Persephone book number forty-four is a delightful little collection of short stories by an author you won’t have come across before – unless you have read this collection, as it was sadly the only book of Frances Towers’ stories ever published. Frances Towers spent many years teaching and the majority of her short stories were written during the 1940’s – this collection was published in 1949 a year after Frances Towers had died suddenly of pneumonia.
At the centre of these stories is the so called ‘literary daughter’ – the overlooked, downtrodden, disappointed and romantically inclined young women of the Jane Eyre type. There is romance here – small quiet romance – often unhappy, or disappointed, but there is also cynicism.
One of my favourite stories of this collection is the titular story – the second in the collection – in which a young girl Prissy, living with two aunts, when not away at school, has found her ideal Mr Rochester in Mr Considine a friend of her aunt’s. In this story Towers recreates beautifully the insular world of an unhappy adolescent girl, the fear of ridicule, and the carefully guarded romantic aspirations we have all known. One of Prissy’s aunts is a glacial beauty – with whom Prissy has a difficult relationship – Aunt Athene only sees the pale child in Prissy –
“And then there was Mr Considine. But Prissy did not speak of him, because gradually he had come to assume all the characteristics of Mr Rochester, and Mr Rochester belonged to that part of Prissy’s experience which was too poignant to be shared”
(From Tea with Mr Rochester)
That story is preceded by Violet – a story of a meddling maidservant. Sophy the rather over looked daughter of the house – one of three sisters – has, strangely enough, Violet, the maid, to thank for the romance that comes into her life. However there is a suggestion of something slightly too knowing about Violet, something a little sinister which gives the ending of this story a delicious little shivery feeling.
The Little Willow is a heartbreakingly poignant story of lost love, or rather love that never was given a chance; when Simon Byrne goes off to war, his love for Lisby the quiet, unremarkable sister of the household where he was once a guest – remains undeclared.
“Lisby said nothing. She had no poetic conception of herself to impose on the minds of others. However, she had her uses. She cut sandwiches and made coffee and threw herself into the breach when some unassuming guest seemed in danger of being neglected. And unassuming guests often were.”
(From The Little Willow)
Romantic love (oh never sex!) rears its head in Don Juan and the Lily – in which a naïve young girl, Elsa goes to work in an office. Here she meets the older Miss Dellow – a mysterious, enigmatic creature, who alone ministers to boss Mr Pelham. A fan of gothic fiction, having a preference for Wuthering Heights over Jane Austen, she weaves fantasies around Miss Dellow, which are brought up short when she is befriended by the goddess and visits her at home. When Miss Dellow goes on holiday Elsa is called unexpectedly into Mr Pelham’s office.
Actually the only reference to anything remotely sexual is in the story The Rose in the Picture – in which a young woman anticipates the coming home of the son of the vicarage. He in his youth a remote being, whom she had once witnessed grappling with another girl – “gobbling as if they were starved” – an image she has been haunted by and has been responsible for her feelings for him ever since.
Spade Man From over the Water is a story also published in the Persephone book of short stories, but it is certainly one that is worth re-reading – as are any of them actually. It is a rather odd little story, which perhaps could be interpreted in a couple of different ways. Two women recent neighbours have become friends during the absence of the younger woman’s husband. The return of this husband seems to herald a change in their friendship – however we are left to wonder how real the friendship was for this lonely young wife.
A young girl, rather shallow and superficial staying in a large country house, has her opinions of this way of life altered, and finds love in Strings in Hollow Shells.
In The Chosen and Rejected tells a slightly cynical story of two spinster friends who have decided to throw their lot in together and share a cottage. The lady of the big house – recognising in the two ladies, people of her sort, befriends them, and then reveals rather shatteringly her plans for her husband when she is gone. There is a touch of darkness to this story, which I think is utterly brilliant.
Lucinda is a ghost story – and to say too much about it might be to spoil for future readers – so I won’t. It is a little odd, but also quite clever – although not quite as fully explored as the other stories – it is enjoyable but for me was the weakest of the collection.
“She lived by herself in a little house down in the village. Sometimes she was asked to a tea party of local ladies at the Manor, but never to meet any of my stepmother’s friends from London. I used to feel ashamed of my father and Julia, and deeply apologetic towards Aunt Essie. I would hold my thumbs for her when parties were being discussed, and would pray with pop-eyed fervour, till my veins stood out, that God would make them ask Aunt Essie.”
(From The Golden Rose)
The Golden Rose is one of several stories – that one could imagine almost being extended to a novella or novel, there was so much that could have been explored further in these characters. However Frances Towers’ story is really quite perfect as it is. Here we meet our narrator’s Aunt Essie, a woman living alone she has been declared as silly and irrelevant by the rest of the family. However Aunt Essie has had a life, she has a romantic secret that no one has ever suspected.
This was such a superb little collection, that I couldn’t help but be rather sad that it is the only book by Frances Towers that exsists.