be good. That is really what I meant. You know it all comes down to goodness in the end, as you will see if you read about Our lord. Now I wonder if you have anything to say?”
I thought for ages and said that I should like to ask please the meaning of ‘decorum’ because it was a word I didn’t know, and for the first time she nearly hit the ceiling. ‘Dignity,’ she thundered, ‘dignity, child, dignity,’ louder, I think, than she had meant …
We accompany the irrepressible Jessica through all aspects of her daily life: her interactions with her peers, her teachers, and her family. We also see Jessica ordering in a café during the deprivations of WWII and then, in probably my favourite sequence in the book, she is made to attend a weekend house party at the home of the Rural Dean & his family, the Fanshawe-Smithes; it’s here Jessica is exposed to snobbery and hypocrisy, and forges a significant relationship which leads to a viewing of the slums at Teesside. While this is a story of Jessica’s childhood, there’s a great deal here to evoke personal memories of wonder, alienation, and the unfairness of being a child in an adult world.
I had just reached the part when Jude’s eldest son had hanged both his little brothers and hitched them up on the back of the bedroom door like dressing gowns when a hand came down on to the book from out of the shadows beyond the reading lamp, and it was Mrs. Baxter. ‘Jessica!’ she said, ‘I’d no idea you were still here. The buzzer went ten minutes ago. Whatever are you reading? It must be very exciting.’ She picked Jude up and held it near her spectacles for a moment, twisting the lamp upwards so that she could see. She gave the most frightful sort of yelp after a minute and nearly dropped it. ‘Jess, dear!’ she cried. ‘Whatever on earth! What is this terrible book?’ I said it was an English Classic. ‘It must be removed from the library,’ she said. ‘It’s a most horrible book. What would your father say? Oh, Jessica, you mustn’t read such a horrible book!’
I said it was by Thomas Hardy.
‘I don’t care if it is by William Shakespeare, you are NOT to read it. I will speak to the librarian to have it taken off the shelves.’ And I think she must have done, because it’s certainly not there now.
While Jessica is a remarkable narrator, witty, observant, frank, and with a voice that’s a joy to read, it’s often the responses of those who underestimate her tenacity that bring the warmest, most amusing moments. During this significant time in Jessica’s life, she is exposed to people, incidents and even books (Thomas Hardy) that various individuals wish to protect her from, yet these are all elements that add to Jessica’s maturation in various ways. Experience–the good and the bad–Gardam seems to say, must be savoured and endured. Delightful and refreshing, A Long Way From Verona makes my best of 2013 list.