Posts Tagged ‘short stories’



Oh dear, my tbr does have a habit of getting rather out of control, and this book demonstrates that perfectly. A good friend bought me this for my birthday – no, not my last birthday, the one before that! I generally love short stories, and my love of Jane Eyre – the inspiration behind the collection – is probably quite well known.

The precise inspiration for all the stories in the book – published for Charlotte Bronte’s bicentenary in 2016 – is that most famous of final lines; reader, I married him. A few weeks after being presented with this by my friend – a book I was delighted to receive – I attended a talk at Hay Festival 2016 in which Tracey Chevalier and a couple of authors whose work appears in the collection talked about the concept of the book, and read extracts from the stories. There are twenty-one stories in this collection – which bring together many famous names and a variety of voices from modern fiction. Jane Gardam, Helen Dunmore, Salley Vickers, Elif Shafak, Susan Hill and Lionel Shriver to name but a few. I was excited about this collection – despite having left it on the shelf so long – I felt it could only be wonderful. Umm… I was wrong. Don’t misunderstand me, I did enjoy several stories very much, but not all of them, several left me rather cold, some I’m sorry to say I could barely remember just a day or so after reading them.

Generally, I am a fan of short stories – and I often read them one after the other after another – rather than dipping in and out while reading other books. I know some people think that is the wrong way to approach a collection – but it usually works fine for me. Whether that was part of the problem I don’t know, but I think that I like collections to have a cohesive feel to them – and I had definitely expected that of this one, but somehow, I didn’t feel there was that kind of cohesiveness.

The scenes, characters and settings are very varied – Pembrokeshire, London, a lido out of season, a small Canadian town, Turkey, Harlem, in these places we meet the married, the about to be married, those seeking romance, a new mother, a widow, and immigrants. The title story by Susan Hill, tells the story of Edward and Mrs Simpson from her point of view, it’s a story of love, loss and sacrifice. A story that we think we know, but Wallis puts a slightly new spin on it. In To Hold, Joanna Briscoe tells the story of woman who marries several times, her story is rooted in the British countryside – Briscoe’s was one of several new voices for me.

“The espaliered walls, the choke of cabbages, ended in a gate that led straight through to where the gorse was webbed with nests and the merlins soared to Gibbeswick Fell. Tay-Mosby hiked daily through the tussocks accompanied by his dog, Ranger Boy, surmounted the head of the waterfall as he chopped at thorns with his stick, walked by the beck to where the quarry was, the Pennine Way, the views further west to witch country.”
(To Hold – Joanna Briscoe)

One of my favourite stories were Behind the Mountain by Evie Wyld. A woman struggles to settle into her new life in a Canadian town, following her husband’s appointment as bank manager. Her home, and its furnishings bear the scars of previous occupants, and a dinner for her husband’s colleague causes some anxiety. As the woman misses her son, at school in England and dreams of English beaches, her husband exerts a quiet tyranny over how his toast should be prepared. On a visit to the store for food, she meets Old Annie – a mountain woman whose bandaged head tells of her recent encounter with a bear. Old Annie – and the mountain which looms over their house, speak of another kind of life.

“She sits in the car and watches Old Annie cross the street and sling the package in the back of a green truck. She moves with the confidence of an animal.

She follows. There are no other cars on the road this morning, and though she catches Old Annie’s eye in the rearview mirror, she still follows. They reach the dump and she stops, watches Old Annie drive on, a bear swivelling its head towards her as she goes. Their eye contact is broken. Soon, the green truck is a beetle kicking up dust in the distance, the top of the mountain she lives behind a faded pink.”
(Behind the Mountain – Evie Wyld)

Alongside these stories we have three stories that feature the characters from Jane Eyre itself – Grace Poole Her Testimony by Helen Dunmore – it does pretty much what it says on the tin as they say. In this story Grace Poole defends Bertha Mason, calling into question the generally accepted view of Jane Eyre. In The Mirror by Francine Prose, we have an imagining of what Jane’s married life might have been after that famous novel ends. While in Reader, she married me by Salley Vickers, Mr Rochester reveals a long-kept secret. As a fan of Jane Eyre these were the stories I was looking forward to most, but although they are all very readable, I just wasn’t convinced. I didn’t recognise my small, pale friend Jane Eyre in any of them, true Jane is a complex character, we see different things in her at different points in our lives. As we encounter Charlotte Bronte’s most loved heroine we can read her character in a variety of ways, she is much more than small, plain and poor – we know that. These stories certainly pay homage to the variety of ways we can read Jane Eyre; however, I didn’t feel that I was reading about the same person. Salley Vickers Rochester wasn’t my Mr R, and while Helen Dunmore’s Grace Poole is less of a problem, I probably liked the Salley Vickers story the most of the three.

Overall, I was disappointed by these stories – which is a shame given that it was a gift. I still like the premise – but something didn’t quite gel for me.

tracy chevalier

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an unrestored woman

So just days after reviewing Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood – I have another collection of short stories to tell you about. An Unrestored Woman a very powerful collection, first published last year in the USA, this new paperback edition apparently timed to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the Partition of the India into what is became the separate nations of India and Pakistan – perhaps that is a coincidence though I suspect not.

“We leave. We leave the places we’re born, the places we’re meant to die, and we wander into the world as defenceless as children. Against such wilderness, such desert.”

For all the stories in this collection take the ramifications of Partition as their theme. However, not all the stories take place in 1947 – in fact Shobha Rao’s stories show how the effects of Partition continued to be felt many, many years after the events surrounding Partition itself.

There are twelve stories in An Unrestored Woman, six pairs of linked stories. This pairing of stories is particularly clever, allowing us an alternative viewpoint – the two halves creating a more complex whole across the two stories. Shobhan Rao writes beautifully of displacement, love, ambitious seduction and revenge. Characters commit murder, take on cross gender identities, embark upon perilous journeys and suffer horrible abuses. I found many of the male characters to be either thoroughly unpleasant or cowardly weak. It is probably unsurprising that it is generally women and children who suffer the worst abuses, rape, coercion and abduction feature. I didn’t find Rao’s writing to be in any way gratuitous – there was a sensitive, understanding to her depiction of these terrible events – an honesty.

In these stories; we meet women trapped into early marriages with men who treat them as objects. Those sold into the sex industry, and the unrestored women who having been abducted during the violent upheaval of Partition – are forcibly returned to the homes where they are no longer wanted. We meet a child who makes a miraculous escape when a train is attacked, an elderly man with dementia confusing the past with the present. A woman in 1990s America meets an elderly Englishman who served in India during Partition, and a young man working for the Indian Geographical Society, takes the opportunity to advance his romantic aspirations when he goes to a village to survey the border between India and East Pakistan.

“He returned an hour later and told her he’s secured passage for her on a bus headed for a nearby camp. It was set up by the Indian government, he said.
‘For what?’ she asked
‘For items that are useless.’ He said ‘Like you’”

The collection opens with the title story An Unrestored Woman in which Neela, believing the husband she never cared for is dead, finds herself briefly in a camp for ‘Refugees and Unrestored Women’. Here Neela meets Renu, and for the short time they are together, the two are inseparable. In The Merchant’s Mistress, Renu is an ambitious servant, seducing both her master and mistress, on her way to a better life.

Jenkins working for the Imperial Police in the story of the same name, finds himself falling dangerously in love. Fifty years later we meet Jenkins again working as an apartment building doorman in the US, in Unleashed. A young woman turns to drink when she uncovers a terrible betrayal. In her misery, she recalls her childhood and adolescence in the company of her sister.

Blindfold tells the devastating story of a child stolen for the sex industry and the carefully plotted revenge the girl visits upon the cruel madam who has held her hostage for years. In the The Lost Ribbon, we have a Hindu woman ‘recovered’ from her Pakistani captor, who makes an unbelievably appalling decision.

A young cartographer in The Opposite of Sex, is desperate to marry the daughter of a wealthy local man, he realises that moving the dividing line between what will soon be East Pakistan and India through the village, he can effectively ruin the father of the girl he dreams of marrying, and so improve his own chances of winning her. Many years later, that young man’s boss Alok Debnath is now an elderly man suffering from dementia in Such a mighty river. As Alok goes in search of a local prostitute whose services he has used regularly, his mind keeps returning to the past when he was first married to his beloved late wife. Unknown to him, Alok is vulnerable and in danger.

“My wife comes into the room, shutting out the sun as she closes the door, and lays the wad of bills on the table in front of me. I can’t look at her. I want to feel shame but I only feel a thin pleasure, like a fine layer of skin, puckered and white and soulless, floating on cooling milk. On another shore, perhaps, the desert has an ashen end; and forests are merely silent folded wings. On that shore poverty doesn’t have an animal stink. And when we touch the face of another, we draw onto their skin a moonlit path, and not the metallic rust of our weakness and our fear.”

During the upheaval of Partition, a married couple embark upon a journey to Mirpur Khas in The Road to Mirpur Khas. The impractical, naïve husband frequently annoys his much sharper wife. Having had the meagre store of money stolen on the road the wife is forced to prostitute herself to aid their journey and their very survival. In the The Memsahib, set I think some years before the events of 1947, a young sweeper becomes obsessed with the imperious daughter of the British family in whose home he and his mother serve. When his attentions are shrugged away, he decides upon a peculiar and terrible revenge.

In Kavitha and Mustafa, a train packed with refugees is attacked, the passengers robbed and beaten, a Hindu woman and a Muslim boy manage to escape by helping one another is a desperate bid to survive. In Curfew, the granddaughter of that boy – now grown up, and living in Britain – goes on holiday with her husband. The couple are still struggling with a terrible grief, their marriage itself at risk.

There is a relentlessness to these stories, but there is also a lot that is beautifully observed and compellingly told. Rao is never sentimental, there is an honesty to her stories which goes some way to telling the rich, complex story of two historically and geographically linked countries.

shobha rao

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stone mattress

I love short stories, but I hadn’t read any Margaret Atwood short stories since I read Bluebeard’s Egg at least twenty-five years ago. I also hadn’t realised that there were a few collections out there that I could have been reading. At the same time that I bought this collection, I bought Margaret Atwood’s most recent novel Hag-seed – and was really debating which to read first. I am so glad I chose this collection because it so completely captivated me – and made me realise I really haven’t read enough Atwood the last few years. My re-read of The Handmaid’s Tale  a few months ago was immensely positive of course – but something about The Heart Goes Last didn’t completely work for me (I’m sure it’s just me) – so to be so blown away by another Atwood book felt quite exciting.

Stone Mattress nine wicked tales is highly addictive, sharply observed and brilliantly imagined, I gobbled them up in two days. These are the sort of stories I don’t want to say too much about – you will all just have to read them.

The first three stories; Alphinland, Revenant and Dark Lady are connected, Atwood considers matters of ageing in the stories of a group of people who first knew each other back in the 1960s.

“The freezing rain sifts down, handfuls of shining rice thrown by some unseen celebrant. Wherever it hits, it crystallizes into a granulated coating of ice. In the streetlights it looks so beautiful, like fairy silver, thinks Constance. But then, she would think that; she’s far too prone to enchantment.”

We begin with Constance, in Alphinland – a renowned fantasy writer – who created the fictional world of Alphinland many, many years earlier while she lived with Gavin an aspiring, serious poet. Now she is an old woman, mourning her husband in the midst of an ice storm, trying to look after herself the best she can, she still talks to her husband Ewan, it keeps him close. Constance makes a hazardous journey to the nearby shop, scatters cat litter on the steps outside – all the time remembering Gavin, who cheated on her with Marjorie, and laughed at her work. Constance was probably my favourite character in the whole book.

In Revenant we meet Gavin, a pretentious, revered poet, now living with his third wife Reynold, thirty years his junior. He remembers Constance as the one that got away, about who he wrote some of his best-known poems. Gavin; pretending great nonchalance – thrives on a bit of attention, so is ready to really enjoy himself when a student turns up to interview him.

“Why couldn’t the two of them have gone on and on forever? Himself and Constance, sun and moon, each one of them shining, though in different ways. Instead of which he’s here, forsaken by her, abandoned. In time, which fails to sustain him. In space, which fails to cradle him.”

In Dark Lady, Constance, Marjorie and Reynolds are reunited at Gavin’s funeral. There are of course truths to be told, and memories of the past re-examined. Atwood’s depiction of the funeral, with its folk singers and poetry is pure gold.

The stories in this collection vary in length, but they have a delicate, dark heart. Lusus Naturae is the shortest, a modern take on the vampire stories of the past, innocence and superstition and misunderstanding clash, leading to an inevitable conclusion.

“Now I was dead, I was freer. No one but my mother wa allowed into my room, my former room as they called it. They told the neighbours they were keepimg it as a shrine to my memory. They hung a picture of me on the door, a picture made when I still looked human. I didn’t know what I looked like now, I avoided mirrors.”

The Freeze-dried groom, is darkly humorous – and if you ever watch that TV programme from the US; Storage Wars (I can’t say I have ever understood the appeal)– you will never look at those storage units in the same light. A man who the reader has reason to distrust for other reasons, buys several container units – and is quite unprepared for what he finds inside.

I dream of Zenia with the bright red teeth reintroduces us to Charis, Ros and Tony from The Robber Bride – a book I know I enjoyed very much, but I’m embarrassed to admit I can remember nothing about – though it is a while since I read it.

We meet another writer in The dead hand loves you, a man who years earlier, as a young, penniless student, wrote a horror story which became a huge bestseller – now considered a gothic classic. However, the writer entered into a profit sharing deal at the time with his three housemates, a deal he has had cause to regret for years.

The title story of the collection; Stone mattress was one of my favourites, it concerns an act of terrible (but rather perfect) revenge, when a woman meets the man who raped in in high school – on an arctic cruise.

The premise of Torching the dusties is rather disturbing – nursing homes find themselves under siege as society outside starts to break down. An elderly couple, one a woman with Charles Bonnet syndrome, come together to do all they can to survive.

Throughout this collection Margaret Atwood’s writing is simply wonderful, gorgeous description, dark humour and complex characters explored with feeling.

A few days after finishing this amazing collection of short stories, the BBC broadcast a wonderful programme in which Alan Yentob talks to Margaret Atwood – it was an extraordinarily lovely programme which I have recorded to keep and watch again. It certainly made me want to read the books of Margaret Atwood that I haven’t managed to get around to (perhaps not the Maddaddam trilogy as I am not great with Sci-fi – those who know better tell me if I am wrong), and re-read all those I read twenty five/thirty years ago. I still have Hag-Seed to read and have now ordered Wilderness Tips.


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Translated from the French by Sandra Smith (2007)

Women in translation month continues apace, and I am always amazed by the array of books and writers that I have never heard of popping up particularly in my Twitter timeline. Just the sheer number of people joining in with this event is impressive.

witmonth2017My second read for #witmonth was a very slender little book I found in a charity shop while out with my sister. Irène Némirovsky the author of the acclaimed posthumously published Suite Française and many other novels and short stories died in Auschwitz in 1942, already a successful author, the two stories contained in this volume were published in 1930 and 1931 respectively.

These two stories are quite different, one the story of family of nouveau riche and the revenge taken by an unhappy teenage girl on her nasty, selfish mother. The second tale tells the story of a faithful Russian family servant, who in her advancing years follows the family she has served, as they emigrate to Paris.

In La Bal, we meet the Kampf family. The Kampfs have recently become very wealthy, and Madame Kampf in particular is keen to join the ranks of Parisian society. She is very aware of her working-class background, eager to shake off the taint of these roots she is very sensitive about her past. Madame Kampf plans to throw a sumptuous ball, to which she will invite all of society, the wealthy and the titled in order to gain the acceptance she craves.

“A ball… My God, was it possible that there could take place – here, right under her nose – this splendid thing she vaguely imagined as a mixture of wild music, intoxicating perfumes, dazzling evening gowns, words of love whispered in some isolated alcove, as dark and cool as a hidden chamber… and that she could be sent to bed that night, like any other night, at nine o’clock, like a baby?”

Antoinette is the fourteen-year-old daughter of the Kampfs, there is little, if any love in her life, her father concerned with business and keeping his fractious wife happy, while her mother; Rosine’s unpredictable moods and obsession with society blind her to her daughter’s unhappiness. Antoinette is desperate to go to the ball, knowing other girls are sometimes presented to society at around her age, but her mother scoffs at the very idea. Antoinette has little joy in her life – daily, hated music lessons with the dreadful Mademoiselle Isabelle – a cousin of the Kampfs, to which she is accompanied by her governess Miss Betty. While Antoinette endures her lesson, Miss Betty goes off to meet her young lover. Antoinette is lonely and bitter and in a fit of teenage pique decides to exact her own terrible revenge.

I have read other mother daughter stories by Némirovsky especially in the collection Dimanche and other stories, and although I rather loved the story and thought it very compelling, it is not the best example of the type from this writer. Antoinette is not explored as well as I would have liked, she is also rather unsympathetic, which I don’t personally mind, but a little more sympathy might have made the conflict work better.

Snow in Autumn transports us to Russia, and the home of the Karine family around the time of the Russian Revolution. Tatiana Ivanovna is the ageing faithful servant who has served the family since the time Nicolas Alexandrovitch was a baby. After fifty-one years, she has seen two generations of the family grow up, watched her beloved Nicolas Alexandrovitch marry Hélène (after she cheated on her first husband with him), and dearly loved the four children born to them.

The revolution brings great change, hardship, tragedy and flight. Tatiana guards the family home alone, while revolutionaries rampage through the countryside, one member of the family is shot, and life changes forever. The family flee to Paris, and despite her years, Tatiana follows them. The life the family lead now is a long way from the life they lived in Russia, poverty is an accepted part of their lives now. As time goes on, the situation begins to take quite a toll on Tatiana, who longs for the snows of her homeland, seeing the landscapes that she loves in her mind, she longs for a time when she will be able to return.

“Back and forth they went, between their four walls, silently, like flies in autumn, after the heat and light of summer had gone, barely able to fly, weary and angry, buzzing around the windows, trailing their broken wings behind them”

This second story is probably the better of the two, certainly it is more nuanced and the character of Tatiana as well as being more likeable than Antoinette, is particularly well explored. However, I enjoyed both very much, and yet again am reminded how much of Némirovsky’s work I have yet to explore.

Currently reading my third Witmonth book Iza’s Ballad by Hungarian writer Magda Szabó which is brilliant.


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I’m sure most of you know by now just how much I love Elizabeth Taylor – but I still haven’t read quite everything she wrote. I have been saving the last two volumes of short stories for quite a while – now there is only one left. The short story form, seems to have suited Elizabeth Taylor perfectly, and The Devastating Boys first published in 1972 I have seen described as her best. It is pretty much sheer perfection.

There are eleven stories in this collection – and they are all quite brilliant, though I am not going to write about each story separately – but attempt to give a flavour of the whole collection. On of things that Elizabeth Taylor can do in her short stories is to have her characters step fully formed from the pages, and the reader is immediately involved in their lives. These stories take place both at home and abroad, and concern a variety of types. We have remembrances of childhood holidays and the infatuations they bring. Loneliness and humour sit side by side throughout this delicious collection. In two of the stories there is certainly an acknowledgement of the changing face of Britain, as Elizabeth Taylor introduces us to some more diverse characters than we perhaps usually associate with her, in the title story and in Tall Boy. This later story tells the rather poignant story of Jasper; a young man, an immigrant not long arrived in England. I don’t want to say too much about that one as it could spoil it – but it is certainly one of my favourites in the collection.

“He imagined home having the same time as England. He would have felt quite lost to his loved ones if when he woke in the night, he could not be sure that they were lying in darkness too and, when his own London morning came, their also came, the sun streamed through the cracks of their hut in shanty-town, and the little girls began to chirp and skip about.” (Tall Boy)

The title story, the first one in the book, is an absolute delight, some of the language is a little old fashioned, though never offensive, it brings together two vastly different worlds. Laura and Harold are a fairly typical Taylor married couple, upper middle class, they live in a nice house within easy reach of a railway link to London, their daughters have grown up and left home. Harold came up with the idea of having disadvantaged London children to stay for a holiday. Having read of the scheme, Harold had volunteered himself and Laura (though it will be Laura who will have to entertain them) insisting that the children they take should be black. So, when summer comes, it is a nervous Laura who waits at the station for these two young London boys, Septimus Smith and Benny Reece.

“They stood on the platform, looking about them, holding their little cardboard cases.
‘My name is Laura,’ she said. She stooped and clasped them to her, and kissed their cheeks. Sep’s in particular, was extraordinarily soft, like the petal of a poppy. His big eyes stared up at her, without expression. He wore a dark long-trousered suit. So that he was all over sombre and unchildlike. Benny had a mock-suede coat with a nylon-fur collar and a trilby hat with a feather. They did not speak. Not only was she, Laura, strange to them, but they were strange to one another. There had only been a short train-journey in which to sum up their chances of becoming friends.” (The Devastating Boys)

Two weeks stretches out before them all, what will Laura do with these silent, large eyed small boys. Elizabeth Taylor writes these characters with such affection and without any of the patronising condescension that other writers of her class have been known to adopt when writing of the working classes. The Devastating Boys is a story I could read over and over – by the end – when the children must return to London – there is a definite feeling that Septimus and Benny will always be a part of Harold and Laura’s life.

In stories like Sisters – Elizabeth Taylor achieves quite a lot in just a few pages. Here we have Mrs Mason, a widow, she prides herself on her respectability. We quickly learn all we need to know, Mrs Mason is childless, attends coffee mornings in aid of worthy charities, plays bridge regularly, takes tea in a nearby tea-rooms. She is a respected figure in her English county town, and she shudders at the thought that her respectability could be threatened when a journalist appears asking questions about the sister that no one in the town knows anything about.

An annoyingly precocious child spends her summer holidays making daily visits to various houses in the story In and Out the Houses. At each house, she drops snippets of information about the other households she has visited that day. Small jealousies and pretensions are revealed, as Kitty Miller happily skips from house to house leaving tiny seeds of chaos in her wake.

Several stories take place abroad; the differences in a newly married couple becoming painfully apparent in Hôtel Du Commerce, the ending almost inevitable is nevertheless brilliant. Blowsy pub landlady Phyl; contemplates a fling while on holiday in a sunbathed Mediterranean resort, in the story Flesh. Even here, we meet a recognisable type of person, and as ever Taylor recreates them perfectly.

“For the sake of a tan, she was wasting her holiday – just to be a five minutes’ wonder in the bar on her return, the deepest brown any of them had that year.” (Flesh).

The one story which feels a bit like the odd one out (not to say it isn’t brilliant because it is) is The Fly Paper, which I have read before in another collection. It is a real spine chiller – reminding me a little of those Tales of the Unexpected that I used to watch with partial dread, occasionally, when I was in my teens. Sylvia is an eleven year old, travelling on a bus to her music lesson, it is a journey she makes regularly, but what happens to Sylvia on this particular Wednesday – really is the stuff of nightmares – and yet Taylor writes it with such exquisite subtlety.

The Devastating Boys is a truly superb collection, and one which demonstrates Elizabeth Taylor’s skill at revealing the truths within communities. Dangerous Calm is the final collection of Elizabeth Taylor stories I have to read, I want to have it to look forward to for a little while yet.


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This month the Librarything Virago group are reading the work of Edith Wharton. I chose Roman Fever a collection of short stories which I have had for some time.

The short story Roman Fever first appeared in 1934 – although this particular collection wasn’t published until 1964 these stories come from across the long period in which Edith Wharton was writing. I assume, therefore, that these stories probably do appear in collections first published during Wharton’s lifetime.

The title story of this collection also appears in The Persephone book of short stories – memorable for its final line – it is the perfect story to start off this little collection, and one I was very happy to revisit. It is a little piece of perfection from Edith Wharton. Two middle ages matrons; Grace Ansley and Alida Slade, are in Rome with their daughters, the two women don’t move from their position on a terrace overlooking the  city they each have reason to remember from their youth.

“ ‘I always used to think’ Mrs Slade continued, ‘that our mothers had a much more difficult job than our grandmothers. When Roman fever stalked the streets it must have been comparatively easy to gather in the girls at the danger hour; but when you and I were young, with such beauty calling us, and the spice of disobedience thrown in, and no worse risk than catching cold during the cool hour after sunset, the mothers used to be put to it to keep us in – didn’t they?’
She turned again toward Mrs Ansley, but the latter had reached a delicate point in her knitting. ‘One, two, three – slip two; yes, they must have been she assented without looking up.”

The two women have known each other many years, first as young women brought to Rome by their mothers, and later living on the same street in New York as married women. Their friendship is gradually revealed to exist only superficially. While their daughters go off together to explore the city, to have fun, the older women stay behind, knitting rolled up in their bags, reminiscing over past days. It’s a masterly example of subtlety, as the true nature of Grace and Alida’s jealousies and a long-held secret are unearthed through their conversation.

The remaining stories were all new to me, they are all excellent in their way, but although there are only eight in the collection, I won’t be discussing each of them. Famous for her stories depicting the upper echelons of New York society, the themes Wharton explores in these stories feel very familiar. Many of these stories show the contradictions in a society of slowly shifting mores. The daughters of women whose lives were once so narrowed by convention, find their lives easier, their lives less judged than their mothers’. In others Wharton details the absurdities of the conventional society she was a part of.

In Xingu Wharton’s wry humour is revealed as she portrays the intellectual snobbery of a society ladies lunch group. The women meet to discuss the latest books or ideas, there seems little enjoyment, and a good deal of anxiety among the women who try to outdo each other in intellectualism. Mrs Roby is the newest member of the group – and the other women are already questioning her suitability.

“…it was now openly recognised that as a member of the Lunch club Mrs Roby was a failure. ‘It all comes.’ As Miss Van Vluyck put it, ‘of accepting a woman on a man’s estimation.’”

Celebrated writer Osric Dane has been invited to attend the next meeting to be held at the house of Mrs Ballinger. All the women are nervous about the meeting – nobody wants to show themselves up in front of the guest. Mrs Roby however, when the great day arrives, has her own interesting way of turning the conversation. Highlighting the snobberies of the women who have been sitting in judgement of her.

Mr Waythorn is a newly married husband in The other two, his wife only thirty five, is twice divorced with a twelve year old daughter. Society is changing, attitudes now much more tolerant to divorced women. However, Waythorn has the embarrassment of having to deal with both of his wife’s former husbands. This is something, society has certainly not prepared him.

Souls Belated is one story in which the hypocrisies of society thwart the happiness of people caught by its conventions. Lydia has left her husband, and is now travelling in Europe with her lover Gannett. Lydia and Gannett find a quiet hotel to settle in temporarily yet they find that the conventions that society put upon them, mean they must either lie about being married – or slip away to Paris and get married. Lydia doesn’t want to get married eager to pull away from the conventions she so hates. So much goes unspoken between Lydia and Gannett, and the reader fears they will remain so.

With The Angel at the grave Wharton highlights the plight of Victorian women who sacrifice their lives to the men of their families. In this case a granddaughter spends her whole life trying to keep the memory of her grandfather and his life’s work alive to others. In doing so, she ends up having no life of her own, it’s a sad and no doubt all true tale of pointless sacrifice, it was also my least favourite out of a truly superb collection.

“All of their friends seem to be divorced; some of them seem to announce their engagements before they get their decree. One of them—her name was Mabel—as far as I could make out, her husband found out that she meant to divorce him by noticing that she wore a new engagement ring.”

Autres Temps… the final story of the collection was certainly (along with the title story) one of my favourites. Again, we see the hypocrisy of society, as the rules applied to the younger generation are not advanced to the older generation who have suffered under their strictures for years. Mrs Lidcote is a woman who broke societies rules twenty years earlier when she divorced, she has been living abroad in exile, shunned by everyone in her society ever since. Upon hearing that her beloved daughter Leila has divorced, and immediately remarried, Mrs Lidcote hurries back to New York. However, she is made aware that society doesn’t care that Leila has divorced and remarried, her daughter isn’t shunned, her remarriage is accepted and her second husband in line for an enviable appointment. Mrs Lidcote begins to wonder whether these new acceptances might not after all be applied to her – that perhaps now, finally she too may be able to find happiness with a man she has held at arm’s length. Society, however it seems is not so rational as all that.

These stories show Edith Wharton at her best, wry, satirical and astutely observed – she examines the changes in society and how it treats those who flout its rules.

edith wharton 2

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Recently – last month in fact I read The True Heart by Sylvia Townsend Warner which I loved, it reminded me how much I enjoy her writing. I already knew that her short stories are highly thought of but it was this collection of all of them that I particularly liked the sound of.

“It is nothing to children to lose their illusions, tadpoles are much more put about when they lose their tails.”

Scenes of Childhood and other stories – as the title suggests draws heavily upon STW’s own life, especially that of her childhood. Throughout this wonderful collection – Sylvia Townsend Warner appears as herself, as do other members of her family. It is hard to remember sometimes that this a collection of stories – however autobiographical, it often feels more like a collection of memoirs. Therefore, I suppose we must assume that STW been a little creative here and there, bringing her own great gift of storytelling to the entertaining stories within her own family. Although STW never wrote an autobiography, these pieces which were written at periods throughout her life – compiled into this volume after her death – make for a fabulous alternative.

Scenes of Childhood contain a large number of pieces and it would be impossible I think to talk about each of them, many are very short. In its entirety, the collection leaves the reader with a wonderful sense of the woman behind the stories and the family she came from. Her father was a housemaster at Harrow (where she was born) her mother an artist. In this collection, they are re-created with huge affection and humour. The woman who emerges from this collection is one who grew up deeply loved, within a family which gave her the room to develop into the woman who wrote the glorious Lolly Willowes.

We accompany the Warners on holiday to Wild Wales, where Sylvia was reunited with Johnnie and Nanny Blount – “a monolith devoted to duty” as STW describes her. Taking very seriously the moral welfare of her young charges Nanny Blount is especially fond of morning and evening worship. Sylvia’s most joyous remembrance of her is seeing her chased by cows after an altercation in a country lane. This opening story gets us off to a fine start, introducing us to a family it becomes a pleasure to spend time with. Sylvia remembers her mother’s artistic preparations before they set off.

“Before our summer holiday in Wales, with mountains and hydrangeas in mind, she laid in so many tubes of cobalt, ultramarine, and cerulean that I too young to have any geographical notions as to where we were going, knew for a certainty that Wales would be blue.”

Other stories, bearing such titles as: My Father, My Mother, the Bentleys, the poodle, Lord Kitchener and the mouse – relate small eccentric goings on in the Warner household. Lord Kitchener is a cat, the poodle was always just called the poodle. When Mrs Warner is disturbed on several nights by a mouse ‘gnawing’ and shaking the foot of the bed, her husband, the poodle and the cat are each called in to lend a hand, much to the bewilderment of their house-guests who are woken by the ensuing chaos.

As an older child, Sylvia recalls in a story called How I left the Navy – that one day arriving home in her lovely dapper little sailor suit she wore while enjoying winter activities with the British Navy – her mother suddenly ripped the little hat off her head and banned all further association. It was years before she knew why – that Mrs Warner had learned from a local gossip that the ship depicted on her daughter’s little hat, had been turned into a hospital ship for sailors with venereal disease. Mrs Warner is wonderfully reproduced here –in Fried Eggs are Mediterranean we see her and the family holidaying in the Devon countryside – experimenting with self-sufficiency (no servant), she spends each day trying to perfect boiled eggs – eventually hitting on the idea of reciting the fifty-first psalm in Latin as a means to time the perfect boiled egg.

Then there’s Stanley Sherwood; the story of a dreadful butler, who having loomed over the family with his ghastly smile for years, too good to be sacked but universally loathed, he returns as a fireman and takes his own peculiar revenge.

“My mother’s butler was named Stanley Sherwood. He was a slender, sallow man. His expression was at once ravenous and demure; he had a profile as accurate as though it had been snipped out of a piece of paper; his tread was noiseless; he had a tendency to fold his hands. His memory was as accurate as his profile, he was punctual to the minute, he never forgot a duty or a commission; his clothes were always brushed, his demeanour was always correct. he was like some baleful drug, which, once you have imbibed it, you cannot do without. My father referred to him as Ignatius Loyola.”

How much of these stories are strictly true, I suppose we can’t really know – but I sort of hope (and now firmly believe) that they are absolutely all true; Nanny chasing cows, bedstead gnawing mice – I believe. Happily, these stories don’t just stop at childhood, we see Sylvia Townsend Warner as a young woman, organising a home for Belgian refugees, exploring churches and their bell towers while her dog barks furiously at the vicar. She recalls with gentle humour, arguments which ensue as members of a Dorset village organise celebrations for a coronation, which in the wake of the abdication must be changed to celebrate a George instead of an Edward.

This is a glorious collection; one I am certain I will revisit. I really don’t think Sylvia Townsend Warner is capable of writing anything that is not brilliant, though I still have two novels and several collections of stories to read.



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