Books like "Crusoe's Daughter" invite us to enter a distinctive landscape: "desert islands" with weather and terrain all their own. English novelist Jane Gardam's story of an indomitable woman who survives disappointment and solitude with her lively spirit intact unfolds with the assurance of writing that creates a completely imagined world. Set largely between 1904 and 1939, it is beautifully detailed and self-contained, rendered with clarity and humor.
The novel scans 82 years in the life of Polly Flint, who is raised by her loving, pious, unworldly aunts on an isolated salt marsh in northeast England. She grows up steeped in the spare beauty of the countryside and the routines of gentility and religion. Drawing her experience mainly from books, she is at once innocent and precocious -- one of those striking, imaginative, adolescent heroines who, like Jo or Anne of Green Gables, stand out for their quick sensibilities and outspoken integrity.
At 12, Polly rejects religion; a vision of an angel convinces her that church is "two whole hours of life going to waste." By 16 she mourns her aunt's passionless choice for a husband: "There he was at our dining-table, so old and pale, smiling tranquilly round and praising the steamed chicken . . . so much, much worse than Mr. Casaubon, for Dorothea's husband had had a massive mind, a searching scourging soul . . . I could understand the whole of 'Middlemarch.' The passion for a scholar. It was a bit like Jo marrying Dr. Bhaer in 'Little Women': you felt sick about it, but you understood. But Father Pocock . . ."
Uncompromising Polly embraces her singularity; that is why she first identifies with Robinson Crusoe, who was also "singled out . . . separated" from the rest of mankind. Crusoe becomes her "great love," her consolation and her model, and as the novel progresses takes on for her the darker meaning in a life of isolation.
Gardam assembles a small but distinguished group of quintessentially period characters to affect Polly as she grows and changes. Her aunts are full of kindness and propriety, but they share their house with a sour, impoverished widow who, although she disapproves of Polly, "became a little animated when I felt out of sorts, for illness played some mystical part in her religion. Our Lord had suffered . . . Ipso facto, to Mrs. Woods; illness was blessed . . . In spite of all the care and generosity and approbation . . . in the compelling yellow house, I became wary of God there." There is Charlotte, the housekeeper who seems to the aunts docile and helpful, but to Polly seems to harbor a secret "she kept hidden and hostile inside her"; and later, Alice, a resourceful and more modern servant who becomes Polly's equal and pulls her through difficult times.
In adolescence Polly meets Arthur Thwaite, a family friend whom she admires because his artless manner -- he talks mostly of the weather -- does not obscure for her his serenity and tolerance. His elderly sister Celia is a "tiny woman dressed in silk. Pampas grasses in a tall jar bowed over her like a regal awning. Her face was thickly painted . . . her very black straight hair was pulled tight back across the skull . . . her ears glittering with round topazes were little and pretty like noisettes of lamb." Celia has opened their home to an eccentric assortment of artists, and discards them if they fail to please her.
Polly also meets the Zeits, a German-Jewish industrial family, who are lively, intelligent, determinedly unesthetic and atheistic. She falls in love with the son, Theo, and their ambiguous relationship haunts the second half of the novel. He seems to love her too, but with one final, decisive action disappoints her. Then she becomes, literally, self-marooned and "blots out, and lets the noble and unfailing face and being and presence of Crusoe become her devotion and joy," turning with an obsessive energy to alcohol and a study of the spiritual meaning of Defoe's work. But true to the Crusoe metaphor, she survives these years too, delivered by circumstance and strength of character to faith and a whole life.
Gardam's narrative is full of such twists, a series of revelations and surprises about these characters and their connections to each other. Most have to do with passions unhinted at by the decorum of their daily lives. The element of surprise, the artful use of the Crusoe story, and Polly's singular and energetic voice give life to the novel. They make of an otherwise circumscribed life something complex, almost exotic; an interior adventure of the spirit as engrossing as those that take place far from home.