Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 13, 2021

A Long Way from Verona, by Jane Gardam

A Long Way from Verona was an impulse loan from the library… and what a pleasure it is to be able to wander through the stacks and browse after all these months of Click and Collect!

You’ll have to excuse me with this one, I’ve been mulling over my response to the book for nearly a week now, and I’m still thinking out loud….

What I didn’t know when I borrowed it was that the novel is marketed as YA, but I wonder how many young adults today will appreciate its allusions?

The curriculum was different in 1971 when the book was published, and — certainly here in Australia — authors could reasonably expect that young adult readers were familiar with Shakespeare and other classic texts.  It had nothing to do with what kind of secondary school one attended or the age at which one left school; there was a common statewide curriculum.  I had studied Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth before the school leaving age of 15, and then there was Hamlet and A Midsummer’s Night Dream after that.  (I did King Lear at uni but I’m not sure when Othello cropped up).  These plays shaped my ideas about power and its abuse; about loyalty, fidelity and betrayal; about human strength and frailty and its exploitation; and about friendship and love of all kinds: a love of country, the love between parents, children and siblings; romantic love between adults, and the difference between infatuation and the real thing.

Today, however, specific texts aren’t mentioned in the National Curriculum, and schools can tailor their choice of texts to suit the perceived needs of their communities. So some students may get the opportunity to study Shakespeare and other classic texts; but equally, they may not.

Part of the pleasure of reading A Long Way from Verona comes from the allusions to Romeo and Juliet signalled by its title and elsewhere.  It’s ironic, because Jessica’s brief infatuation is nothing like Juliet’s undying love, Christian is a pale and disappointing shadow of any Romeo, and the privations of wartime Britain are indeed a long way from the decadent luxury of Shakespeare’s Verona.

The other factor is that in an era where YA readers expect stories to be ‘relatable’ and characters to be likeable, perhaps the quirky, intellectually precocious character of the narrator Jessica Vye fails that test.  She’s just not interested in the same things as the other girls. She tells us that she is not popular, and the reader can certainly see why!

Does it matter?  I don’t know.  I would consider myself diminished had I not had the literary opportunities I’ve had.  I didn’t ‘relate’ to any of Shakespeare’s characters or those in Austen or Dickens or Hardy, but I did relate to the themes.  There is pressure today, however, for young people ‘to see themselves’ in the books they read and this means diversity of colour, ethnicity, gender identification, disability and class.  That’s a good thing, and if it turns young people into readers, they will hopefully come to the books of our rich literary heritage in their own good time.  And if they haven’t seen any of the film versions of R&J, perhaps with Professor Google they can sort out anything that mystifies them in this book…

Anyway, this is the blurb:

‘I ought to tell you at the beginning that I am not quite normal having had a violent experience at the age of nine’

Jessica Vye’s ‘violent experience’ colours her schooldays and her reaction to the world around her- a confining world of Order Marks, wartime restrictions, viyella dresses, nicely-restrained essays and dusty tea shops. For Jessica she has been told that she is ‘beyond all possible doubt’, a born writer. With her inability to conform, her absolute compulsion to tell the truth and her dedication to accurately noting her experiences, she knows this anyway. But what she doesn’t know is that the experiences that sustain and enrich her burgeoning talent will one day lead to a new- and entirely unexpected- reality.

She is thirteen, and living in England in 1940-41.  Her ‘violent experience’ at nine is not at all the usual trope in contemporary fiction, it’s her astonishing discovery that she is born to be a writer, and this nourishes her inability to conform and her devotion to truth-telling.  These qualities are not much of an asset at school, where there are the usual staples of YA novels: problems with unsatisfactory teachers, the other girls, the rules, her appearance, adults who don’t understand and so on.  For example, although she is far removed from the worst of the bombing, she’s still subject to wartime restrictions, including rationing.  An invitation to a party is a problem: her party viyella doesn’t fit, and her mother has no means of getting a new dress for her.  Jessica’s solution turns out to be more embarrassing than the ill-fitting frock. Let it be said that she does not negotiate her humiliations gracefully!

The tone darkens when Jessica and her ‘beau’ are caught up in a bombing raid.

Run!’ we heard him cry. ‘You kids—run will yer,’ and the whole sky was torn apart in the crash that answered him and was followed by a great avalanche of falling brick.

The guns took over from it.  They were like giants who had been lying waiting.  ‘Now we’ll get you,’ they seemed to say.  They spoke out from behind the houses from just over the railway—from just behind Dunedin Street.  Something tremendous thundered from the docks and the world disappeared in yellow dust. (p.144)

It is chilling to remember that many of the refugee children in our schools have had this experience too.  Maybe A Long Way from Verona offers their peers a window into their experience…

Author: Jane Gardam
Title: A Long Way from Verona
Publisher: Europa Editions, 2013, first published 1971
ISBN: 9781609451417, pbk., 208 pages
Source: Kingston Library


Responses

  1. I think I first read this quite young, 9 or 10 maybe, or perhaps slightly older but not much, and it was on the kids’ shelves – not sure there was a separate teen or YA section – and I’m not sure about the US but “teen” imprints and shelves here in the UK in the 1970s/80s were pitched older.

    I now have copies of 3 early Jane Gardams including Verona, Bilgewater and A Few Fair Days published by Abacus in editions clearly designed to match other books for adults (and this isn’t a particularly deliberate choice on my part – if a book is offered in a children’s or adult’s edition I would choose and read the children’s one).

    Anyway, when I read it, I’d sort of read some bits of Shakespeare including Romeo and Juliet, not through school where adult books weren’t on the menu till I was 14, but in whatever I chose to read left to my own devices. From talking to friends who read similarly bizarre selections of books as kids, I think that we, Gardam’s characters and possibly JG herself were unusual but not unique at any age

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    • Hello Elkie, thanks for sharing this. I agree, there have always been some of us who were ‘unusual but not unique’ and your comment makes me think, well, maybe as well as book choices covering diversity of colour, ethnicity, gender identification, disability and class, they need to cover ‘unusual but not unique’.
      But do they? In primary schools, it tends to be the primary librarian who knows who these kids are because of the books they choose to read and the maturity with which they discuss them. I don’t think my secondary teachers had a clue about what I was reading at home unless I chose to reference them in some way in an essay. No way would I have said anything out loud, the tall poppy syndrome was in hyperdrive at my Australian schools.
      The trouble is, perhaps, that book choices that everyone *has to* read, have to be suitable for everybody. So something demanding, that draws on other books that most know nothing about, tends to be left for ‘enrichment’ . Or to the kids’ own devices!

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  2. I didn’t know about the changes to the curriculum for English – what are your thoughts about it Lisa? I think everyone should be exposed to some Shakespeare. Does any poetry appear in the curriculum now?

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    • I’ve been retired for some years now, so I don’t know too much about how the national curriculum (which anyone can view online) is playing out in the different states. But back when I was a regular member of my local teacher-librarian network, the secondary teachers were occasionally gloomy about the limitations of the books that were chosen for study. I have no doubt that there are schools that do Shakespeare, but there will be others that don’t.
      As you can see from what I’ve written above, it’s hard to disassociate what I valued so much from my own schooling, from what might be essential for cohorts of students with vastly different backgrounds and abilities. I expect it’s an issue that takes a long time to thrash out when secondary schools are designing their local version of the curriculum, but my guess is that as more of the baby boomers retire, there will be more teachers who have themselves never studied Shakespeare…

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      • Thanks Lisa, I’ll google it and take a look. I’d be happy if students were at least exposed to Shakespeare by watching a play or two either live or via film/utube whatever – I often think I would have enjoyed it more at school if instead of reading it first, I had first watched in as it was intended to be.

        I know when I started the teaching qualification, many of the (already university graduate) student teachers had great difficulty spelling correctly.

        You have a good point about the librarian knowing more about the individual reader’s preferences rather than the teacher; I’m sure I never discussed what I was reading at home with the teaching staff. I was lucky my mother was a keen reader and gave me books every birthday and Christmas! I was fortunate in that.

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        • I think you’re right, film or performance would be great though I think there’d need to be some good preparation beforehand.
          We saw a performance of Macbeth when I was at school and it was fantastic. All the performers were in black skivvies and jeans, and there was almost no scenery but it came spectacularly alive and I wasn’t the only one who loved it.
          The thing is, though it’s really the discussion around it that matters. Of course Shakespeare is difficult reading, even student editions with all their annotations can be a struggle for some. It’s talking about the issues that matters and makes it memorable.

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          • Yes, Shakespeare’s plays need to be watched and not just read Lisa – I didn’t appreciate them until I saw them performed. You were fortunate to see Macbeth while you were at school.

            I think we are in for a prolonged heat wave here, you might get an excuse to sit indoors reading! I dread summers now! I’m reading The Sense of an Ending thanks to you and Sue!

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            • Haha you could see into my house yesterday! It was 30-something here and I finished reading Vandemonians… no walkies for Amber! Now comes the time of the year when I must be up and dressed early to whisk her round the block before the temperature rises…

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  3. I love this book

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    • Hi Carmel! Hey, did you know that Bill at The Australian Legend has included you in his AWW (Aust Women Writers) Generation 4? If I could get my hands on a copy of Dimitra, that’s what I’d be reading!

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  4. I thought this looked (or sounded) familiar. I see it’s on a shelf which hasn’t been touched for years. I don’t remember reading it, maybe it was one of the kids’. Next time I’m looking for a book to fill a quiet hour, I’ll take it down.

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    • I wonder what you will think of it… have you read anything else by Gardam?

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      • No, I don’t suppose. Unlike some more organised people I’ve never kept a journal. But before audiobooks from libraries most of my reading was from second hand shops and never given away. So if I’ve read it, it will be on a shelf somewhere.

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        • I’m the same, until very recently, if it was mine, it’s here somewhere. But now, with more recent books, unless I loved them, really loved them, I recycle them for other readers.

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          • I read it last night, took a break from reading two older books in PDF. You have a more immediate connection to the Battle of Britain than I do, still I thought especially the second half was well done. Interesting that of the two fatal bombs, one was dropped by a German and one was a Brit mistake.

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            • Yes, I noticed that too. Well, by the time this book was published, Brits were expected to have moved on, so distributing the blame for the Blitz 50/50 is not surprising, though hardly historically accurate.
              PS You read books in PDF? I did that once, and never, never again!!

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  5. I have read one of her adult novels but a long time ago.

    However I thought I’d comment on Shakespeare. As I recollect we did Henry V in 3rd form (year 9), Macbeth in 4th form, Hamlet in 5th form, and Othello and King Lear in 6th form. I can’t remember when I did Romeo and Juliet and A midsummer night’s dream, but it was at school sometime. I did quite a few Shakespeare’s at university but can’t recollect now which ones – an eclectic mix.

    Anyhow, it’s an interesting comment you make. Of course, there were things I didn’t study that Mum knew and wondered why I didn’t get those allusions – and so it goes!

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    • *Chuckle* There are things we forget too… I was reading Robyn Lowrie’s blog the other day, about an essay by Orwell titled Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, and I asked her if she knew where the title originated because there is the Barnard Eldershaw novel with the same name…
      *blush* It’s from Macbeth’s soliloquy — and I had learned it off by heart when I was at school!

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      • Oh dear, I’d never made that connection to their book title either – and yet, yes, I learnt that too. Macbeth is one of my very favourite Shakespeare plays.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. How interesting! I’ve not read Gardam and would have thought of her as an adult author. You make some really good points, Lisa, and I agree – I think when I was at school we had a really wide range of books and texts to read and were encouraged to read widely and the assumption was we had a good grounding in the classics and other important works. With the narrowing of the curriculum battling with all the other distractions young people have, that breadth of education has gone I feel. As for diversity, the last thing I wanted to read was about people like me – I wanted my mind expanded and to read about oher people and other worlds!

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    • “The last thing I wanted to read was about people like me.”
      I hear you.
      OTOH I can understand if you are a person of colour and the only people of colour in assigned texts are always characters in subservient or are invisible altogether… or if you were disabled and all you ever saw in literature was weak and vulnerable disability…or if the only families depicted were always straight… or if the worlds depicted were always middle class and so on, well, I can see that inclusive texts would be valuable to those readers and for teaching empathy to others. But we don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathtub. I’ve seen marvellous Shakespearean productions with women in the lead role e.g. the Bell Shakespeare Company’s production of Hamlet (See their current page and there she is holding Yorick’s skull! https://www.bellshakespeare.com.au/) and their casts include people of colour and Asians. This is powerful because it shows that it’s not the words on the page that define the identity of the characters.
      But also, I was much encouraged by seeing what else is on the Bell site. There is a school’s program — which means there must be schools enthusiastically embracing the bard!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I get that. If I felt truly marginalised I would want to see something to which I could relate. But as you say, you can take older texts and do them with a modern twist so all can relate and love them. It’s good to see old Shaky still getting taught!!

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  7. Gardam is one of my favourite writers but I’ve only read her adult stuff and, even then, only a handful because her books are so hard to come by.

    As a Gen-Xer, I only ever did one Shakespeare play at school (Macbeth).

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    • It makes you glad the days of bookshops being the determinants of what we read are over. Gardam made it into the bookshops here for a while when she won or was nominated for an award, (i.e. The Orange Prize for Old Filth and The Whitbread for The Queen of the Tambourine, both of which I’ve read.)
      And then, nothing.
      Now we can find anything we want online, even the second-hand shops for the backlist.

      Did Macbeth endear you to Shakespeare?

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      • Reading it, no. Seeing it performed live, yes. Have seen many Shakespeare plays performed at National Theatre in London over the years. Used to get £15 tix through their promotional travelex season.

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  8. I’ve not heard of this but I’ll definitely look to get a copy now. I fell in love with Shakespeare at school, but I didn’t do my English degree until many years later in my 30s, then my masters in Shakespeare studies. So I have a definite bias! My nieces are now coming to an age where they’ll be old enough to read this and I’ll be really interested to know how they find it (and Shakespeare!)

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    • Your nieces reading it would be the perfect test!
      BTW are we all from the generation that had Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare so we knew most of the plays from that even before we did them at school?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I didn’t have Lamb’s Tales, but you have made me think now – I did know a lot of the stories before we did them at school but I’m not sure how!

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