Jane Gardam's short stories depict the challenges of aging in a changing world.
If you’ve never read Jane Gardam – and most Americans haven’t – you’re in for a treat. She’s been writing fiction for grown-ups since 1975, and has won numerous literary awards, including the Whitbread twice and the Booker shortlist.
But it was only with the 2006 Europa edition of “Old Filth,” her wry and moving novel about an emotionally scarred Raj orphan loosely based on the life of Rudyard Kipling, that she finally broke the Atlantic barrier. Her character, Sir Edward Feathers, is unforgettable: a retired barrister and judge who was called Filth by his peers – an acronym for Failed in London, Try Hong Kong, but also because he was so punctilious. Gardam’s novel captures this emotionally stunted remnant of a dying empire in his old age.
Who knows why it took so long for Jane Gardam to surface stateside, because her writing is wonderful. She’s right up there with Mary Wesley (“The Camomile Lawn”) and the two Penelopes (Lively and Fitzgerald), with a strong, unmistakably British voice that ranges from bracing irony to deep compassion.
The 14 stories in Gardam’s marvelously titled new collection, The People on Privilege Hill, focus to a large extent on members of her generation (she was born July 11, 1928, soon to turn 80) or that of her parents. These generally feisty individuals recall sometimes troubling events from their prime while they cope with the affronts of aging in a changing world. Not all the stories are winners, but even the slightest offer the pleasures of Gardam’s brisk, sharp sensibility.
The title story brings back the splendid character Filth from her last novel. He’s approaching 90, a widower who’s retired to Dorset and misses the warm tropical rains of the Orient, where he practiced law for many years. Gardam brings us right inside the old man’s head: “He was cold and old. He was cold and old and going out to lunch with a woman called Dulcie he’d never much liked. His wife Betty had been dead some years.”