Suppose I had stayed [in rural northeast England]—like my mother. [Imagine] a sort of castaway girl who lived there all her life like Robinson Crusoe. I’d give her a library—her dead grandfather’s vicarage books…I’d give her knowledge of the heart’s affections. And I’d show the power of her childhood landscape, the enfolding murmuring magical marsh so flooded with light sunshine, silvery rain and mist, and the running sea (Jane Gardam, 2011).
I was rather late to the feast in discovering Jane Gardam, who's been publishing her remarkable, delightful novels since 1977. I've read a few of them in the last couple of years and enjoyed them tremendously. So, when my urgent reading for Shiny came to an end, and I discovered I had an audio version of Crusoe's Daughter already in my Audible library, I started listening and was completely enthralled.
Crusoe's Daughter is not the story of a woman marooned on a desert island -- not in a literal sense, anyway. Figuratively, though, that's exactly what it is. Motherless Polly Flint, born in 1898, is brought by her sailor father to Oversands, a yellow house by the sea on England's inhospitable north-east coast, to live with her two maiden aunts. Orphaned almost immediately, she is educated by her aunts and by the curious, disagreeable lodger Mrs Wood, and there she remains for more or less the whole of her long life. An isolated, friendless child, she discovers a copy of Robinson Crusoe in the old vicarage library, and the book becomes her mainstay throughout her life. Even at a very young age, Polly recognises qualities in Crusoe that she will need to emulate if she is to survive what looks like being a solitary and loveless existence. It's his pragmatism she is drawn to, and the fact that he is forced to take each day as it comes, with no real knowledge of what the future may bring.
If this sounds as if it might be a dreary sort of book, think again. Of course things do happen to Polly over the course of more than eighty years. The biggest change in her life occurs when she is about sixteen, after her best-loved aunt has married and gone to India. The other aunt has headed for a more or less permanent retreat in the local convent, and Polly goes to stay with a previously unknown relative, Mr Thwaite, who lives with his sister in Yorkshire. This is a household so strange and eccentric that Polly at first thinks she has ended up in an asylum. Lady Celia collects artists, poets and authors, who hang around the house in various degrees of uselessness. One young poet falls in love with her but, after an initial crush, she wonders if he is right for her. Sadly she doesn't have to wonder for too long, as he is destined to die in WW1. Polly does fall properly in love, though, with young Theo Zeit, the son of a wealthy Jewish family living near the yellow house. The Zeits take Polly up and she spends a long, idyllic holiday with them, which gives her hope that her life is going to change for the better -- but Mrs Zeit kills her hopes in the bud, whisking the whole family off back to Germany. When Theo's adoring letters gradually tail off, and she hears that he has married an aristocratic young Englishwoman, Polly's life spirals into a long period of extreme loneliness. Supported by far too much whiskey and by self-imposed tasks such as translating Defoe into German and French, and writing a critical monograph on Robinson Crusoe, she is saved when her loyal maid Alice marries the local headmaster and the two of them persuade Polly to take up teaching, to which she proves to be superbly suited. Much later, at the start of WW2, she has a message from Germany -- she is to take in two of Theo's daughters, who are coming in on the kindertransport.
Eighty years is a lot of cover in a novel, even if some of those years are uneventful. Graham manages this by telescoping some of them, and focusing on the essential bits. Overall, though, you get the most wonderfully full and satisfying sweep of a life lived so quietly and yet so fully. In addition to Polly, from whose point of view the story is told, you have wonderful secondary characters -- Alice, who starts as Polly's maid, becomes her friend, and finally her mentor and saviour -- delightful, gentle Mr Thwaite, whose love for Polly proves to have an unexpected source -- sweet and loving Aunt Frances who persuades the parson to marry her and then goes rather wild on becoming an unexpected widow on the way to India -- fierce, angry Charlotte, who presides over the kitchen in Polly's childhood -- Mrs Wood, the impoverished house guest, the extent of whose malevolence is only revealed after her long slow death -- I could go on, but you get the idea. Then there's all the business of Robinson Crusoe -- if I was still teaching the 18th century novel, I would get students to read this alongside it, as they'd learn a lot.
I suspect this is a novel I'll be returning to, but meanwhile I've started another by Gardam, so you'll be hearing about that one soon.