Jane Gardam‘s Crusoe’s Daughter is a novel about Polly Flint, who goes to live with her aunts and a dour family friend named Mrs.Woods at Oversands, a large yellow house on a marsh in north Yorkshire, when she is only six. Her mother is dead and soon her father dies as well. Around ten years later, as the Great War rages, both aunts and Mrs. Woods are dead and Polly is alone with Alice, the housekeeper. And Robinson Crusoe, her constant companion.
Polly reads Robinson Crusoe over and over. Throughout her life, it is her obsession and her saving grace. While she’s still very young she loses the faith her aunts tried to instill. But she always has Robinson Crusoe I’ve never had a touchstone book like that but I know people who do.
Polly meets very few people out on the marsh. One, a mysterious Mr.Thwaite who appears at her Aunt Frances’ wedding when Polly is sixteen, becomes an important friend whose connection to the family is unclear to Polly or to readers for some time. The people she meets tend to leave — her dead family; a young poet, Paul Treece, who dies in the trenches; Theo Zeit, who Polly loves but who marries someone else his mother chooses.
But Robinson Crusoe remains, as Polly takes in boarders, nearly drinks herself into oblivion, and then, through Alice and a fragile war veteran, finds her calling as a teacher. The scene where she enters a classroom for the first time and takes an unruly group of little boys in hand is fantastic. By the time WWII is dawning, readers sense Polly will be alright. Theo writes and asks her to take in his two daughters, Jewish refugees who just get out out Germany. She brings them home to the yellow house, and we know without Gardam telling us that Polly and these little girls will take care of each other.
In the final chapter of the book, “The End,” Polly is now an old woman and Oversands, which was once isolated, is in the way of a nuclear waste dump the government wants to build. While one of the girls she raised, now a vicar’s wife, talks with a reporter outside, Polly carries on a conversation with Robinson Crusoe (yes, the character).
They discuss fiction, which Polly says has “become quite canonically boring– all about politics or marital discord. The minutiae.” She tells him “You were my bread. You are my bread.” When Crusoe replies that this sounds like blasphemy she remarks, “Quite a few people see an affinity between you and Jesus Christ. They are given grants for theses on the subject.” I laughed out loud. Before saying goodbye, Crusoe tells her she’s had “A quiet life . . . . As a life, not bad. Marooned of course. But there’s something to be said for islands.”
Gardam is so brilliant. I’ve sung her praises here before — I probably can’t add much. Her subtlety, the enormous humanity of her novels, the empathy she elicits for even her most flawed characters, her acute powers of observation about society and human nature, and her great good humor all add up to a deeply satisfying read. I would like very much to read every word she’s written.
In the introduction to the Europa editions reissue of Crusoe’s Daughter, Gardam says its her favorite of her own work. She explains that after her initial publishing success she wanted to write “one that mattered.” It surprised her to find that what she was drawn to was writing about her mother’s childhood world in the northeast of England. “When I had finished I felt I needn’t write anymore books. Take it or leave it, Crusoe’s Daughter says everything I have to say.” I’ll leave it to you, dear readers, to find all that she says — on what we place our faith in, how we care about each other, and how we carry on when there’s no one left to care, among many other things — by reading this wonderful, wonderful novel.
As Gardam herself notes, she has written more books, some of which won prizes and sold very well. I’m glad Europa editions has brought U.S. readers this novel, and I hope they continue to publish her earlier work in new editions. One quibble: typos. This is the 3rd book I’ve read in the last few weeks with proof-reading errors. Publishers, when we readers buy books, we’d like them to be finished, please.
I’ve never read Robinson Crusoe but we own a very nice copy so I may.