Jane Gardam


"The People of Privilege Hill"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple AUG 14, 2008)

"[Her] address was Privilege House, seat at one time, she said, of the famous house of the Prive-Lieges who had arrived with the Conqueror. Those who had lived in the village all their lives—few enough now—were doubtful about the Prive-Lieges and thought that as children they had been told of some village privies once constructed up there."

Memories, and in many cases, the memories of the aged, infuse this collection of fourteen stories with surprises. Author Jane Gardam, two-time winner of the Whitbread Prize, creates ironies and absurdities for her readers, at the same time that she creates poignant and often moving scenes. Filled with wry humor and clever turns of phrase, this collection, like Gardam's novels, asks questions about whether we are the people we think we are, whether we are the people other people think we are, and whether we are the people we want to be. The secret lives and not so secret lives, the realities and the fantasies, and the faces we keep firmly fixed for the outside world--all become fertile soil for Gardam's exploration of her characters.

In many cases, Gardam's characters are lonely souls, coping the best way they can. The unnamed narrator of "Pangbourne" married a bounder but then dedicates her life to visiting a gorilla in the local zoo. Mr. Jones, in "The Latter Day of Mr. Jones," is "the last of his tribe, last of his kind," an old man whose dogs have died and whose life revolves around sitting on a bench in the park and watching the local children play--until his motives raise suspicions. And in the title story, former judges Feathers and Veneering, whose story forms the basis of Gardam's novel, Old Filth, attend a party where the guest of honor may not be the person they think he is, leaving the hostess distraught and worried about her loss of face.

Other characters illustrate the accidents of survival and the inability of each of us to control our lives. In "Babette," the story of a writer, a bathtub stored in the attic runs amok and creates disaster. In "The Flight Path," which takes place in 1941, a young man makes a life or death choice, barely thinking about it at the time. "The Virgin of Bruges" is a nun who goes to church one night, only to discover that it is being used for a wild, drug-filled orgy. In "The Last Reunion" four elderly women, one of whom is senile, gather at the school they attended to talk, argue, and complain.

Gardam is a master at observing human nature, and as she incorporates her thoughtful observations into these clever and compulsively readable stories, the irreverent attitudes toward life, which many of her characters take too seriously, and the awareness of life's absurdities, which most of her characters do not notice at all, create a collection which is great fun to read and illuminating in its insights. Her humor, dark as it is, keeps even the most poignant scenes from devolving into bathos, and her sense of play allows the reader to laugh along with her, even while identifying with many of her sad characters. A wonderful introduction to the wry delights of Gardam for anyone who has not already discovered her unforgettable and beautifully wrought novels.

  • Amazon readers rating: starsfrom 18 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The People of Privilege Hill at NPR

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"Old Filth"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple NOV 16, 2006)

"Betty and I were what is called 'Empire Orphans.'  We were handed over to foster parents at four or five and didn't see our parents for at least four years.  We had bad luck.  Betty's foster parents didn't like her, and mine…were chosen because they were cheap. If you've not been loved as a child, you don't know how to love a child.  You need prior knowledge…I was not loved after the age of four and a half.  Think of being a parent like that.'"

Sir Edward Feathers, known as "Old Filth," is, ironically, "spectacularly …ostentatiously clean."  His nickname derives from the fact that as a lawyer, he "Failed In London, Tried Hongkong."  A "Raj Orphan," Filth is a child of British civil servants of the Empire in Malaya.  Like other Raj children, he is sent back to England, alone, at the age of five or six, to begin school in a country he's never seen among people he does not know.  For Filth, the alienation is tripled--his mother died when he was born;  his father, suffering from shellshock and alcoholism, ignored him; and, living in the longhouse with the servants, he saw himself as Malay, more familiar with that language and culture than his own.

Gardam writes a powerful character study of this intriguing character whose fate it was "always to be left and forgotten."  Now in his early eighties and living in Dorset, his wife dead, he reminisces about the past and hints at some terrible event that took place when he was eight, living in Wales with Ma and Pa Dibbs, who took care of him and two young cousins.

The narrative moves gracefully between present and past, following the life of Filth as he attends school in England, becomes part of his best friend's family, gets caught between cultures when World War II breaks out, begins his London law career, and, eventually, "tries Hongkong."  Now, at the end of his life, he is in Dorset, aware that he has never really known love and has never had a home, and equally aware that he must now reach out, deal with his memories, and take control of his life if he is ever to find peace.

Gardam's supplementary characters appear and reappear throughout Filth's reminiscences—his wife Betty, more a friend than a lover;  his best friend Pat Ingoldby, whose family "adopted" him;  his two cousins, who survived Ma Dibbs with him;  his golf-obsessed aunts who ignore him; and Veneering, a man he and Betty knew in Malaya, who becomes his neighbor in Dorset.  Gradually, Filth reveals his secrets and his fears, while maintaining his elegant outward reserve, and the reader empathizes with this man, a product of his culture forced to fend for himself from the age of five.

Sophisticated and subtle, this novel, shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2005, is also compulsively readable with its poignant scenes and ironic humor.  Filth, for all his class-consciousness, is likeable and often earnest, and he engages the reader's emotions from the outset.  His late-in-life questions about whether his life has had meaning resonates.
  • Amazon readers rating: 4.5 starsfrom 153 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Old Filth at the New York Times



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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

Old Filth Trilogy

Young Readers:

  • Kit (1984)
  • Kit in Boots (1985)
  • A Few Fair Days : Stories (1971)
  • The Summer After the Funeral (1973)
  • The Hollow Land (1981)
  • Tufty Bear (1996)

Nonfiction:

  • The Iron Coast (1994)

 

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Book Marks:

 

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About the Author:

Jane GardamJane Gardam was born Jean Mary Pearson in Coatham, North Yorkshire, July 1928. She was educated at Saltburn High School for Girls, and won a scholarship to the University of London where she read English at Bedford College. In 1951 she worked as a Red Cross Travelling Librarian to Hospital Libraries, afterwards taking up editorial posts at Weldon Ladies Journal (sub-editor, 1952) and the literary weekly Time and Tide (Assistant Editor, 1952-4).

Gardam has won many awards including twice winning the Whitbread Award and most recently, her novel Old Filth was short-listed for the 2005 Orange Prize. Her earlier novel God on the Rocks was short-listed for the 1978 Man Booker Prize, and later won the Prix Baudelaire in France in 1989. In 1999, she was awarded the Heywood Hill Literary Prize in recognition of a distinguished literary career. Jane is a member of PEN and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

She is married with three children and divides her time between East Kent and Yorkshire.

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