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dancing girls

My second read for Karen and Simon’s 1977 club was Margaret Atwood’s The Dancing Girls, a collection of short stories. It was only after finishing the collection, and quite by chance that I discovered the list of fourteen stories in the book changes very slightly between two editions. In the original 1977 edition the stories; War in the Bathroom and Rape Fantasies are included – which for the 1982 edition are changed for Betty and The Sin Eater. My Virago edition has this later selection of stories – I can’t help but wonder at the change – although I am pleased at the inclusion of Betty as it was one of my favourite stories in this collection.

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I have thoroughly enjoyed short story collections by Margaret Atwood before – many years ago reading Bluebeard’s Egg – very pre-blog and more recently Stone Mattress and Wilderness Tips. Several of these stories really do stand out and are every bit as excellent as I have come to expect – however some of the others didn’t work quite as well for me. Overall, I liked the collection but didn’t love it.

The men and women in these stories are frequently unable to communicate with one another – they are often separate themselves either physically or mentally. These stories explore the complicated relationships between men and women.

In the opening story; The man from Mars an awkward, slightly overweight student finds herself pursued by a foreign student from an unnamed Eastern country. Christine – living in the shadow of her more glamorous mother and sisters, is unused to such attention. So, when a short, bespectacled oriental looking man begins to follow her around after having once stopped her to ask directions she really doesn’t know what to think. The student is horribly persistent, but also rather pathetic. His attentions are perplexing, and irritating, but he doesn’t seem dangerous. Nevertheless, eventually the police are involved. It is a wonderful story to kick off the collection, there is a deliciously wry humour in the description of Christine’s faithful pursuer – and of a strained little tea party, Christine’s clueless mother insists she has for a man who might turn out to be boyfriend material.

“As the weekdays passed and he showed no signs of letting up, she began to jog-trot between classes, finally to run. He was tireless, and had an amazing wind for one who smoked so heavily: he would speed along behind her, keeping the distance between them the same, as though he were a pull-toy attached to her by a string. She was aware of the ridiculous spectacle they must make, galloping across campus, something out of a cartoon short, a lumbering elephant stampeded by a smiling, emaciated mouse, both of them locked in the classic pattern of comic pursuit and flight.”
(The man from Mars)

Betty – one of those two stories added to this collection in place of others – is the second story in the collection. The story narrator looks back to a time when she was growing up – remembering the neighbours Betty and her husband Fred who she met when her family rented a small cottage for the summer between house moves. Betty hadn’t interested her young neighbour when she was a child – instead it was Fred who absorbed all her interest and fantasies.

“It seemed as if we had lived in the cottage for a long time, though it was only one summer. By August I could hardly remember the apartment in Ottawa and the man who used to beat his wife. That had happened in a remote life, and, despite the sunshine, the water and the open space, a happier one. Before our frequent moves and the insecurities of new schools had forced my sister to value me.”
(Betty)

Now, as an adult looking back on that time, she realises she can no longer remember Fred’s face – though she remembers Betty with great clarity. She remembers how Betty changed after Fred betrayed her – how over the years Betty kept in touch, and the family watched as she re-invented herself yet remained much more of a mystery than Fred ever was.

That foreign ‘otherness’ that is explored in the opening story is present again in the title story Dancing Girls. Set in a boarding house, where Ann and her landlady – wonder about the new man – who has what the landlady calls a native costume in which she politely asks him to appear from time to time. We witness the clash of cultures again, although I felt the story petered out a bit at the end.

Other stories which grabbed me were: When it happens; in which we see a woman who remembers well living through the Second World War is preparing for what she thinks is the end of the world – or some kind of cataclysmic event that will bring almost everything to an end. The Resplendent Quetzal is another superb story – in which the broken relationship of a married couple on a bird watching holiday is beautifully explored. In Hair Jewellery we meet a woman who loves someone who never really returns her feelings. She has romanticised their future break up – which when it comes is nothing like her fantasy – eventually she finds she can never quite leave him behind.

I enjoy Margaret Atwood’s writing – and there is certainly a lot to enjoy in this collection, those stories which I was less keen on stop short of actually being disappointing – they just didn’t grab me.

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When I read my first collection of short-stories by Katherine Mansfield I was sure it wouldn’t be long before I read my next. Well that was five years ago!

The Montana Stories was one of those odd gaps I had in my Persephone collection – I had meant to acquire a copy for years. I love collections of short-stories – and I have no idea why I left it so long to get and read this one – it is glorious.

The Montana Stories ticked off 2001 in my A Century of Books – which felt like a bit of a cheat, because all the stories were written in 1921 – but this collection was only put together by Persephone in 2001. In 1921, Katherine Mansfield, very ill with TB went to stay in a chalet in Montana, Switzerland for her health. This period became one of her most creative periods – and the pieces in this collection are presented chronologically – which is often such an interesting way to read a writer’s work. This collection contains short stories and unfinished fragments – and some extracts from her letters in the editorial notes at the back. The unfinished stories can be a little frustrating – though still beautiful to read. Some of these unfinished pieces end less abruptly and could be seen as having an ambiguous ending – other pieces end more suddenly. Many of the stories in this edition had been previously published in The Spectator – and illustrations that accompanied those stories are reproduced here too.

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With so many very short stories and fragments in this collection I am only to talk about three particular stories in any detail – but I really can’t stress how perfect every word of the whole collection is. What a truly gifted writer Katherine Mansfield was. Some other stories that will stay with me particularly are: Mr and Mrs Dove, Marriage á la Mode and A Cup of Tea, as well as the frustratingly unfinished A Married Man’s story.

In Bliss and other Stories (1920) – the collection opens with Prelude – a story still that is very memorable to me five years later. In that story we meet the Burnell family – perhaps that story is so memorable for me because it was my introduction to Katherine Mansfield. So, imagine my delight to find not one but two more stories in The Montana Stories featuring the Burnell family; At the Bay and The Doll’s House. One of the daughters of the Burnell family is Kezia – and I read something, somewhere online that suggests that Kezia is an autobiographical character, having little patience with conventional society rules. These two stories were perhaps not surprisingly among my favourites in the collection.

“As the morning lengthened whole parties appeared over the sand-hills and came down on the beach to bathe. It was understood that at eleven o’clock the women and children of the summer colony had the sea to themselves. First the women undressed, pulled on their bathing dresses and covered their heads in hideous caps like sponge bags; then the children were unbuttoned. The beach was strewn with little heaps of clothes and shoes; the big summer hats, with stones on them to keep them from blowing away, looked like immense shells. It was strange that even the sea seemed to sound differently when all those leaping, laughing figures ran into the waves.”
(At the Bay)

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In At the Bay, Stanley Burnell, Kezia’s father goes out for an early morning swim, then returns to the house for breakfast before leaving for work. When he leaves, the women and children – left behind – breathe a sigh of relief. Aunt Beryl talks coolly to a society woman, while Kezia’s mother daydreams the day away, her latest baby at her side – leaving the majority of the household tasks to be supervised by Kezia’s grandmother. It is a beautifully atmospheric story – suffused with a feeling of long, indolent sunny days, bathing, dreaming and talking the day away, until the time comes for the men to return.

In The Doll’s House the Burnell children are given a fabulous Doll’s House that is so large it has to sit outside the house in the garden. The house opens up to reveal tiny, beautifully furnished rooms, Kezia is particularly enchanted by a lamp. The children delight in telling the other children at school all about their doll’s house, Kezia’s older sister reserves the right to do the telling first, she is, after all, the eldest. They are permitted to bring their friends home to see it – a couple at a time, glorying in the envy and delight the other children have for it. However, they are not allowed to bring the Kelveys – who no one else ever associates with the Kelvey siblings either. No one knows who their father is – and their mother is the washerwoman. It is only Kezia who is made uncomfortable by such rules and dares to go against them.

“The hook at the side was stuck fast. Pat prised it open with his penknife, and the whole house swung back, and – there you were gasping at one and the same moment into the drawing-room and dining-room, the kitchen and two bedrooms. That is the way for a house to open! Why don’t all houses open like that? How much more exciting than peering through the slit of a door into a mean little hall with a hat stand and two umbrellas! That is – isn’t it? – what you long to know about a house when you put your hand on the knocker.”
(The Doll’s House)

Another of Katherine Mansfield’s most well-known stories in this collection, is The Garden Party – and this too is utterly masterful. The Sheridan family are preparing for their garden party. Daughter Laura has been put in charge of ensuring the marquee is put in the correct place, while her sister Jose tests the piano. Their mother has ordered masses of lilies and the girls are enchanted by the flowers. As the preparations near completion, the family learn that a working-class neighbour has been killed in an accident, leaving behind a wife and children. Laura thinks the party should be called off out of respect but neither her mother or sister agree. Later she is asked to take a basket of left-overs to the family. The Sheridan sisters also appear briefly in the story Her First Ball.

Persephone short story collections are always a hit with me – I’ve yet to read one that isn’t fabulous. This collection reminds me that I haven’t read nearly enough Katherine Mansfield – and I do have another collection waiting on my kindle.

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midsummernight workshouse

I have become an admirer of Diana Athill through reading four of her books of memoir – and I have a couple more tbr. She is a wonderful teller of tales, her memoirs written with great warmth and honesty. Midsummer Night in the Workhouse was my first experience of Athill’s fiction.

These twelve stories first appeared in the late 1950s or early 1960s, ten of them published with four others under the title An Unavoidable Delay in 1962. This lovely Persephone collection was published in 2011 – with Athill able to write her own preface – she is one of only a few living authors to be published by Persephone. The endpapers taken from a fabric purchased by Diana Athill for her flat in the 1970s.

In this collection Athill writes about young women experiencing the world of love and sex for the first time. Smart, sexy, knowing stories, touched with gentle humour and some well-developed characterisation.

A young girl is enraptured by her first kiss at a dance, with an unexciting young man in The Real Thing which opens the collection. The girl is touchingly young, finds so many situations to be ‘utterly withering’ and unkindly calls her companion Thomas ‘Toofat’ in her head – his last name is Toogood. He is at least old enough to drive a car. In No Laughing Matter another young girl – a university student – who is absolutely smitten with her boyfriend Stephen – has to decide whether it is time to take their relationship to the next level.

“For twelve weeks these anxieties had buzzed like mosquitoes, teasing at the decision, giving her the circles under her eyes and spoiling her appetite. The more formidable they became, the more certain she was that she would do it in spite of them. The decision was harder than she had expected, involved more than the general principle of the thing which, though frightening, was simple. She was suffering for it, and the more she suffered the greater became her exaltation.”
(No Laughing Matter)

Most of these quiet stories are set in England, and the point of view is mainly, though not exclusively that of women. Two stories take place abroad, one in Italy and one in Greece. Although the themes of many of these stories are very similar – they each standalone perfectly – characters are clearly distinct from one another.

midsummernight2Adultery rears its head in a couple of stories – in the first of them, we meet one woman living in boredom with her husband. Her memory, keeping alive, her brief fling with a slight social acquaintance. In, For Rain It Hath a Friendly Sound Kate Beeston is floored by a casual phone call from her former lover she watches her husband in the garden – and recalls the week she spent with David Field when her husband was away. This was one of my favourite stories, for me it had the feel of the kind of story Elizabeth Taylor could have written.

“The name had stabbed her – ‘It’s David Field here’ – so that Kate had reached for something to lean on, but then an odd contentment had come down on her and it had been an effort to understand what he was saying. She had wanted only to listen to the sound of his voice.”
( For Rain It Hath a Friendly Sound)

In the title story, a writer tries desperately to find her writing mojo – at a writing retreat. There are a host of quirky characters installed – including a practised seducer – who all delight in poking fun at the house rules, and the odd little messages pinned up on the communal notice board.

One story told from a male point of view is An Afternoon Off. Tweedy middle-aged Roger Paul, who works for a publisher has rarely had a day off, never taken his full holiday entitlement. One afternoon he decides to not go back to the office – he doesn’t phone them to explain either. He goes to the cinema and has tea with a young woman who he tries not to notice is a bit common and tells him about her boyfriend. He finds it is all a little bit disappointing.

In the final story Buried – a middle aged woman finds herself skulking through the farmyard of her brother’s neighbour. It is a couple of years since Mrs Klein last visited her Colonel brother. Their peculiar adventure gives her chance to recall their childhood, how her elder brother had been everything to her before he went away to school – and gradually life disrupted that early closeness. In this way, she comes to a new understanding of her brother, realising how he became the man he is.

Midsummer Night in the Workhouse is another excellent short story collection from Persephone books. Diana Athill a writer I continue to read with great relish.

DianaAthill

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rhapsody

Dorothy Edwards was a welsh writer – associated with some of the Bloomsbury group – who I suspect is little read now. Her writing is carefully restrained. In Rhapsody we have ten beautiful tales of loneliness and desire, stories with little plot – but so much pared back emotion. Aside from this collection of stories – she published only one novel Winter Sonata a year later (which I may have read many moons ago, but no longer own, sadly). Her life appears to have been quite unhappy, and in 1934 at the age of thirty-one, she threw herself under a train. The note she left behind read:

“I am killing myself because I have never sincerely loved any human being all my life. I have accepted kindness and friendship, and even love, without gratitude and given nothing in return.”

How truly sad. This sadness certainly seeps into her writing, in a number of ways, particularly in the relationships which so often never find fulfilment.

It is perhaps odd that these stories don’t reflect the world that Dorothy Edwards herself lived in. Here we have the polite, ordered world of the English country house – worlds that are often disrupted by an outsider, a visitor usually. These are characters who unlike Edwards’ family, had no money worries, their money was unearned, and they live deep in the English countryside of Dorothy Edwards imagination. Her narrators are male, which I admit threw me in the first story Rhapsody. I’m so used to women writers of about this period writing from a female perspective that I simply assumed the first-person narrator of the title story was woman, a couple of pages in I became a tad confused and had to do a rapid reassessment.

Music was important to Edwards and in this collection, music, either the playing of it or the appreciation of it is, a recurring theme. In the title story, a young man (as I finally realised) named Elliott, recently returned from abroad, meets a Mr Everett, a music enthusiast who lives in the country outside of London with his invalid wife. Everett invites his new friend to spend part of his holiday with him and his wife. Elliott is a fellow musical enthusiast and occasional singer, as Everett learns soon after meeting him. Everett’s love of music, verges on the obsessional and he engages a governess for his young son whose accomplishments are more musical than academic – Everett is enchanted by her voice. The days become devoted more and more to music, and Everett watches in some discomfort as the two grow closer – while poor Mrs Everett fades daily.

There are great similarities between the story of Rhapsody and many of the other stories, where an outsider, either disrupts or bears witness to the disruption of a marriage. In A Country House, an electrician employed to bring electric light to a large house, is the outsider who disrupts. In A Garland of Earth an old man remembers the son of one of his school friends, who in turn introduces him to his daughter Rahel – a scientist who her father believes will be as great as Curie. Though the point of view of these stories is largely male – the power is held lightly by the women.

In The Conquered another young man; Frederick, goes to stay with an aunt on the Welsh Borders. Here he is thrown into company with his cousins Jessica and Ruth, and through them meets Gwyneth who has been teaching Ruth how to sing. Frederick is enthralled by Gwyneth, though in time he starts to see her differently.

“I remember how one night I went out by myself down in the direction of her house, where my steps always seemed to take me. When I reached the traveller’s-nightshade it was growing dark. For a moment I looked towards her house and a flood of joy came into my soul, and I began to think how strange it was that, although I have met so many interesting people, I should come there simply by chance and meet her. I walked towards the entrance of a little wood, and, full of a profound joy and happiness, I walked in between the trees. I stayed there for a long time imagining her coming gaily into the wood where the moonlight shone through the branches.”
(The Conquered)

Treachery in the Forest was one of my favourite stories. Mr Wendover spends his holidays in a cottage in a forest. Here he meets Mr and Mrs Harding, a couple who spend their time painting. The Hardings invite Mr Wendover to their house to play Bach for them, and so he is drawn into their lives, enjoying their company, looking forward to when he will see them again, delighting in the gift of hens’ eggs for them.

“Very carefully, two in one hand and one in the other. People who passed him, especially people in charabancs, laughed at him, though there was really nothing to laugh about.”
(Treachery in the Forest)

Another very memorable story is Summertime, in which Joseph Laurel goes to stay at a country house. Here he becomes smitten by a red-haired school girl, more than twenty years his junior. Joseph’s old friend Beatrice is of the party too, and Joseph can’t understand her sly little smiles, the amusement which, he suspects must be directed his way. Only when forced to recognise the girl’s youth, as he watches her walk away with a boy her own age, does he come to suspect the reason for Beatrice’s amused contempt.

These stories are quiet, beautifully controlled pieces. They will perhaps not suit everyone – especially those who like an obvious plot – but they are beautiful little masterpieces well worth seeking out.

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I hadn’t planned to read a Persephone book last weekend but when I heard the Jessie at Dwell in Possibility was hosting a Persephone readathon, I changed my plans slightly. I always love an excuse to pull one of my unread Persephones from the shelf, The Journey Home and other stories was a Christmas gift from Liz, and proved to be yet another superb story collection published by Persephone -I always know I am going to love a Persephone story collection. This new collection of stories has been put together by Persephone – the stories dating from the 20s and 30s featuring stories from the collections originally published during Malachi Whitaker’s lifetime.

I first came across the writer Malachi Whitaker in the Persephone book of short stories – a truly brilliant anthology of stories from a variety of writers. That, however was the extent of my knowledge – I had to turn to the usual places to try and find out more. Well the Persephone website has far more information on Malachi Whitaker (born Marjorie Taylor) than Wikipedia. She published four volumes of short stories and an autobiography during her lifetime but seems to have stopped writing sometime in the 1930s. Born in Bradford in 1895 she spent time working in her father’s bookbinding works, moved around Yorkshire with her husband and adopted two children.

This collection brings together twenty of her short stories, many of which are very short, so the volume itself is only about two hundred and thirty pages – and that includes the afterword. The writing however is quite superb, Whitaker crafts her stories with precision, not a word is wasted, yet the stories are fully satisfying. I got the impression of a down to earth, no-nonsense Yorkshire woman who understood perfectly the communities among whom she lived. Her canvas is the ordinary, the domestic, but she perfectly captures the ordinary – making them appear less than ordinary – even the absurd in a way that not every writer manages. Here we have a boy starting work with his father, a couple getting drunk for the first time, honeymooners, children left to their own devices, young women ‘in trouble’.

Some of the stories are sad, a little dark, many are memorable. The collection opens with The Journey Home, this short, title story is quite a little shocker, about which I really feel I can’t say anything.

“The girl in the corner seat noticed the rabbit without a white bob to its tail, because she had never seen a rabbit without that mark before. She had seized on the rabbit, or anything else that offered itself outside the window, to avoid looking at the face of the woman opposite, a face so ravaged by one passion or another that it was almost obscene.”
(The Journey Home)

In the story Brother W, Whitaker tells the story of two brothers, one of the brothers has recently died. The surviving brother William, remembers, with some regret, the brother to whom he hadn’t spoken for twenty years. The brothers had continued to share the same bed as they had as children, it never occurring to either of them to move into the spare room. Now, William pays a visit to the stone mason to arrange for a headstone for his brother.

A man who has made his money in business in the south of England, returns to Bradford in September, the time of the annual fair (the tide) in The Smoke of the Tide. Albert Shepherd loves the beauty he sees in the industrial north of his birth, which is so disparaged by his London wife. He revels in the sights, sounds and smells of his youth and the memories flood back.

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A child is left alone by her mother in The Lonely One. A cold winter’s day, and her Auntie Annie is supposed to be coming over within an hour of the mother’s departure – but never arrives – presumably forgetting. The girl finds the hours hanging heavy on her – with little to fill her time, she is made more aware of the time and the silence as she eats her soup alone and pretends to make the beds. Later, she walks to a nearby farm to collect the milk. She spots a woman walking in the street and imagines briefly that it is her auntie come at last.

“But nobody came. The woman must have been a stranger, or somebody from the next village. As soon as she realised that nothing fresh was to happen, that the woman had passed, the child sat down in front of the fire and cried a little, pouting her lips and narrowing her eyes, but very few tears came. Her mother was far away and her auntie had forgotten her. Forgotten her! Yes, that was better. One real tear fell down her left cheek, and another stood in the corner of her right eye.”
(The Lonely One)

Two young brothers enjoy, perhaps one last really happy day in For a small moment. Their mother who has been sick so long – has died, but the boys have not been told. Having spent the last week with an aunt, they have been invited to the house of a family friend Mrs Taybrow. Mrs Taybrow leaves the boys with her young daughter; Miriam and her cousin Louise while she goes out to what we – but not any of the children know – is their mother’s funeral. The boys have a wonderful day, picking gooseberries, playing hide and seek and making toffee, creating quite a mess in the process – for which, oddly they are not reprimanded later. At the end of the day they are delivered home, where the boys can’t wait to tell their mother about all they have done.

There are obviously too many stories in this collection to write about individually – but the whole collection paints a picture of a time and place, resurrecting the people who lived there in the way only a woman who lived among them can.

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Popping up here on Christmas Eve to wish you all a very happy, peaceful Christmas, however you might be spending it.

Time to tell you about a delightful little book I read last weekend, while I was hurtling about finishing Christmas shopping and meeting up with friends. A Christmas Memory is a slight little hardback that I bought last year, and somehow didn’t get around to reading. This Christmas keepsake volume from the Modern Library was published in 2007 though the three stories were first published in 1956, 1982 and 1967 respectively.

I have read quite a number of Truman Capote short stories, and so knowing what a good short story writer he was, I had looked forward to finally reading the three stories in this volume. I wasn’t disappointed, these will definitely be stories I return to, perfect for the time of year.

There always seems to be a heavily autobiographical element to Capote’s writing, perhaps it is the way he writes so nostalgically about his Alabama childhood. Certainly, these stories also appear to be heavily autobiographical. The three stories are linked by the character of Buddy, who lives with the Alabama relatives of his mother, and who has a particularly close relationship with an elderly cousin named Sook.

In A Christmas Memory, Buddy looks back upon a childhood Christmas in the company of his cousin, his special friend. The setting is Alabama in the 1930s, Buddy is just seven, his distant cousin is in her sixties, describing her with affection and the kind of matter of fact honesty peculiar to children.

“Her face is remarkable – not unlike Lincoln’s, craggy like that, and tinted by sun and wind; but it is delicate too, finely boned, and her eyes are sherry-coloured and timid. ‘Oh my,’ she exclaims, her breath smoking the windowpane, ‘it’s fruitcake weather!’
The person to whom she is speaking is myself. I am seven; she is sixty-something. We are cousins, very distant ones, and we have lived together – well, as long as I can remember. Other people inhabit the house, relatives; and though they have power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them. We are each other’s best friend. She calls me Buddy in memory of a boy who was formally her best friend. The other Buddy died in the 1880s, when she was still a child. She is still a child.”

It is a story which celebrates a Southern country Christmas, the joy of friendship and giving. Finally, touching on, inevitably perhaps, the loss that comes with love.

One Christmas describes how Buddy – aged just six – is packed off alone to visit his father in New Orleans. Buddy is terrified to travel so far on his own, having to spend Christmas away from Sook his special friend. He steps off the bus expecting there to be snow in New Orleans – so far away from Alabama.

“I don’t know what scared me most, the thunder, the sizzling zigzags of lightning that followed it – or my father. That night, when I went to bed, it was still raining. I said my prayers and I prayed that I would soon be home with Sook to kiss me good-night.”

His father is a not a man much used to small children, and through the bemused eyes of his young son we see a hard drinking, cynic, a man quite able to provide lots of Christmas gifts – but who finds a relationship with his son more difficult.

In The Thanksgiving Visitor; Buddy and Sook are anticipating the annual Thanksgiving feast – where the family that Buddy lives with, are inundated with a whole host of far flung relatives who come for the big day every year. Despite his youth, Buddy has learned to hate – much to Sook’s disapproval. A local boy Old Henderson, a boy a few years older than Buddy, kept back in second grade due to his lack of educational prowess.

“Of course it wasn’t that I hated school; what I hated was Odd Henderson. The torments he contrived! For instance, he used to wait for me in the shadows under a water oak that darkened an edge of the school grounds; in his hand he held a paper sack stuffed with prickly cockleburs collected on his way to school. There was no sense in trying to outrun him, for he was quick as a coiled snake; like a coiled snake; like a rattler, he struck, slammed me to the ground and, his slitty eyes gleeful, rubbed the burrs into my scalp. Usually a group of kids ganged around to titter, or pretend to; they didn’t really think it funny; but Odd made them nervous and ready to please.”

Buddy never imagines that Old Henderson might have other talents. Sook is determined to teach Buddy something about giving people a chance – and so – much to Buddy’s horror – invites Old Henderson to the family, Thanksgiving feast. The day is destined to be a memorable one.

This entire book could easily be read in a couple of hours, or less – I wasn’t able to read it in one sitting last Saturday – I was too busy – but it proved a lovely companion to a busy day of Christmas preparations. Tender, powerful and nostalgic Capote’s festive stories are a real treat.

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Whether she is telling the story of a newly married couple, a level crossing keeper and his badly disfigured niece, incestuous siblings or the oddly magical world of elves and fairies, Sylvia Townsend Warner is a consummate storyteller. Her writing is beautiful, sometimes surprising, frequently rooted in an England long vanished from view – she is both witty and perceptive. She explores with great tenderness, the passions, oddities and quirks of all sorts of people, and there is sometimes a suggestion of delicious irreverence.

“She planted a high Spanish comb in her pubic hair and resumed her horn-rimmed spectacles.
‘There! That’s as much as I shall dress’
‘You look very improper.’
‘I am improper.’ Her young voice was quelling.
Love warmed her. It did not warm him. He moved nearer the gas fire and repelled the thought of his overcoat. He would soon be in it and on his way home. But politeness requires that after making love one must make a little conversation.”
(The Forgone Conclusion – 1961)

During her writing life Sylvia Townsend Warner produced an incredible number of short stories – they appear to run to something like eighteen volumes – though some stories may appear in more than one volume. This selected Stories collection first published in 1989 contain forty stories from across those collections dating from between 1932 and 1977. Through them one can see the author’s own slightly shifting perspectives as the world around her changed – culminating, at the end of the collection with her foray into fantasy with some of the stories from her world of fairies. As probably happens with all large collections of stories there were a very small number that didn’t quite hit the spot – though only four or five in the entire collection – overall this is a superb collection, and could be for some a brilliant introduction to the work of Sylvia Townsend Warner.

I have always found it very difficult to write reviews of story collections, but this one is particularly difficult. Firstly, I read it over a two-week period, setting it to one side for my book group read of Warner’s Lolly Willowes – (I know you wait ages for a Sylvia Townsend Warner review and…) and then Another Little Christmas Murder. Secondly of course, forty stories are far, far too many to write about in detail. As ever all I can hope to do is give a very slight flavour, helped along by a few quotes from Sylvia Townsend Warner’s delightful prose.

The collection opens with A Love Match, the story of a brother and sister, so damaged by the horrors of that war to end all wars, that they turn to one another for comfort, companionship and love. It’s a union which lasts years. Incest – the great taboo – it’s really quite the opener.

The Level Crossing a wonderfully atmospheric story of an old, country level crossing keeper. A former Londoner – he still recalls with a sharp nostalgia the comings and goings of the London streets of his past. His life is now set to the rhythm of the railway, a railway timetable now disrupted by war.

“With a kind of homesickness he would recall the night turn in the goods-yard, the figures under the raw arc lights, his mates shouting, the soft whine of the wind along the metals and how once, seeing a train come in with a white crust still lying on the tarpaulins, he had said to himself: It’s snowing in the country. And picture was in his mind, a picture based on a Christmas card; a white landscape, a church spire, a sunset glowing between bars of cloud like the coals in a grate.”
(The Level Crossing 1943)

He watches with concern, his niece, distressingly disfigured by facial burns, she works in silence alongside her uncle. The two make for an odd family unit – turned on their heads by a group of soldiers billeted with them for a few weeks. It is a beautifully memorable little story.

In one of my favourite stories; But at the Stroke of Midnight, a woman walks away from her home and her dull inattentive husband. Lucy completely disappears without a world and assuming her cousin’s identity, adopts a cat and takes a cottage. It is a story about the finding of freedom, of throwing off the bonds of dull domesticity, but there is quiet despair here. Lucy is no Lolly Willowes though, and when the shine wears off this new life things take an altogether sadder turn.

Cats do play a big role in much of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s fiction – she wrote a whole collection called The Cat’s Cradle though none of those appear in this collection. In another sad story Total Loss; a child’s beloved old pet cat must be put to sleep – her parent’s send her off on a day out with relatives while the merciful, necessary deed is done by the vet. It’s an especially cruel piece of deceit with which I am sure even none pet owners can empathise. cats

In other stories we see an elderly musician living for others – as he carefully creeps away from his own home, upon arriving home unexpectedly and discovering his cook in his bed with a married man. A bored, bitter woman stitches a widow’s quilt. In One Thing Leading to Another, a housekeeper to a couple of priests finds all kinds of unexpected things follow when she accidentally puts snuff in the priests’ curry. This is a tongue in cheek, little story, with an ending which made me smile. A Red Carnation sees the disillusionment of a German soldier sent to help the Francoists during the Spanish civil war.

“Portents accompany the death of monarchs. A white horse trots slowly along the avenue, a woman in streaming wet garments is seen to enter the throne room, vanishes, and leaves wet footmarks; red mice are caught in palace mousetraps. For several weeks five black swans had circled incessantly above the castle of Elfhame. It was ninety decades since their last appearance; then there were four of them, waiting for Queen Tiphaine’s predecessor. Now they were five, and waited for Tiphaine. Mute as a shell cast up on the beach, she lay in her chamber watching the antics of her pet monkey.”
(The Five Black Swans 1977)

The last few stories come from the Kingdoms of Elfin collection. Here Warner played around with fantasy, taking us to the world of elves and fairies. We learn their lore, meet the Fairy Queens and changelings. These stories are fantastic in every sense of the word, weird, wonderful colourful and extraordinarily imagined.

The Libraything Virago group have been reading the work of Sylvia Townsend Warner during December, and you can read Jane’s review of A Cat’s Cradle here (which I have just bought a copy of).

 

stw

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