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Daughter in Residence

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It seems amazing that Ann Schlee’s work is not known to everyone, because she has always had her following and is still writing, but her four big novels written between the 1970s and 1996 are now out of print and hard to find.

Her first enchanting novel, Rhine Journey, about a Victorian holiday, was shortlisted for the Booker prize; and her second, The Proprietor, about the (thinly disguised) Scilly Isles and the nineteenth-century benevolent despot who owned them, was a huge success. The third, Laing, about the Scotsman who made the terrible journey to Timbuktu in 1848, though controversial in some way I now don’t remember, seems to me the best of the three. But it is her fourth book, The Time in Aderra, which looks the slightest, that I find perfect.

It is the dreamlike account of the year that a 17-year-old girl spends after leaving her English convent school in the 1950s. Her dress hanging two inches below her school coat because clothes in England then were rationed like meat, she flies off alone to Africa with many changes of plane to be with her mother and stepfather, the Governor of a tiny British protectorate. She has not lived with them together before.

The country of Aderra is trembling on the edge of handover by the British to the tribes of its northern territory. This is the will of the people. Freedom. The British must go. But the tribes are hostile and there’s the possibility of revolution unless the colonials can maintain their unflinching self-confidence, their stiff upper lips.

Flo’s mother temporarily puts politics aside in her delight at her daughter’s arrival. She believes romantically (maybe truly?) that there is always a special year in anyone’s life, and she wants this one to be Flo’s. So Flo is received into the colonial social whirl, the brittle and rather brave parties (How they all drank in those days! How they all smoked!), where she meets a clever, raffish man

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It seems amazing that Ann Schlee’s work is not known to everyone, because she has always had her following and is still writing, but her four big novels written between the 1970s and 1996 are now out of print and hard to find.

Her first enchanting novel, Rhine Journey, about a Victorian holiday, was shortlisted for the Booker prize; and her second, The Proprietor, about the (thinly disguised) Scilly Isles and the nineteenth-century benevolent despot who owned them, was a huge success. The third, Laing, about the Scotsman who made the terrible journey to Timbuktu in 1848, though controversial in some way I now don’t remember, seems to me the best of the three. But it is her fourth book, The Time in Aderra, which looks the slightest, that I find perfect. It is the dreamlike account of the year that a 17-year-old girl spends after leaving her English convent school in the 1950s. Her dress hanging two inches below her school coat because clothes in England then were rationed like meat, she flies off alone to Africa with many changes of plane to be with her mother and stepfather, the Governor of a tiny British protectorate. She has not lived with them together before. The country of Aderra is trembling on the edge of handover by the British to the tribes of its northern territory. This is the will of the people. Freedom. The British must go. But the tribes are hostile and there’s the possibility of revolution unless the colonials can maintain their unflinching self-confidence, their stiff upper lips. Flo’s mother temporarily puts politics aside in her delight at her daughter’s arrival. She believes romantically (maybe truly?) that there is always a special year in anyone’s life, and she wants this one to be Flo’s. So Flo is received into the colonial social whirl, the brittle and rather brave parties (How they all drank in those days! How they all smoked!), where she meets a clever, raffish man, not quite the English gent, whom she soon can’t stop thinking about. The entanglement gets worse when she discovers that something is going on between him and her mother. Flo is tall, pretty, almost inarticulate and impossibly young, but no fool. Her mother is attractive and nice, slightly silly and thrilled with her daughter, bursting sometimes into joyful tears at the very thought of her being there. Out go the school clothes and in come the gorgeous dress materials from an Italian dressmaker. Occasionally the mother does just guiltily wonder whether she really wants Flo to live with her and her new husband for ever. Flo accepts the lot. During the days, she dreams around in the Residence, playing her one gramophone record from an American musical in the empty ballroom on a tin-pot gramophone. Her mother plays fortune-telling games of Patience, while in the shadows dozens of excellent servants do all the chores. The Governor governs, ploughing his lone and dangerous furrow, moving between evening cocktails and daytime flights to the interior in bumpy biplanes over the desert where the poor sit swathed and silent, awaiting better times. In one of the most unforgettable scenes I have read anywhere, three alleged murderers are summarily executed under the palm trees where the Governor has been hearing their case. As justice is done he stands behind the plane and smokes a cigarette before flying back to the capital for the evening’s entertainment. The Sergeant who has seen to the hangings is later in charge of stringing up fairy-lights for the farewell ball. The Governor is summoned back to England for questioning. While he is away King George VI dies and the British community in Aderra has to go into official mourning. No more parties for Flo, and she rebels. There’s a nasty incident after a night-club binge with the boyfriend when someone gets killed. The Governor returns. The Brits begin to slip away home as the handover approaches. Flo is sent back to London where, on one of the new tiny television sets, she watches the Union Jack come down over Aderra for the last time, and sees the crowds roaring with delight as the Governor and her mother sit stiffly in their open carriage waiting for the likely gunshot. Flo broods on what freedom means. Freedom from protection. Freedom from parents. What shall she do now? I won’t spoil it. Ann Schlee has three daughters of her own and several grandchildren, and I think it shows. The relationships between mother and daughter that she creates are so much better than most. Jane Austen for example is rather thin on mothers and daughters (Mrs Bennett is a caricature, Fanny Price’s mother gives her up, Anne Eliot and Emma Woodhouse’s mothers are dead), and her own mother was not the type to weep with joy at her very presence – she didn’t even go to her daughter’s funeral. Then, too, Ann Schlee has had a wide view of the world, having been brought up in Africa as a Foreign Office child, and this shows too. She writes historical novels that are more advanced, more interested in feminism, for instance, than her contemporaries who write of the twentieth century. Barbara Pym and Anita Brookner examine tiny suffocated lives. Theirs are indoor books, but famous ones. Ann Schlee’s wider vision is adventurous and sunlit. Find The Time in Aderra and buy it – if you can.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 3 © Jane Gardam 2004


About the contributor

jane gardam has written ten novels and ten collections of short stories. She has twice won the Whitbread prize and once been on the Booker shortlist. Her books include The Flight of the Maidens and Old Filth. She lives in Kent and a cottage in Yorkshire and, like Ann Schlee, has a lot of children and grandchildren.

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