As she introduced Jane Gardam at this morning's Edinburgh International Book Festival event, The Guardian's literary editor Claire Armitstead made reference to the sense of mischief in her books. The hour the audience spent in her company was certainly a hilarious one, that somewhat mischievous sense of humour very much to the fore as she read from her latest novel Last Friends - the third volume in the trilogy which began with Old Filth - and talked about her work and writing in general.
We've noted before on these pages that writers are not always good at reading their own work, well here was someone whose gift for the comedic, and for comic timing, had the audience in stitches as she read an early passage from the novel featuring Dulcie, Fiscal-Smith, and a sepulchrally cold church.
Beginning with the line "The Titans were gone", Last Friends takes up some of the minor characters of the series, 'the background people' as Jane Gardam called them, though no less interesting and important than those who have taken the foreground thus far; so here is retired barrister Fiscal-Smith, the "enigmatic scarecrow", a teacher, "Sir", based on Geoffrey Grigson's headmaster, and Terence Veneering, great rival to Sir Edward Feathers QC ('Old Filth'*) in both work and love.
Asked how she came up with the character of Filth in the first place, Jane Gardam said she was wandering along London's Piccadilly one day when a man, "handsome beyond belief", emerged from the Ritz. He was beautifully dressed in Edwardian style, wore wonderful shoes, but - the telling detail - carried a very battered briefcase: he must be a lawyer. The young woman knew in that moment that she would one day write about the man, whom she had first taken to be a ghost, and in a similar example of a character stepping into a writer's life, she told the story of Baroness Orczy who was standing in a London Undergound station looking towards the empty tunnel when out of it walked a man, The Scarlet Pimpernel, a 'vision from the past' whom she made her own.
Filth took shape on the page when with almost no notice she was asked to write a short story for The Oldie. "You can do it off the top of your head," said the editor Richard Ingrams, and she did, inventing her two lawyers, one the lover of the other's wife: Filth & co. were born. Now in Last Friends we learn more about Veneering's childhood in a rough town in the north east of England, his coal-delivering mother and cossack acrobat father, and here their creator said that Margaret Drabble provided the necessary corroboration for the presence of cossacks in the area at that time! This unusual family situation recognises class division but also individual strengths, and there are some powerful scenes in that part of the book.
"Writing fiction is a peculiar profession," Jane Gardam said, "it's as if one is possessed", and quoting Iris Murdoch, "we don't know what we're doing - 'til it's finished". As to taking liberties with form as she does here, "the novel should be experimenting all the time; put in patches of drama, of 'screenplay', if you want, as long as it's not a ragbag," and preferring a spare style, she feels this "leaves room for the reader" and allows them to be intrigued. Keeping track of her characters, particularly over three books, wasn't easy for her but the writing itself provided another world to occupy, something which was valuable in its own right, and comforting at difficult times. Will there be a fourth book? Jane Gardam fears she's "past it", but I very much hope not.
*The acronym for "Failed In London, Try Hong Kong".