Because Jane Gardam’s fiction generally focuses on a young protagonist’s gradual discovery of the world, her first three novels were published in the category of children’s (or young adult) fiction. It soon became clear, however, that Gardam’s work eluded this generic label, and subsequent books—published simply as fiction—have received critical acclaim, including several literary awards.
Many of Gardam’s young protagonists see themselves as fictional characters and therefore must come to terms with reality by discarding not only the illusions of childhood but also the certainties of fiction. Such is Polly Flint’s problem in Crusoe’s Daughter.
Robinson Crusoe’s island was his refuge from shipwreck, his home alone and then with his man Friday until rescue and return to England, where supposedly he wrote his story. The situation of Polly Flint, Crusoe’s admirer and spiritual daughter, is quite different. At the age of six, Polly is deposited with her dead mother’s sisters on her “island,” a yellow house on a marsh, Oversands, to which visitors come regularly and from which the people who are Polly’s companions as frequently go. Left on her island, Polly spends her life looking for footprints in the sand, discovering people to whom she might be important, and, when they desert her, turning to Crusoe as a model of courage and self-discipline.
Certainly the house to which her ship-captain father brings Polly is an improvement over foster care in Wales, where a drunken, sluttish woman had abused Polly for seemingly watching and judging her. Her father departs from Oversands to be lost at sea, and Polly is cared for by her aunts, Mary and Frances Younghusband, grumpy Mrs. Agnes Woods, and an outspoken maid. Like Crusoe, she has the physical necessities but feels as isolated as if her island were a geographical fact. Prodded to be good, she obliges, even, as she realizes later, living lies in order to be praised—though being praised for conformity is not the same as feeling loved. Polly does not feel important to anyone.
As Polly’s life proceeds, those who seem to care for her continue to disappear. Her father deposits her at Oversands and dies. Aunt Frances marries the vicar and sails for India, where she, too, dies, and it is not until much later that Polly learns that her gentle aunt had sent letters to her, letters that were cruelly intercepted by Mrs. Woods. Aunt Mary abandons Polly in order to go to her beloved convent. Because she has trained her niece to be good, Mary can leave her in the care of Mrs. Woods. Thus Polly is called from some days of happiness with Arthur Thwaite, who is actually her grandfather, at his Yorkshire home.
In one significant scene, young Polly is reading Robinson Crusoe on the beach, comparing her isolation to Crusoe’s. As she glances across the sands, she sees a speck, and the speck gradually becomes a pony trap carrying Rebecca and Theo Zeit. Perhaps it is at this moment that Polly begins to love Theo, begins to hope that she will be important to him. Theo, however, is merely another occasional visitor to her island, casually affectionate but easily distracted by his manipulative mother. There is one blissful period with the Zeits at New House when Polly feels pretty and accepted, even loved by Theo, who has held her in his arms and promised to come to her room at night. Instead of Theo, his mother appears, and Polly is sent packing like a poor relation, expelled with her new party dress before the guests for whom she has helped to prepare can arrive. Later, Theo reappears, stirs her passions, and responds to her letters of unveiled desire. His letters, however, suddenly stop, and Polly learns that he is marrying another girl. At this point, Polly abandons attempts to escape her emotional island and retreats into apathy and alcohol.
If Polly Flint is a castaway, the fault does not lie with her or even with those who quite humanly find other interests and desert her. A very young child may well be placed among people who are kind but indifferent, but a male child, Polly realizes, would have been sent out into the world, where he could have...
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