This is a really lovely book, a thoroughly engaging coming-of-age story in the style of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle – maybe with a hint of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle in the mix for good measure. I read it at the crossover point between 2021 and 2022, making it a delightful way to start the new year with an author I’ve long wanted to try.
First published in 1971, A Long Way from Verona was Jane Gardam’s debut novel – a book the author originally intended for children. But like the Dodie Smith, Verona can be enjoyed just as much, if not more, by adults – partly for the quality of the writing and partly for the sheer entertainment value.
Set in a coastal town in North Yorkshire in the early years of the Second World War, Verona is narrated by Jessica Vye, a precocious schoolgirl with an utterly captivating voice.
I ought to tell you at the beginning that I am not quite normal, having had a violent experience at the age of nine. I will make this clear at once because I have noticed that if things seep out slowly through a book the reader is apt to feel let down or tricked in some way when he eventually gets the point. (p. 3)
When Jessica is nine, the author Arthur Hanger comes to her school to give a talk on how to become a writer, should any of the pupils be harbouring such ambitions. Jessica, who has been writing things down for as long as she can remember, is inspired by the session – so much so that she thrusts all of her writings at Mr Hanger, just as his train is leaving the station. Mr Hanger agrees to read them, and several months later he comes good on his word, returning the texts to Jessica with an encouraging note:
JESSICA VYE YOU ARE A WRITER
BEYOND ALL POSSIBLE DOUBT! (p. 9)
By this point, it is clear to the reader that Jessica is a born writer. Possibly a semi-fictionalised version of Gardam herself, she is bright, knowing and outspoken – a marvellously forthright companion who feels fully-formed on the page.
Most of the novel takes place when Jessica is in the early years of adolescence, between twelve and thirteen. Every day, she commutes by train from her home in Cleveland Sands to the girls’ school in Cleveland Spa, where she must face various challenges. With her uncanny talent for reading people’s minds and her inability to keep quiet (even when it will land her in trouble), Jessica is not terribly popular with the other pupils – or with the teachers, for that matter. Several members of staff feel she is getting above herself and needs to be taught a lesson, while others are a little more sympathetic to the girl, especially given her talents.
Jessica has a small coterie of friends – Florence Bone, Helen Bell, and the marvellously named Cissie Comberbach – all of whom are delightfully sketched by Gardam, who excels in capturing their body language and banter. In a hilarious early scene, Jessica insists on the girls taking a trip to the local tea room to mark the end of term. The trouble is, Elsie Meeny’s tea shop is virtually deserted – a sleepy, down-at-heel establishment somewhat diminished by the war.
‘They think I’m crazy at home,’ Helen said. ‘I’ve told them to keep my tea hot.’
‘But this is your tea. Proper tea. Little eclairs and things. Afternoon tea.’
‘Where?’ asked Helen.
‘Well, in a minute,’ I said.
‘Are you crazy?’ Cissie Comberbach said (she hardly ever spoke). ‘There’s a war on.’
‘It’s not been on that long. If there’s still tea shops there’s still teas. You just don’t know round here anything about it. It used to be marvellous in places like this, people in coloured hats eating ices, and flowers hanging and lovely fat chocolate biscuits and the sun!’ Helen turned her face away and picked her gas mask up and swung it about as if she would soon be going, and I suddenly felt absolutely fed up with her. (pp. 15–16)
The girls do eventually get their ‘shilling tea’, but it’s something of a disappointment – especially compared to the version served to the tea shop’s regular customer, the rather eccentric Mrs Hopkins.
‘Look at her tea,’ Helen said. ‘Crippen, just look at her tea.’
On the tray were little cress sandwiches and egg ones – even egg ones – three slices of fresh bread and butter, thin and curled like cornflakes, quite fresh, and a chocolate eclair in pale green paper. There was a tiny glass dish with blackcurrant jam in it. We sat and we looked. We looked and we looked and we went on looking. (p. 20)
As the novel unfolds, we follow Jessica as she tries to navigate her way through adolescence, negotiating various formative experiences along the way. She attends a frightful party hosted by terrible snobs – an event only redeemed by the presence of a dreamy boy, Christian Fanshawe, who becomes her first crush. During a trip to Shields East, Christian and Jessica get caught in an air raid, narrowly escaping a bomb that wipes out a whole street. It’s an incident that throws them into shock, even if Jessica doesn’t realise it at the time, such is her determination to carry on as normal. There’s also a sinister encounter with a disturbed man in the woods – an Italian who proceeds to leer at Jessica when she chastises him for destroying the dahlias. Later she discovers that the man is an escaped prisoner, a dangerous ‘maniac’ on the run from a nearby farm.
What Gardam does so well here is to capture the conflicting emotions of adolescence, from the surety of knowing one’s own mind to the agony of being misunderstood and not fitting in. We see everything through Jessica’s eyes, sharing her passion and determination to succeed alongside the inevitable moments of despondency and pain as she tries to express herself creatively. Parts of the novel are conveyed through the letters that Jessica writes to Florence Bone, her closest friend and confidante from school – messages that are at once both painfully honest and highly amusing, all expressed in her distinctive, idiosyncratic style.
The secondary characters are wonderful too, from Jessica’s father, a schoolmaster-turned-parson who proves popular with parishioners, to her mother, a fish-out-of-water whose disorganised nature is apparent to all. Also of note is the elderly Miss Philemon, one of the few teachers who seems to understand Jessica, treating her with a combination of kindness, maturity and empathy.
This is a warm, funny, thoroughly enjoyable novel that captures the trials of adolescence so engagingly. The mundanity and routines of a small-town school are perfectly evoked – a life of shoe bags, pointless essays, order marks for poor conduct, and bland, unidentifiable school dinners. Yet despite the sense of loss, ‘making do’ and awkwardness that underscores Jessica’s adolescent life, the novel ends on a positive note with the recognition of her writing talents. It’s a fitting outcome for Gardam’s story, a validation of Jessica’s abilities – a way of channelling her experiences into writing and creativity.
A Long Way from Verona is published by Abacus; personal copy.