Jane Gardam may be the most celebrated writer that many readers barely know. Two major prizes greeted her first collection of short stories in 1975; the Katherine Mansfield Award followed for another volume; the Prix Baudelaire for her first novel in 1989; and she was twice awarded the Whitbread Prize.
Yet Gardam's wry sensibility places her in the company of writers such as Mary Wesley (who published her first novel at 70) and F. M. Mayor (whose masterpiece, "The Rector's Daughter," is largely forgotten). Her style, like theirs, is deceptively plain and economical, sly and startling. One of the keenest and funniest observers of English gentility and a skilled dissector of the heart, Gardam can reveal all, if she wishes, in a single glimpse.
"She had known Mrs. Partridge's daughter Olivia since the shawl,'' she writes of Maureen, a house cleaner, ''and although Maureen's days were Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays (mornings) and Olivia killed herself on a Tuesday afternoon it was Maureen who was first at the house. She lived in Morden – a good three quarters of an hour.'' This lethally calm account introduces ''Rode by All with Pride,'' one of the finest creations in The Stories of Jane Gardam, a volume that spans the years 1977 to 2007.
Varying in mood from frivolous to dark (though with Gardam's wit never totally lightless), this collection includes a couple of ghost stories and fables, an elegy and some vignettes alongside more substantial offerings. All are entertaining and many are far more than that.
''The Dixie Girls,'' ''Damage'' and ''The Tribute,'' among others, slice razor-sharp through English society's stratified layers. And in a few telling details, an entire life may be revealed. ''[S]he returned to England,'' Gardam writes in ''The Dixie Girls'' of one privileged sister, ''to a freezing address on the Kent coast spending her evenings sewing sides-to-middles of old sheets for charity ... and often writing her delicate letters with fingers blue and pleated at the tip.''
Declining into old age or genteel poverty, Gardam's characters, however foolish, endure and even triumph. Nell, for example, the landlady's daughter in ''The Dixie Girls,'' outlives not only her betters but also the tyrannical daughter who once ''had meaningful holidays during the menopause with a woman called Audrey, now dead.'' This aside could be Alan Bennett's, and, like Bennett, Gardam is an immensely compassionate writer who nonetheless skewers her protagonists with astonishing precision. A voice or a gesture is uncannily captured and suddenly an ordinary but distinctly odd person materializes.
''Miss White, who was a dotty little woman with a queer, grinning glare and had long taught kindergarten at a good school, came back from Malta full of lilies,'' begins ''The Easter Lillies.'' We meet Ingoldsby, a former pupil of Miss White's and a colonial relic, eating cornflakes in his garden in Malta. ''She sent him teacloths on his birthday and handkerchieves and a copy of the school magazine. He never found her female or attractive or even wise, but nevertheless, though he did not know it, he loved her....'' He therefore sends the requested Maltese lilies for the English Easter service, with tragic consequences.
But tragedy, in Gardam's fiction, is an intimate, muted affair. Youth fades, love atrophies, duty remains.
''She turned away her thoughts a long time ago from what needing is,'' a husband observes of his wife in ''The First Adam,'' a remarkable monologue by an unremarkable engineer whose work is his true heart's desire. Yet these stories, for all their wry melancholy, are rarely desolate. The eccentric vitality of Gardam's language repels gloom, just as her characters fend off despair.
Molly in ''Telegony,'' for example, believes in ''Lipstick, permed hair, good clothes and everything treated lightly. She kept clear of thinking.'' Like passion, it is an indulgence best left to bohemians. As a luncheon guest in ''The People on Privilege Hill'' observes of Virginia Woolf, ''She wasn't much of a cook, but you don't expect it when people have inner lives.''
Gardam says, in her introduction, that she ''always preferred writing short stories to writing novels'' and it is illuminating here to see individuals and episodes from her acclaimed "Old Filth" trilogy compressed into a tighter space. Do we want more from the stories ''Old Filth'' and ''The People on Privilege Hill'' because we know, from the novels, that there is so much more? Or does the shorter form occasionally steer Gardam toward too neat or abrupt an ending? Either way, she has immersed us so completely in her creations that the most satisfying conclusions are the ones more suggested than sharp. Much like the dark terrain that the first story, ''Hetty Sleeping,'' occupies.
''Outside shone the Irish night, black and silver,'' Gardam writes, ''with long bumpy spars of land running out towards America ... the ancient mountains inland making a long barricade against the usual world.'' The world that she masterfully transfigures.