Jane Gardam, Bilgewater (1976)
The first book you read by a favorite author has a special quality. Even if there are other books by the same author that you realize are more worthy of recognition, the joy of discovery lends your “first” a lingering glow. Sometimes, the particular circumstances of finding the book are stamped on the memory as well. I’m revisiting some of these “first reads” and giving some second (or fifth or twentieth) impressions.
I first became interested in Jane Gardam upon reading Michele Landsberg’s description of Bilgewater in her wonderful guide to children’s literature, Reading for the Love of It:
The characters are a gallery of endearing and sometimes buffoonish eccentrics, and all of them, young and old, reticent or extravagant, act out the various and extravagant follies to which they are driven by love.
By now, having read all the Jane Gardam books I could get my hands on, the “gallery of endearing and sometimes buffoonish eccentrics” to which she has introduced me has greatly expanded, as this is one of the strengths of all her writing. But Bilgewater was my first, and I’m still very fond of her.
The title refers to the nickname bestowed upon the novel’s narrator by the boys of the boarding school where she lives with her widowed father, a housemaster. (“Bill’s daughter” = Bilgewater, to a schoolboy’s sense of humor.) Her real name is Marigold, a sunny, cheerful name that contrasts with her image of herself as an ugly, froglike creature suitable to be dismissively called “Bilgie.” But the radiant side of her being is manifest to us from the first chapter, in the energy and verve of her narration.
I emerged into this cold house in this cold school in this cold seaside town where you can scarcely even get the telly for the height of the hills behind — I emerged into this great sea of boys and masters at my father’s school (St Wilfrid’s) an orange-haired, short-sighted, frog-bodied ancient, a square and solemn baby, a stolid, blinking, slithery-pupilled (it was before they got the glasses which straightened the left eye out) two-year-old, a glooming ten-year-old hanging about the school cloisters (“Hi Bilgie, where’s your broomstick?”) and a strange, thick-set, hopeless adolescent, friendless and given to taking long idle walks by the sea.
As readers, we don’t see or care what she looks like; what matters is that here is a brilliant, original mind, able to look at herself and the world with humor and insight that far transcends the ordinary. But at seventeen, looks are paramount — so when she’s given a makeover by the glamorous headmaster’s daughter, it seems possible her life might take a turn for the better.
Fortunately, things do not develop in any dull, conventional way, but go badly astray with hilarious, tumultuous results. Along the way we meet many of those endearing eccentrics, chief among whom is the indispensable Paula, whirlwind of a house matron and the closest thing Bilgewater has to a mother. Though she has no dress sense and is given to handing out items from the rag bag, we can tell Paula’s love is the real thing, however blind those around her may be to her true worth.
And then there is the “great sea of boys and masters,” some of whom give Bilgewater/Marigold her first painful, confusing experiences of attraction and repulsion, love and loss. As she negotiates these treacherous waters, trying to discern what is real and life-sustaining in the midst of deception, falseness and dishonesty, we are reminded of our own journey towards truth — a journey that can be taken up at any age.
I can’t possibly write as well as Jane Gardam does, or explain how she manages to make us laugh while treading on the edge of despair. I can only say that once I found her funny, warm-hearted, and verbally dexterous writing, I didn’t want to stop reading it. If you haven’t already, I hope I’ve intrigued you enough to pick up this or another book by one of the great comic novelists of our time.
And please, don’t be misled into thinking this is only a book for adolescents to read, just because it’s about one. A blurb on my edition insultingly says “Here is a brilliant talent that, if it appeared in adult fiction would be noisily greeted and deserve to be.” Such a talent should be greeted wherever it appears, and the theme of making individual human connections in the face of all the forces that seek to divide and estrange us (or conversely, submerge us in conventional sameness) never loses its relevance, even after the teenage years are long past.