Posted by Gay
‘I am going to take a heroine whom nobody but myself will much like.’
So said Jane Austen, referring to Emma Woodhouse, who nevertheless became one of the best-loved characters in fiction. Jane Gardam takes a similar approach with Jessica Vye, the heroine and narrator of her utterly original debut children’s book, A Long Way From Verona (1971). I ordered this book not long after its publication through a school book club and it was the only school book that I retained, re-reading it until I wore out the cover. Yet on first reading I found it very hard to get through the first twenty pages, and I did not like Jessica Vye at all until the following passage on page 19 set me laughing helplessly, as it does today:
“We’re stopping here,” I said in my mother’s voice and then unfortunately I knocked over a very large and heavy seaweed-green round plant pot on the top of a sort of bamboo thing behind my chair. It fell on its head. You’d never have believed the crash.
“Me busy-lizzie,” the lavender-aproned one shrieked. I said, “We’re stopping.”
Jessica, aged about thirteen, is unforgettable: rude, arrogant, over-confident, dramatic, vividly alive and brimming with independent observations and opinions. Her best friend, frequently irritated by her, tells Jessica that she sees things ‘larger than life, like cows’. Not that Jessica is vain. Although for much of the book, she believes herself to be ‘a writer beyond all possible doubt’, as well as endowed with the gift of reading minds (a natty narration device, since it gives the author the opportunity to tell us things that Jessica couldn’t possibly know), Jessica is equally frank about her negative attributes and often laments her own unpopularity. Her highly distinctive voice gives the book a strong flavour bordering on farce, and some scenes are actual slapstick, but there are serious events embedded in the comedy. As a child, I kept coming back for the vividly evoked setting, the colourful yet totally believable characters and especially the dialogue:
“Git away, father! Drink thy beer. Eeh look – it’s never spilt! It’s ont mantelshelf and never spilt!”
Despite never having heard anybody talk in ways remotely like these characters, whom I could barely understand, I knew at once that these were real people and remarks. I repeated them over and over in my head. They had the ring of truth.
A Long Way From Verona (whose title I didn’t understand at all) is set in wartime England. Children carry gas masks to school; there are air raids, barbed wire and mines on beaches, shelters, shrapnel, slums, skipping rhymes about Hitler, ration coupons and identity cards. Jane Gardam, who would have been about the same age as Jessica during WWII, effortlessly evokes school life against this backdrop, which Jessica appears to accept casually. Despite her frequent, ill-advised shooting off at the mouth (“Please, Miss LeBouche, I’m not actually sure that Our Lord was particularly good in the way you mean. My father thinks he must have been rebellious and difficult… And actually honestly I can’t see why we can’t eat chips when term’s actually over”), Jessica as narrator is completely silent about the death in an accidental bombing of the sympathetic teacher whom she trusts. Not until I re-read the book as an adult did I understand what is hinted at but never said. The book also contains an uneasy scene in which Jessica comes close to being assaulted by a stranger, and touches on issues of class when she is simultaneously attracted and repelled by the posh Fanshawe-Smithes.
Caught frequently between opposites – didactic teachers versus open-minded philosophers, the lower and upper classes, barminess and sorrow – in her journey of increasing awareness, Jessica struggles at the end to choose between despair and hope. The book is punctuated by moments of mystical awareness. In one scene, Jessica has an out-of-body experience; in another, a sublime experience of joy. Towards the end, after the implied death of her teacher, Jessica reads “Jude the Obscure” and is devastated by Thomas Hardy’s statement that Jude missed meeting someone who might have changed his life for the better, but that this good fortune did not happen, “because it never does”. In rapid succession she discovers that her self-concept as a talented writer is built on sand, and begins to doubt her ability to read minds. The book ends with a vindication of her writing, a wild goose chase, another out-of-body experience and Jessica’s final decision that Hardy was wrong: “I just felt filled with love, knowing that good things take place.”
As an adult, I can understand numerous aspects of the book that were completely beyond me as a child. For example, I can guess that Jessica’s non-mention of the death shows how deeply it has affected her. Some reviewers claim that this is not a children’s book at all, with its literary references and underlying sophistication. But that’s the beauty of a good book: you can come back to it again and again, discovering things in it that you were quite unaware of previously. It didn’t matter that as a child, I didn’t understand all of these things. They seeped into me and waited, ready for me to understand. Ultimately, it’s the moments of transcendence mixed with human idiocy that keep me coming back to Jessica’s story. Somehow, in this rambling monologue from an intensely human heroine, Jane Gardam has captured life as the complex mess that it really is.