The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Like Henry James’s Daisy in Daisy Miller (1879), Polly is presented by Jane Gardam as a perpetual ingenue who avidly observes and strives to understand the adult characters in the novel. Polly is the naive narrator who shifts her attention from character to character until each is fully scrutinized. She carefully records their various quirks, eccentricities, and passions, with an often comic eye for detail. Because her vision is severely limited by youthful innocence, however, Polly gains only a partial understanding of the sexual motives and underlying guilts which have molded the lives of her elders. Moreover, when Polly is forced to recognize the moral complexities of life, she prefers to remain oblivious to the truth, and she retreats to the fictional bosom of Robinson Crusoe, who is “straightforward, strong, and sexless. . . sitting alone in the sunshine.” In a significant sense, Crusoe is a surrogate father for Polly, whose real father was also lost at sea, but, as an imaginary rather than a flesh-and-blood male, he can do nothing to assist her through the various stages of personality development. Thus, she remains an aloof observer of the adult world rather than an active participant in it.

Gardam also portrays Polly’s aunts, Mary and Frances Younghusband, as calmly detached from the mainstream of life, a condition Polly mistakenly perceives as permanent for both of them. At the beginning of the novel, Mary and Frances are unblemished embodiments of Christian devotion and steadfast virtue. As Polly explains, their lives were “an even pattern of days and weeks,” which climaxed on Sundays with worship and coffee, the latter being “the one glamorous event in our lives.” Later, however, Frances undergoes a dramatic change and becomes more cheerful and outgoing, while Mary sinks into the depths of self-pity. This schism occurs in the personalities of the two aunts when Frances admits to her secret affection for Father Pocock and begins her metamorphosis from frigid maidenhood to marital bliss. Mary, shocked by this unexpected turn of events, withdraws forever to the secure silence of a nunnery. In the end, the circumstances of their deaths reflect their chosen paths in life, as Frances expires in a honeymoon frolic at sea while Mary quietly withers...

(The entire section is 936 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Polly Flint

Polly Flint, the bright, inquisitive, solitary heroine of the novel. She is brought to live in a remote seaside village with two maiden aunts at the age of eight. Polly identifies early on with Robinson Crusoe, feeling herself to be similarly marooned. As a teenager, she visits the home of Arthur and Celia Thwaite, where she meets a number of “artistic” houseguests, including the young poet Paul Treece. Initially attracted to him, she soon grows impatient with his callowness and boundless enthusiasm. She has a brief affair with his friend Theo Zeit, but her impassioned letters to him while he is fighting in World War I apparently frighten him off. She is heartbroken for a long period and becomes an alcoholic in middle age. She sets herself the task of translating Robinson Crusoe into German, then begins to write critical material on the novel. She also becomes a teacher for the local boarding school. The novel ends with Polly in her eighties, about to be interviewed by a local reporter.

Aunt Frances Younghusband

Aunt Frances Younghusband, one of Polly’s aunts on her mother’s side. Small, gentle, and sweet, she has an “understanding” with the local vicar, Father Pocock. They marry and embark on a mission to India. He dies en route, and later Polly receives a photo from Frances, apparently taken after Pocock’s death, showing her with a group of people on board ship, all dressed as Pierrots. It seems that all of her life Frances had a taste for adventure, which she is now indulging. She dies of dysentery soon thereafter.

Aunt Mary Younghusband

Aunt Mary Younghusband, Polly’s other aunt. Polly thinks of her at first as the “ice maiden” because she seems so remote and austere. On the day of Frances’ wedding, though, she amazes Polly by looking radiantly beautiful. It develops that she was at one time going to marry Arthur Thwaite, but his sister prevented it somehow. In later life, she has become very religious and frequently goes on retreat at the local convent. She dies soon after Frances.

Theodore (Theo) Zeit

Theodore (Theo) Zeit, an upper-class young man of Polly’s age. His family is from Germany originally and is Jewish. His father owns the factory that overshadows the seaside village. Theo is good-natured and confident, and he gives Polly the impression of being completely happy and at ease...

(The entire section is 999 words.)