Thursday, 13 March 2014
Bilgewater - Jane Gardam
"My mother died when I was born which makes me sound princess-like and rather quaint."
I was inspired to read something by Jane Gardam by her inclusion on the shortlist for the Folio Prize. I had picked this one up at some point in a charity shop and so decided to pull it from the shelves. It was initially published as a children's book but was subsequently published for us adults as well.
The title is our heroine's nickname, a corruption of Bill's Daughter. Bill, her father, is a teacher in a boys boarding school, which is where they both live. Bilgie (to be familiar) has had one girl friend her own age (Grace the headmaster's daughter), but she left to go to a girls boarding school and hasn't been seen for years. With her mother dead and her father distant she has largely relied on the matron Paula for adult guidance and friendship. She is a loner at the school that she attends, careless about her looks and disconnected from the normal interests of girls her own age. The book is in her voice and there is a subplot which centres around her interest in writing, in which Hardy and Joyce play a part. "A novel, said Hardy should say what everyone is thinking but nobody is saying. A novel must be true." On the day when she comes across this bit of Hardy which she finds so interesting she is also given a copy of Ulysses by Jack Rose, House Captain and Captain of Rugger who doesn't think much of it - "Supposed to be a novel. It's just some poor perisher's thoughts going on and on."
Her father and her ("For if I am Bilgewater the Hideous, quaint and barmy, my father is certainly William the Silent.") are mostly connected through the ongoing chess games that they play but they are happy in each other's company. Neither is particularly, or even moderately sociable but both have plenty of interests. Her father has a coffee and wine evening once a week when some of the other teachers, older men, "almost as odd as we are" come round "like elderly, homing snails.". They are the eighty year old veteran of WW1, Hastings-Benson, who keeps falling passionately and unfortunately in love with younger women; his best friend Puffy Coleman and Old Price, "an amalgam of cobwebs and dust".
As the novel progresses we begin to suspect that Bilgie is not as hideous as she avers and when Grace returns to the town and to Bilgie's school, meaning that she has a friend and performs a makeover we start to suspect a chrysalis type transformation is approaching. But, often inspired by wild coincidence, Bilgewater's progress takes in some backroads that include a ball on a collapsing pier and a visit to Jack Rose's house. His parents are dentists, and an awful weekend with echoes of Abigail's Party ensues. When she flees she somehow ends up at the house of Terrapin, another of the boys from the school, and one who seems to have an interest in Bilgie. . . .
I found the book strangely affecting, and wanted Marigold (Bilgie's real name) to come out on top. The novel plays with, and against, the ideas of fairy tales and suggests that there are many more ways to find yourself than through makeovers and princes in dusty old towers. Although there is much here to suggest that age and dust are not bad things. Marigold manages to overcome dyslexia and (apparent) Aspergers to find a path that is true to herself. And the book speaks with a voice which rings true, even when telling tales. And it is often funny. I will try another Jane Gardam soon, to see what her exclusively adult books are like.