- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 7, 2004


By Jane Gardam

Carroll & Graf, $25, 312 pages


The English class system in its full unfair glory — lasting roughly from 1880 to 1960 — was a gift to the novelist. Since its gradual and continuing demise, social comedy has had to struggle to find a subject so inviting to irony.

In her sparkling latest novel, however, Jane Gardam finds a fertile field in the prejudices and misconceptions of the South, in this case the county of Surrey, and the North, in this case the Yorkshire Moors.

The Surrey characters consider the Northern ones uncivilized, windswept and poor; the North thinks the South materialistic, superficial and rich. Through the sea of these assumptions, a large cast of characters swims along as best it can, beset by bereavement, lust, love, religion and old age.

Holly Fox, mother of Faith and daughter of Thomasina, was the perfect Surrey girl: pretty, healthy, beautifully brought up, bursting with good will, not too bright. The last thing Surrey expected of her was that she should die in childbirth.

When she does, confusion ensues. Thomasina, elegant, efficient, charming, is generally expected to take on the motherless baby and be the perfect grandmother as she was always the perfect mother.

What no one knows, however, is that Thomasina’s heart was almost broken by Holly long before the latter’s death. Holly was Thomasina’s obsession, her life’s work, her one deep, consuming love. At a certain point Thomasina came to feel that this was not quite as it should be, and that she must curb her passion. She assumed a mask of sophisticated insouciance.

Holly duly became independent, trained as a nurse, and married a promising young doctor from the North. Thomasina naturally arranged the perfect wedding.

When Holly dies, Thomasina can only cling frantically to her carapace of hard-boiled detachment, quite unable to express her sense of bereavement. She only knows she cannot, will not, run the danger of such love again; someone else will have to look after the baby.

Andrew, the baby’s father, is in no state to take over, having married Holly — or rather having allowed Holly to marry him — while in fact entranced by Jocasta, a feckless wanderer whom he met when she became his patient. Uncertain of what to do with her and frightened by her power over him, he has unloaded her onto his brother Jack’s religious commune on the North Yorkshire moors.

Between the flurries of activity in Surrey, and the struggles of the failing commune run by the saintly but impractical Jack, the baby Faith seems uppermost in no one’s mind.

Thomasina takes up with a 72-year-old retired colonel and goes off with him for a jaunt in Egypt, scandalizing her Surrey friend Pammie. Pammie is left to take the baby to the North, dragging with her its reluctant father and wondering what the food will be like when they arrive.

“She tried to imagine a farmer’s lunch and settled for something between wedges of bread and cheese eaten under a hawthorn bush and roast beef in a pine kitchen with vets rushing in and out to examine diseased livestock outside in a farmyard.” In the meantime, being a highly competent woman, she has the tiny Faith cooing contentedly on the back seat.

At the commune, on the other hand, there is not much contentment. The enigmatic Jocasta holds both brothers in thrall and leaves her own child, young Philip (father unexplained), in a state of emotional limbo.

Jane Gardam is very good at confused boys. Philip, with his fantasies and his bravado, his ability to switch personalities to suit his company and his frequently maddening strategies for defense, is touching and funny and completely convincing.

The baby’s best hope might seem to lie with Toots and Dollie, parents of the brothers Jack and Andrew. They exemplify the virtues of the rugged North, being full of integrity, comic repartee and proper values. Unfortunately they are also ancient and infirm. “Who’s to look to the child, us so old and useless and all of them so foolish?” Dolly asks in one of her quite frequent dialogues with God.

“Why couldn’t you have made Jack a good old-fashioned parson instead of hobnobbing with Buddhists and the EEC and everything? And Andrew marrying south. Who’s to see to this child? I ask You, who’s to see to her?” The answer for the time being seems to be Pema, a fiercely incomprehensible Tibetan refugee, part of the commune, who has simply appropriated the baby and swaddled her in layers of Tibetan rugs.

Love, maternal, sexual, religious, is a dangerous force; things look up for most of the characters when its grip slackens and they can take control of their own destinies. They might even spare a thought for the baby; by the end it seems that at last she might take center stage. There is a Christmas ceremony at the commune, for which Jocasta has painted a beautiful backcloth, and Faith is to be christened.

The congregation, many of whom talk to God on a regular basis, whether or not they would call themselves orthodox Christians, pray with varying degrees of distraction, sometimes sounding like a poem by John Betjeman. “As you know,” begins Mrs. Middleditch, the interfering neighbour of Toots and Dollie, addressing her Lord. “Arnold and I are by birth Methodists …”

Efficient Pammie, after more than one change of heart, thinks God will want to know that she could put the commune on a sound footing in no time. “All the kitchen needs is a good lime-wash and the beams treated — say, five hundred pounds … new stove — say, two thousand … dishwasher, absolutely necessary … flowers in outer hall … visitors’ book …”

And Thomasina at last can face her grief for her daughter and ask how she’s to fill up the rest of her life.

Jane Gardam’s sharpness with her characters, and her lack of sentimentality, mean that in the end she can dish out happy endings, or the potential therefor, with an almost Dickensian generosity. This is a generous novel altogether, and an astringent, perceptive and funny one, to be read and enjoyed.

Isabel Colegate’s novels include “Winter Journey” and “The Shooting Party.”

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