Jane Gardam

Jane Gardam on Barbara Comyns – essay

The Vet’s Daughter is Barbara Comyns’s fourth and most startling novel. Written in 1959 when she was 50 it is the first in which she shows mastery of the structures of a fast-moving narrative and a consistent backdrop to the ecstasies and agonies of the human condition. It was received with excitement, widely reviewed, praised

People keep appearing

Susan Hill knows exactly how to please. This small, smart, elegantly printed little notepad of a book is a delicious Victorian ghost story, nostalgically and expertly comforting. It opens as smoothly as an M. R. James or Conan Doyle short story, over a good fire in a shadowy room on a winter’s night: The story

The uninteresting survivor

C. K. Stead was Professor of English literature in the University of Auckland and is a highly esteemed literary critic and author. He is not, to my knowledge, a theologian but was urged to write this novel about the life of Judas Iscariot by the professor of religious studies at Victoria University because, ‘These are

Getting on and getting by

This is the sketchy diary of a 60-year-old woman with an amusing, runaway pen, written over 19 months. She is scatty, impulsive, open-minded and living cheerfully in Shepherd’s Bush, which never ceases to intrigue her (‘Today I saw a man standing on his head in the middle of the pavement’). Wide-eyed and aware of men,

Looking for trouble and finding it

Thrillers now come heavily disguised, and but for the blood-stained head-lamp on the jacket of this one and the warning across the corner, ‘Be careful who [sic] you trust. It might just be the death of you’, one would take the book to be a straight- forward, if lurid, portrait of a bright girl with

Changing history with a tenpenny knife

This is a strange and wonderful novel that deserves the most serious attention. Whenever Ron- ald Blythe’s name comes up in conversation the next sentence is always going to be, ‘Didn’t he write Akenfield?’ Akenfield is the unclassifiable classic of over 30 years ago, the portrait of Blythe’s birthplace in rural Suffolk and the memories

A romantic socialist

There is no introduction to this collection of essays, reviews and ‘think-pieces’ by Doris Lessing, but they are presumably chosen by herself from the quantity of her literary criticism (the hardest work, or so they say) over a long political and literary lifetime. The pieces must have been difficult to assemble, for the acknowledgments in

A fusillade from the last ditch

Here are 90 furious little spats about our extraordinary and inadequate attitudes to God. Alice Thomas Ellis has subtitled them her ‘assembled thoughts’ on her Roman Catholic faith and what she sees as its suicidal attempts at liberalisation. She is impassioned, funny, fearless and has been in hot water a number of times with the

Dirty hands with green fingers

The unpretentious title of this excellent, delicious book is clever. Does it mean ‘a modicum of garden history’ or, in a Victorian sort of way, ‘a little volume’ of it? Either, for it is beautifully produced, would make you want to buy it but neither would prepare you for nearly 350 pages of entertaining, scholarly

Autumnal northern lights

Where are the songs of Spring? Well, certainly not in these short stories about people in crabbed old age or looking hard at death. Only in the last one, ‘The Silence’, where an ancient composer who believes that ‘the logic of music is eventually silence’, is any longing expressed to see ‘the cranes fly south

Hide and seek

The constant command in the works of Alberto Manguel is ‘look closer’. From his terrifying novel, News from a Foreign Country Came to his A History of Reading and Reading Pictures, A History of Love and Hate and Into the Looking Glass Wood and his book of notes that analyse the film The Bride of

Bloody-minded and unbowed

The head of history at a well-known English girls’ school was wont to say that she had learned nothing at Cambridge and all her history had been set in place at the age of ten by The Children’s Encyclopaedia. Rebecca Fraser will know exactly what she meant. Massively informed, she is as unstuffy as the

Found and lost

Byron Rogers for years wrote the ‘Village Voice’ column in the Daily Telegraph, and this collection of articles on his life over the past 22 years in an English village is published because of the continued weekly requests of his readers. Blakesley is not a picture-book village. Rogers found ‘a lost triangle of land where

The lines are immaterial

I once met a thoroughly heterosexual old naval officer who had been a midshipman on the ship that sailed to Gallipoli with Rupert Brooke on board, the voyage during which Brooke died. I asked him what Brooke had been like. He said at once, ‘He was a god. Extraordinary beauty, law to himself. Like Lord

From agony to ecstasy

This is a selection of the original letters written in the 1870s by the Victorian globe-trotter, Isabella Bird, to her younger sister, Henrietta on the Isle of Mull. They were posted from the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, China and the Malay Peninsula. Henrietta edited them, it is thought heavily, and on her brief spells