With the first line of A Long Way from Verona by Jane Gardam, published in 1971 but set during the Second World War, Jessica Vye introduces herself to the reader bluntly but honestly: “I ought to tell you at the beginning that I am not quite normal, having had a violent experience at the age of nine.” This is not some mysterious Ada Doom-esque experience but it is one that has nonetheless changed her view of the world. At the age of nine, Jessica, already of a literary bent, was told by an established author that she was a writer “BEYOND ALL POSSIBLE DOUBT!” Now, at twelve, she still has her calling in mind but she is also struggling with the usual angst of an adolescent girl. And twelve, as I can certainly remember, is not a fun age to be:
“How old are you about?”
“Oh, you poor thing! Are you indeed? I really hated twelve – and thirteen. And then somebody told me that it was all to do with growing. It was all to do with my inside. With my stomach I believe in some way. I was so relieved. I had thought I was growing unpleasant and starting to hate everyone, and I didn’t want to be that sort of person at all.”
Reassured in this way by one of teachers at her school (an eminently wise and useful sort of woman, obviously), Jessica can focus her worries instead on the other things that are wrong with her:
The point is this – in three parts. Tripartite. Viz:
1. I am not quite normal
2. I am not very popular
3. I am able to tell what people are thinking.
And I might add
4. I am terribly bad at keeping quiet when I have something on my mind because
5. I ABSOLUTELY ALWAYS AND INVARIABLY TELL THE TRUTH
All of these faults are, unsurprisingly, the things that make her such an attractive protagonist. Jessica is observant and forthright and impolitely interested in many of the people she comes across, especially the inappropriate ones (who she has a talent for stumbling across). She is not remotely as odd as she seems to think herself but she is a memorable individual, a winning mix of earnestness and enthusiasm. She can be a little bit over dramatic (Anne Shirley, for one, would have enjoyed some of Jessica’s theatrical gestures) but mostly she is just eager for activity and experience – neither of which seems within her grasp, either at her stodgy school or at home, where her socialist schoolmaster-turned-clergyman father, lovely but exhausted mother, and younger brother interest her very little.
A sort of wildly inappropriate love interest in introduced for Jessica and he is perfect, though not for her, as Jessica quickly realises. If I hadn’t already been adoring this book, the appearance of Christian, a surly fourteen-year old communist who Jessica meets while staying with his family (his father is a Dean), would have converted me. He is beautiful – Jessica thinks him as attractive as Rupert Brooke, who, having recently seen a photograph of him in a book, had previously been her male ideal – but awful. Having asked Jessica’s parents’ permission to take her out, they embark on their memorable first outing – a trip to the local slums to educate Jessica on the plight of the poor. This trips goes disastrously awry and it is PERFECTION.
It is such a delightfully-written book and I adored how very free and breezy Gardam’s writing was and how wonderfully direct Jessica was. The entire time I was reading, I had that feeling of almost nervous excitement that comes over me whenever I find a new favourite author. There is something so confident and intriguing about the way Gardam writes that I am always terribly excited to turn the page and see what else she has in store for the reader.