I ought to tell you at the beginning that I am not quite normal
15 May 2009 By J C E Hitchcock
A long way from Verona indeed.
Jane Gardam’s novel is set not in the Italian city but in the North Riding of Yorkshire. Verona is, in fact, never mentioned in the book, although there are a couple of references to “Romeo and Juliet”, and an Italian prisoner-of-war plays a minor role. The story takes place in 1940/41, during the early days of the Second World War. The narrator and central character is Jessica Vye, the thirteen-year-old daughter of a local clergyman. There may be autobiographical elements in the book; Ms Gardam would have been thirteen in 1941, and the seaside town in which it is set is clearly based on her own home town of Redcar. Jessica herself has ambitions to become a writer.
There is no central, strongly-defined plot line; the book is episodic in structure, recounting the main occurrences in Jessica’s life over a period of several months. Despite the historical period in which it is set, this is not so much a war story as a coming-of-age story with a wartime setting. Only in one, crucial, episode do the hostilities play a significant role. Jessica has become friendly with Christian Fanshawe-Smythe, the fifteen-year-old son of one of her father’s clerical colleagues, and he suggests that they should together visit a neighbouring industrial town to see how its working-class inhabitants live. When they do, they are caught up in an air raid.
The theme of social class is an important one in the book. Although the fathers of both families are clergymen, there is a strong contrast between the wealthy Fanshaw-Smythes and the lower-middle-class Vyes, a contrast brought out when Jessica is invited to spend an uncomfortable weekend as a guest of the Fanshawe-Smythes, and is dismissed as “gharsley” (ghastly) by their daughters. Christian, an ardent Communist, regards the working-class neighbourhood as a hellish slum, whereas Jessica cannot see what is so bad about it. Christian’s friendship with Jessica has less to do with any romantic interest in her than with his (probably incorrect) belief that her mildly left-wing father, a former schoolmaster who has left that profession to follow his religious vocation as a curate, shares his Communist convictions.
There is more to the novel, however, than a guide to the British class system as it existed in the early forties. Ms Gardam’s main concern was not to explore social issues but to create a portrait of a sensitive girl in her early teens. As one might imagine, the most important element in Jessica’s world, apart from her family, is her school, and many of the incidents describe concern her relationships with her classmates and her teachers. One point that comes through is that the British educational system at this period seems to have been in many ways a stiflingly conservative one, more concerned with turning out well-scrubbed, well-behaved little conformists than with encouraging children to think for themselves. (A similar point is made in Muriel Spark’s “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”). The system is quite ill-suited to the needs of a sensitive, intelligent child like Jessica, whose class teacher Miss Dobbs nurtures a strong dislike for her.
Despite some serious themes, the book is essentially a witty one, even at times a comic one. Jessica has a quite original, idiosyncratic way of looking at the world, as she readily admits; the opening words are “I ought to tell you at the beginning that I am not quite normal, having had a violent experience at the age of nine”. Jane Gardam encourages us to see the world through Jessica’s eyes and to smile with her at its oddities. A very enjoyable novel.