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.)