Few novelists produce their best work in their 80s. Yet the English writer Jane Gardam, 82, has done just that with her new novel The Man in the Wooden Hat (Europa, November). It comes on the heels of her critically acclaimed Old Filth, which was shortlisted for Britain’s prestigious Orange Prize.
Gardam, who published her first adult fiction at 47 and has published 29 books since then, traveled up to London for this interview from the pretty seaside town of Sandwich in Kent, where she and her barrister husband retired several years ago.
Asked if she regrets her late start as a writer, she says firmly, “I couldn’t have written any earlier. I wasn’t ready. I was a very anxious sort of woman.” There were practical obstacles as well: after marrying a young barrister, Gardam had three children, and the demands of her husband’s work specializing in construction litigation—cases that took him as far afield as Singapore and Hong Kong for months at a time—meant she often found herself looking after them singlehandedly.
But she always knew that she would write, a conviction planted firmly in childhood by her mother, who was largely uneducated but loved language and writing. Gardam grew up in Yorkshire, in the north of England, where her father was a math teacher at a boy’s boarding school. And although she went south to London for college and stayed, she remains deeply attached to the landscape of her birthplace and only recently gave up the cottage she and her husband owned there for more than 40 years in the Pennine Mountains (“that was a wrench,” she says).
Gardam’s work was well-received from the beginning, and she is the only writer to have won Britain’s Whitbread Prize twice, for her children’s book The Hollow Land (1981), available from Walker Books, and for The Queen of the Tambourine (1991), reissued by Europa in 2007. Yet she remains relatively unknown to American readers, although publisher Kent Carroll is out to change that. “Old Filth was one of the first books I bought when we started Europa [although he had published Gardam before, at Carroll & Graf]. It had already been nominated for the Orange Prize, but to my surprise and delight it was still available for the U.S.”
Gardam has never worked the London literary scene, though writer friends include Alison Lurie and Margaret Drabble. Her work, moreover, defies easy categorization. Marked by a prose style of compelling descriptive power, her novels often draw on her own past—teachers and schools and Yorkshire, and she is especially intrigued by the interplay between memory and fiction.
This fascination with the recollected past is a mainstay of The Man in the Wooden Hat, which goes hand in hand with Old Filth. The earlier novel told the story of Edward Feathers, a recently widowed barrister who has spent his career in Hong Kong (his nickname, “Filth,” coming from an old adage, 'Failed in London, Try Hong Kong’). Now retired in the English countryside, he finds himself mentally reliving his complicated hidden past, including a war-time childhood of great emotional deprivation.
The new novel is told from the point of view of Feather’s wife, Betty. “I felt I’d missed out on her,” Gardam explains. “She seemed [in Old Filth] so ordinary and dull. But nobody is ordinary and dull.” Betty’s own history, only hinted at in the earlier novel, proves as exotic (and damaged) as her husband’s, and gradually we begin to see the pair’s marriage as an unspoken pact to try and move beyond the wounds of the past. The two novels can be enjoyed independently, but they are best appreciated as a kind of literary duet.
Gardam is done for the moment with the Featherses, though she has a new book in mind: “it’s brewing.” She tends to write in waves of intense concentration: having mulled a story over endlessly in her head, she says she finally reaches a point where “it’s now or never,” and the writing begins. Looking back at her 35 years as a novelist, she muses that she’s written too much. Told that most readers would demur, she smiles. “That’s a wonderful thing to know.”