A Long Way from Verona
Jessica Vye is twelve-going-on-thirteen and she may be a budding poet. She lives in one of those English villages with too many eccentric people. Her father is the local curate and writes for the New Statesman and has a touch of the radical in him.
Like most people twelve-going-on-thirteen, Jessica has to put up with everyone being daffy: her father doing imitations of Chamberlain and Hitler; her mother eating an entire loaf of bread (only the crust, mind you); her little brother thinking he is shooting down airplanes there behind the couch.
He does that because it is 1940 and England has just declared war on Germany. Everyone carries gas-masks and has to give up sweets and coffee and gas for the car and spends some time looking up in the sky to see if they are going to be bombed.
Being twelve-going-on-thirteen, Jessica is a little daffy too. She lives upstairs, listens through the floor to her mother and father down in the kitchen, and any of us who grew up so we could hear mom and dad murmuring in the kitchen will be sympathetic.
"How long does this awful teenage business go on?" my father said. "I'm sure I was never like it," said Ma. "I was a happy little thing. But they're different now. It's the war."
And the rest of their discourse,
"I wasn't the least bit interested in my parents," said father. "I didn't want to know them."
"I expect you did really. They were so nice."
"I wasn't," said father. "I was a swine."
They droned on [thinks Jessica.] They amaze me all the time. They are like children.
And they are. And in fact everyone in A Long Way from Verona carries on like a child: thinking like one, acting like one. Jessica may be the only grown-up one in the bunch.
On top of that, when she is not busy being a normal albeit intelligent child, she flies. What they used to call OBE. She's alone in a church, and
all of a sudden I was right up above the rood screen looking down and I saw myself as I had done before in Miss Philemon's flat, very small and crumpled with my face pressed against the keys and my shoulders narrow and my hair parted down the back in two hunks.
Even more alarming, she has the ability to read people's minds. As do people she meets. When she encounters the mother of her soon-to-be boyfriend, she thinks that the lady looks "exactly like a cook." The mother then says to her, "I'm not the cook. I know I look like one. I'm the hostess." Later Jessica reminisces about her ... "This queer woman who could thought-read like me."
§ § §
But we don't need to make too much of these oddities. What's more to the point is that Gardam's story is a lark. It takes you back to England pre-WWII, where not only did everyone carry a gas-mask, they used odd words like "mingy," "pursy," and "faffon." Don't ask me to translate.
And if you went to a formal dance at a friend's house, they rolled up the rug and pushed back the sofa and "Aunty Boo played the piano till it nearly burst." The dances you were expected to do were
valetas and gay gordons and military two-steps and hokey-cokeys and pally-glides and Lambeth Walk. The verger's grandson suddenly shouted out, "Let's 'ave knees oop Mother Brown," but they pretended they hadn't heard.
It's all very English, but is --- as I pointed out --- a lark. (I'm one too). On one hand, Jessica knows more than she should: she memorizes poems by Rupert Brooke, has fallen in love with him, and knows enough Shakespeare to be bored silly. She can also quote Shelley's Ozymandias by heart,
Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
Jessica hates most of the girls she goes to school with. She is convinced they hate her and giggle about her behind her back. They probably have that "sneer of cold command." But she sneers right back.
Jessica's boyfriend is a fourteen-year-old neo-Marxist who sneers, too: at the bourgeoisie. He's also nuts about her dad and the stuff he publishes in The New Statesman. If he was of a later generation he would probably call the old man "your rad dad."
§ § §
The story jumps around some, like its lead characters, and if you need something else to hang onto in A Long Way from Verona, there are asides that you're bound to cherish. This is dad preparing to prepare an article, "He tidies his desk, brushes the fireside, winds the clock, shakes the clock, opens the back of the clock and takes all its insides out. Then he throws all the bits away. The he gathers them all up again and stands looking at them for half an hour. Then he arranges them in rows, scratches his head, picks his teeth, sits down and takes his shoes off and smells them."
And this: Jessica finds the part of the local library that has the "Classics," all 200 of them. She decides she is going to read them all, starting with the A's:
I don't know if you've noticed but if you want to become one of the English Classics it's a good idea to be up in the top half of the alphabet. There are a tremendous lot of As and Bs and Ds and --- down to about H. Then there's hardly anything at all, until you get to all the Richardson, Scott, Thackeray lot. It's rather depressing really and you don't feel you're making much progress when after a month you're just past the Brontës --- and when you see how many Dickenses are coming.
Best of all, Gardam lets herself tease the reader: "And now I will speed the story up and describe only the two main episodes of this time. Both are depressing and could be skipped if you are pressed." She's lying --- again --- but it is a Jessica-style lie: she doesn't mean to offend, nor to lie (outright), because that's only an adult interpretation. Like the poem she wrote in a trice and reluctantly let one of her teachers send off.
Of course it gets a first prize, wins her £20 --- which she immediately gives away --- and gets published full on in the Times.
Gardam teases us once more because we never get to see the poem ... but after spending all this time entranced as we are with Jessica Vye, we have no need to. Because we know it's good.
Just as she is.
Or like anyone twelve-going-on-thirteen on the cusp of raging hormones can be good, or something close --- very close --- to it.--- Lolita Lark