I so much liked Gardam’s Old Filth that when I saw this novel of hers at the Ivy Bookstore, I picked it up without even checking to see what it was about. Once I started to read, I was surprised to see that it was an epistolary novel, surprised because of the coincidence of just having read two epistolary novels (The Sorrows of Young Werther and Pamela) and also because the form is not much used these days, though it was very popular in the 18th and early 19th centuries.
In general, I ‘m not very fond of gimmicks in novels because they often substitute for good writing. An example is this year’s best-selling Pride and Prejudice and Vampires. Yes, the title is funny, but after the cover and maybe a page or two, it becomes obvious that the odd juxtaposition is all there is to the book. The new sections inserted into the text of Austen’s novel are poorly written and offer no further surprises. When I realised I was chuckling over Austen’s wit and skipping over the execrable interpolations, I chucked the book and went to reread the original.
Using an old-fashioned form, such as having the whole book be letters to someone, seems like a gimmick to me. However, Gardam does not disappoint. Eliza, one of Barbara Pym’s “excellent women”, lives in a London suburb with her husband Henry. She begins by writing a letter to her neighbor, Jean, who has apparently taken off on a world tour, leaving behind husband and children, suburban neighborhood, and the rather snarky note Eliza had sent her containing what Eliza believed to be constructive criticism. Although Eliza does not actually know Jean except to wave to in the Army and Navy Stores, she continues to write to her, shifting gradually from talking about neighborhood concerns to more personal ones.
Reading her riveting and often uproariously funny letters, one begins to wonder just what kind of skewed glasses Eliza is viewing the world through. In last week’s blog on Pamela, I mentioned how hard it was (maybe just for me, as I’m notoriously gullible when it comes to what people say about themselves) to tell if Pamela was telling the truth, or maybe the whole truth, since we only get her point of view. No such problem with Gardam, who plays on our suspicions through Eliza’s recounting of scenes with Henry, other neighbors, the director of the hospice where she volunteers with “the Dying”, not to mention her accounts of her own actions. However, even as Eliza begins to unravel, there is never any doubt that she is telling the truth as she understands it.
We see a relationship grow between the two women, even though we never hear Jean’s voice and Eliza only occasionally mentions responses she’s received from Jean (a few letters, a gift) without quoting them. I was so seduced by Eliza’s voice—hilarious, poignant, painfully open—that I was willing to follow her anywhere, even into what, in retrospect, seem pretty bizarre adventures. And in the end, she touched me deeply. This book is even better than Old Filth and that’s saying a lot.