Margot Schwass travels A Long Way from Verona with Jane Gardam.
It was the school holidays; I was 12 or so, much given to moping about and staring fruitlessly out of windows when I had nothing to read. This of course was untrue – I can’t possibly have exhausted the children’s section of the Johnsonville Public Library, and ours was a house full of books. But it is a difficult age, bookwise as in so much else.
I had read my way through Noel Streatfield’s theatre and ballet stories; immersed myself in the Borgias, Elizabethan England and the Russian Revolution via Geoffrey Trease’s atmospheric historical thrillers. I enjoyed certain girls’ school stories from the 1940s (not Enid Blyton’s, which seemed to me feeble in the extreme). And despite never having been on a vessel smaller than the Cook Strait ferry, I’d devoured Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series, although all I remember now are the unfortunately-named Titty and the climate of permanent parental neglect.
It’s tempting to say that I was turning against these old faithfuls because I’d finally woken up to the fact that I didn’t live in the Lake District or on the Cromwell Road but on the edge of a gorse-clad gully north of Wellington, but this is not true either. I don’t think I had yet discerned any sense of cultural disconnect between the world on the pages of the books I loved and the one outside my window.
After all, if I was looking for local authenticity in my reading, I would hardly have remained captivated by books about talking creatures. Yet I was still devoted to Mr Twink, cat detective; to Teddy Robinson and Paddington Bear; to Catherine Storr’s vainglorious wolf and his unceasing battles with the cool-headed heroine of Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf. I was (and remain) bewitched by the inhabitants of Tove Janssen’s mad, magical Moomin Valley – coquettish Snorkmaiden, the terrifying Hobgoblin with his blood-red eyes, lugubrious Hemulen, and the Groke, pitiless and terrible and still my all-time favourite literary villain. But, having made desultory attempts to teach our family cat to talk, I suspect my faith in the capacities of animals was beginning to diminish around this time.
So these particular holidays, I was probably re-reading another stalwart – my grandparents’ copy of Great New Zealand Disasters, the first non-fiction book I ever read, and responsible for many early neuroses about trains (the Tangiwai disaster), planes (the Kaimai crash) and department stores (the Ballantynes fire). No wonder I was moping.
All this changed when I received a letter telling me I had won a story-writing competition run by radio. I have no memory of what I wrote, but I vividly remember taking my $5 book token to Wellington’s first children’s bookshop, Julian and Sara’s, recently opened in Woodward Street. I still have the paperbacks I chose from this fabulous emporium. An historical novel by Elizabeth Goudge, starring a youthful Sir Walter Raleigh. Elizabeth Enright’s The Four Storey Mistake, four American (!) children with intriguing names like Rush and Randy who lived on root beer and cookies. And Jane Gardam’s A Long Way from Verona, a Puffin paperback that came highly recommended for girls (and “perceptive boys” – I don’t know what the unperceptive ones were meant to read) aged 11 and over. It cost 85 cents.
I must have read A Long Way from Verona at least a dozen times since. Set in WWII Britain, in that desolate corner of England where the Tyne meets the North Sea, it’s told by 13-year old Jessica Vye who announces on the first page: “I ought to tell you at the beginning that I am not quite normal having had a violent experience at the age of nine.”
Reading this for the first time, I’m sure I was thrilled by Jessica’s forthright voice and the dark suggestion of menace; now, I think how well Gardam captures the grandiose tone of an articulate teenager demanding to be taken seriously. The daughter of a radical curate, Jessica attends a dull girls’ school and aspires to be a writer. The book covers roughly a year in her life, in which she falls foul of the school authorities, is encouraged to write by an eccentric teacher, attends a ghastly weekend party at the local “Big House”, encounters a deranged prisoner of war, goes out with a boy, is caught in an air raid and buys a painting (some of these incidents are related in ways too complicated to explain here).
Framing it all is Jessica’s defining encounter with a famous author who tells her, thrillingly, that she is “a writer beyond all possible doubt”.
Reading face down on my bed, macrocarpa trees scratching against the window and my mother sewing in the next room, what did I think? I can’t recall precisely, that first reading having been overlaid with many more. But I was probably rather excited, astonished even. For the first time, I had in my hands a book that showed me to myself. Jessica Vye was me – or more correctly, a me that I would have liked to be. Observant, fearless, unconventional, someone who could say of her parents as she listened to them talking through the wall: “They droned on. They amaze me all the time. They are like children.” And like me, Jessica wanted to be a writer – a hazy goal synonymous with garrets and suffering, and which could, we knew, only be realised Elsewhere.
That first encounter with A Long Way from Verona may have been largely narcissistic, but I’d like to think it was also the start of learning to read properly. I discovered how a book could be propelled as much by character as by incident. Gardam’s characters are eccentric but utterly convincing, fashioned out of sharp dialogue and spare detail – the miserable evacuee Cissie Comberbach with her perpetual sniff and peculiar relatives; Jessica’s harassed mother, “her hair all frizzied all over her head and her red hands”; Miss Philemon the unconventional English teacher with her picture of naked African women baring their “green buzzums”; the posh Fanshawe-Smiths who wear high-waisted viyella dresses and describe everything as “spiflicating”; another teacher, all too conventional, who has “a noble sort of figure and a great deal of golden hair. Some of it is on her chin.”
I saw how the grindingly normal could be just as compelling as adventure and high drama. And I saw how comedy could be mined from the most commonplace situations, though I suspect a lot of the blackest humour passed me by. It was from Jane Gardam that I first heard that distinctive north-country authorial voice – plain, flinty, yet capable of considerable generosity – that I’ve been drawn to ever since.
And it was through Jessica Vye that I became besotted with Thomas Hardy, reading first Tess and later Jude (of which Jessica says “I hope I never read another book so utterly terrible as this. It is a marvellous book”). Like Jessica, I became fixated with Hardy’s dreadful sense of fate – that just when life seems about to change for the better, “[it] does not happen, this good fortune, BECAUSE IT NEVER DOES.” I can’t now say why this singularly disheartening idea took such a hold on me (or Jessica), but it did: I think it has something to do with being 12.
I’m equally sure a lot of A Long Way from Verona went completely over my head: although marketed as a young person’s novel, it seems to me now no less sophisticated than the author’s “adult” novels (of which there are more than 25, including Old Filth, shortlisted for the 2005 Orange prize, and two Whitbread Prize winners). I’ve since realised how intensely interested Gardam is in Englishness, and the constant undertow of class and caste that characterises it.
I’ve also come to see how much this book has to teach about the craft of writing fiction: about pace and viewpoint, about the voices characters use to talk to themselves and to each other, about the power of the narrator to withhold and disclose information – and Jessica is a strikingly self-conscious narrator in the best tradition of metafiction (“HAVE NO FEAR. I am not going to go into it …” she interjects at one point, “I’ve only put this chapter in because it tells you quite a bit about Christian [her boyfriend] and how I felt when I got home. I could almost miss it out, really.”)
But this is all retrospective wisdom. When I look at the figure reading in my bedroom more than 35 years ago, I know she was entranced with A Long Way from Verona not for its critique of class nor as an exemplar of narrative technique, but because it was funny, clever, and achingly true. And I am pleased to report that it still is.