This novel is Jane Gardam's great novel, tackling her perennial themes of loneliness, love and literature. The solitary child brought up by eccentric maiden autnts who identifies so totally with Crusoe in his isolated state has only one brief experience of love, but it's searing. The War, the Holocaust and the survival of the human spirit are all encapsulated in this extraordinarily funny and moving novel. Buy it.
In what author Jane Gardam describes as "by far the favourite of all my books," Gardam uses her mother's childhood as a springboard for a novel about isolation, communication, and the writing of novels. Setting the novel at the turn of the twentieth century on the isolated northeast coast, where her mother spent her entire life, Gardam introduces five-year-old Polly Flint, who arrives with her widowed father at Oversands, a big yellow house occupied by his wife's older, unmarried sisters. Shortly after arriving, Polly's father dies, leaving her to be brought up by her Aunts Mary and Frances in a place so isolated that there are virtually no other children. In her loneliness Polly finds her greatest solace from the books in the library of the house. Her discovery of Robinson Crusoe, who lived in isolation on an island for twenty-eight-years, offers her a way of dealing with her own isolation.
Crusoe, an obviously pragmatic man who must deal with each day as it comes, relies on his own ingenuity to solve his problems, just as Polly knows she will have to do. Her first real conflict with the aunts comes when she is twelve, as she firmly rejects being Confirmed in the church, and refuses the idea of communion. Her aunts' religiosity cannot stand up to Robinson Crusoe's realism for her. "I'm young and I'm empty of life. I just am," she cries. "All the hymn-words spring up and the Collects, Creeds, and Epistles." Crusoe's realism becomes her religion.
Love and death eventually complicate life at Oversands, and in her teens Polly goes to stay with elderly family members, Arthur Thwaite and his sister Celia, who live on the Yorkshire moors, some distance away. Their house, an artists' retreat, expands her vision of life dramatically, though she is not sure if it is a madhouse, a hospital, or a private asylum. Poets, writers, and musicians, some of them failed, provide a totally different kind of life for Polly, the other extreme from what she has known. A few friendships and one or two romantic crushes give Polly's life a semblance of normalcy as she matures to her twenties, but as the novel continues to progress up to the 1980s, two world wars, industrial changes and population growth create chaos even in the rural countryside.
Gardam creates real atmosphere here in both time and place, and rural northeast England becomes almost a character of its own. The novel's realism keeps Polly's story from becoming a romance, however much the reader may empathize with her, and the author's honest feelings for her characters endow the novel with a poignancy that one does not often find elsewhere in Gardam's novels. The Robinson Crusoe leitmotif is well integrated, running throughout the novel over the course of more than eighty years, and it firmly connects all aspects of the novel's long chronology. The novel's final pages, as close to a grand finale as Gardam will probably ever get, will leave a smile on the face of every reader - filled as it is with the dry wit and sense of dramatic irony for which Gardam is so famous, a perfect ending to one of her warmest and most enjoyable novels. Mary Whipple
The Man in the Wooden Hat
The Queen of the Tambourine
Polly Flint was born just before the opening of the 20th century. In this novel, the story of her life, mostly written as if by herself, we get a child's view of Edwardian life; a young woman's experience of the First World War; a somewhat older woman's perspective on the inter-war years ... and much more besides; with an update to 1986 and what we may take to be Polly's last days. Her name might make us think of Treasure Island, but her great passion, throughout life, was Robinson Crusoe.
Polly never knew her mother, and her father was drowned at sea when she was six, so she was raised, but not openly loved, by maiden aunts. Small wonder then, that she felt shipwrecked, and from when she first read the book found in her late grandfather's study, closely identified with Crusoe on his island.
Polly tried to be like Crusoe in his resourcefulness and self-sufficiency, and in not being driven mad by prolonged isolation. Unlike Crusoe, she did have a few people around her, but they were strictly limited in numbers and outlook. Educated at home, in her early years she encountered few other children. Over time, a number of young men showed an interest in her; one loved her, and she loved another. Through those experiences and others, we acquire an authentic female perspective on those long-gone decades, their strict limitations set alongside occasional opportunities and some real joys.
We learn, or are reminded, of much about Robinson Crusoe, and Jane Gardam risks a brief discussion of what a novel should set out to achieve - against which we of course immediately begin to measure her own book. "Every serious novel must in some degree and UNNOTICEABLY carry the form further. Novel must be 'novel'. ...it must entertain. No polemics. No camouflaged sermons." She passes the test with flying colours.
I agree with Amanda Craig that this is one of Gardam's great novels - though I find 'Bilgewater' and 'The Flight of the Maidens' equally good. Polly Flint, orphaned at the age of six, is raised in North East England by two passionate aunts, who have used religion as a substitute for romance. Aware of all manner of strange undercurrents of emotion in the house, Polly clings increasingly to the story of Robinson Crusoe, the man shipwrecked on a desert island who lived in solitude for years. Polly sees Crusoe as the ultimate survivor - if he could cope, she also can. And so she becomes increasingly obsessed with his story, as her own life becomes more complicated. Gardam guides us with a fine light touch through the 20th century, from the last days of Victoriana to World War I (in which a young poet who loves Polly is killed), the 1920s and on to the rise of Hitler. The epilogue, set in the 1980s, describes World War II and its aftermath. Although the book is about a rather solitary girl, there is a wonderful cast of characters, including Polly's two emotionally-repressed aunts, their melancholy maid Charlotte, Lady Celia (a sort of Northern Ottoline Morrell) and her dreamy brother Arthur Thwaite, Paul Treese the working-class boy who's won a place to Cambridge and longs to be a poet, the German-Jewish anglophile Zeit family, and Polly's staunch maid Alice, who helps Polly to recover from a minor breakdown after disappointment in love.
A wonderful, completely engrossing read. My only criticism was that it wasn't longer - I would have liked more about Polly's relationship with the two Jewish girls that she takes in, about World War II and about Polly's life as an older woman. I also found the epilogue, written as a script, slightly melancholy in tone - it would have almost been better to carry on in prose but have the very final section narrated by another speaker, I think. But these are tiny points - on the whole I felt this was one of the great books of the later 20th century. Read it and you won't be disappointed.
on 12 January 2014
Oh I loved this story.
Jane Gardam writes about human emotions so very well. I always shed a tear (or more) when I read her work.
The characters are well drawn, mainly English eccentrics, who fascinate me, coming from a European background as I do.
The reverse snobbery by Mrs Zeit, (after she realises her son has an interest in Polly) is so, so cruel.
I wish I could understand Theo more though, as I am not sure if he alone used Polly, or if his family had a hand in all of his undertakings. Even the last, as Polly by then had his daughters living with her. It hurts me to think what heartache she went through.
Polly's love of & fascination with Robinson Crusoe is quite wonderful & shows what reading can do to a child's mind. Particularly, an only child, & more particularly still, an orphan child being brought up in the circumstances Polly finds herself in. I say 'Brava' to that.
However, those circumstances made Polly quite naive, so much so that even as a young adult woman, she did not realise a man, a poet, had been in love with her.
I also loved the 'twist' involving her great grandmother, aunt, uncle etc. What secrets families have!
All in all, a very touching story, which I feel privileged to have read.
Polly Flint, the narrator of this charming, witty and moving novel, is an orphan; her mother died when she was a baby and her father, a merchant sea captain, dies at sea when Polly is six years old. She is 'adopted' by her two aunts who live in a large yellow house, called Oversands, in the north of England, so close to the sea that the Polly thinks the house is rather like a ship tossed about on the waves. Oversands is so remote that Polly feels she could be marooned on a desert island, just like Robinson Crusoe, whose story Polly becomes very enthralled with as she builds a life for herself in the isolation and solitude of her home.
This novel follows Polly's life throughout a period of eighty years - from Edwardian times, through two world wars, the Holocaust, and right up until the nineteen eighties towards the end of Polly's life. The story is peopled with a delightful cast of characters - apart from Polly's two religious aunts and their companion, the green-faced Mrs Woods, we meet Mr Thwaite (whom Polly imagines to be a romantic Heathcliff-type figure until she meets him and his disappointed by his monocle and drooping moustache); there is Mr Thwaite's sister, Lady Celia, a rather eccentric patron of the arts; we meet Paul Treece, a would-be poet; the Zeits, a German Jewish family, with one of whom Polly becomes very close; and these characters are all wonderfully described by Polly with wit and affection.
I found this richly textured novel to be an engaging and engrossing read - marvellously eccentric in some places, very amusing and comical in other places - yet poignant and moving too. Jane Gardam is a wonderfully original novelist who has deservedly won several literary prizes, and a writer I have no hesitation in recommending.
Also recommended by the same author: Bilgewater (Abacus Books);The Flight of the Maidens;Old Filth;The Man in the Wooden Hat.
on 16 January 2015
Polly Flint - a great name, and a fascinating heroine.
Polly, orphaned, grows up with her aunts in "Oversands" - a yellow house on the North East Coast of England around the turn of the last century. She is clothed, fed, by her aunts, educated by a lodger, but love and warmth are missing. She becomes absorbed by the books in her late grandfathers study, and especially with the story of Robinson Crusoe.
In many ways, Crusoes shipwrecked state, and her own isolation are linked. The writing is absorbing, subtle and witty. I really cared about Polly and felt her passions and disappointments. The landscape of the North East, and in Yorkshire are beautifully described, and the characters intriguing.
I would really recommend this book - it is refreshing and compelling. I had not read any of Jane Gardam's books before, but will do now.
on 9 January 2016
I enjoyed this book, having recently discovered Jane Gardam's short stories which I enjoyed. She is very persceptive about children and childhood and about family relationships. I did find the story rather hard to believe, and there are slightly too many coincidences, especially leading up to the sort of happy ending. However, it is a good and untaxing read, and the historical and geographical detail is interesting.
on 2 December 2013
This is a book which infuriates as the characters do not behave in any way in which you can relate to them. Polly Flint is most odd but likeable and her life whilst hard and even harder to imagine is interesting. I could not stop reading and went back to reread several sections.
on 27 February 2013
I came to this book after reading Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat, both of which I found incisive, witty and entertaining. But Crusoe's Daughter is clearly out of Jane Gardam's "hardcore miserable" range. Misfortune after misfortune is piled on the poor heroine's head, and though some of this is told quite amusingly, there is a limit to how witty you can be when faced with yet another crushing blow of fate. I confess that my disappointment is partly due to the fact that I (foolishly) bought this as a holiday read, which it most certainly isn't unless you are holidaying in Siberia or North Korea. Do you have an annoyingly chirpy Pollyanna-ish relative? Give them this book - it will cure them instantly!