Showing posts with label short stories. Show all posts
Showing posts with label short stories. Show all posts

Monday, 9 January 2012

Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

This collection, aside from the title story which takes us back to Howling before Flora Poste tidied up the unruly Starkadders, is rooted in the middle-class world of 1930s England.  Spinsters retire to country cottages, bohemian types are satirised, fey girls find suitable husbands, and intergenerational tensions simmer in suburbia.  This might be to do with the magazines that first carried these stories; The Lady, Good Housekeeping and Bystander were not - and are not in the case of the first two - known for their social radicalism.  Although the volume first appeared in 1940 there is no reference to the war, nor any intimation of it; I wonder if the book had a nostalgic appeal for those readers who opened it on publication.

There are two Christmas stories here: as well as the hilarious return to Cold Comfort, in "The Little Christmas Tree" novelist Rhoda Harting's first Christmas in her country cottage is interrupted and then taken over by some children who spin her a yarn about their wicked stepmother.  Stella Gibbons is rather good at awful but somehow charming children. I also enjoyed "Golden Vanity", in which a dreamy library assistant discovers that her favourite author, handsome Geoffrey Whithorne, is really a middle-aged woman called Alice Little, not least for its echoes of Secret Lives.  The stories have excellent shape and structure, and if the narrative voice is sometimes a little archly superior, it is never without humour.

However, I was slightly disturbed by the story called "Cake", in which modern career girl Jenny meets ageing militant suffragette Maud Allworton, and is inspired by her to take back her slightly drunk and adulterous husband so that they can have children.  I've read it twice now to try to work out what is going on.  The narrative point of view switches between Jenny's own, which shifts from complacently judgemental through utter self-doubt into hectic resolution through the story, and the omniscient narrator who is wearing an audible frown.   The narrator disapproves of Jenny, who initially cares only for money and self-advancement; Jenny and the narrator both disapprove of Miss Allworton, who gave up the chance of marriage for the suffragette cause.  Jenny is sarcastic about the gains made for women by the suffragettes, thinking them "such fools", but the suffragette's life story precipitates her rush to Victoria Station to take back her husband before it is too late.  She gets him back, but he rewards her change of heart by slapping her face - which she acknowledges she deserves.  This seems to me to be more than the small c-conservatism that Nicolas Lezard noted in his review of the book.  However, Jenny's nascent friendship with Miss Allworton, a mutual liking that transcends the prejudices of both women, warms what could be a chilly, depressing tale.  The ironic tone and ironic evolution of the characters make this story puzzling even when I find elements of it distasteful.  The title comes from Jenny's belief that 1930s women can have their cake and eat it too; unhappiness like Miss Allworton's comes from inefficient cake-management.

This seems to be a general problem I'm having with Stella Gibbons - the writing might be beautiful, the story well-crafted, and the jokes good, but there always seem to be things that make me wince studded through her work, like finding a bit of nutshell in a mouthful of well-managed cake.  For some alternative views, here are Desperate Reader and I Prefer Reading on the same book.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

The Demon Lover by Elizabeth Bowen

This collection of short stories was published in 1945; thematically, the stories concern the psychic, social and material damage inflicted by the Second World War.  Many of the stories centre around houses changed by bombing, requisition, or disuse, and on the effect of these changes on the people who move around and through these houses.  A crack in a wall may act as a conduit to another world; disturbing memories and dreams are summoned by rediscovered objects; social structures are as cracked as the masonry.  Some of the stories are deeply sinister in effect - the title story in particular - and Bowen is very good at showing how close to the boundaries of madness her protagonists come.  Other stories deal, more humorously, with the frustrations that arise from the limitations of wartime, and in more than one story Bowen skewers the self-importance of the war-worker with great effectiveness.

This collection left me with the general impression that civilian life in wartime, with its dreary constraints, deprivations and shocks, allows long-buried sorrows to surface, almost as if one trauma calls up another, older one; and that war service required a mask, a persona, not just for the purposes of national security but also to sustain individual endurance of the intolerable.  It is these masks that slip, or are knocked askew, in Bowen's stories.  Being Bowen's stories, they are exquisitely written: there are some elegiac descriptions of the lost past, imbued both with beauty and with a deserved sense of unreality, as they are invariably the products of dreams or hallucinations.  Beauty can be read as another casualty of war, only to be accessed if one is prepared to peer beyond the limitations of sanity.

Bowen tends to focus on her particular milieu and class; if you are interested in fiction about the Blitz in the East End, you won't find it here.  There is even an Irish country house setting for one of the stories.  However, as with The Death of the Heart, the voices of the servant class and the lower-middle class do break through, and in some stories are symptomatic of the social disruption occasioned by the war.

The Demon Lover is no longer in print as a collection, although there are second-hand copies about - mine is a rather elegant volume that the title page tells me was "produced in complete conformity with the authorized economy standards" prevailing in 1945.  However, Vintage offer a volume of Bowen's collected short stories which includes 79 of her stories, including the stories in this book.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Women Are Like That by E M Delafield

This collection of short stories, first published in 1929, deals mainly with episodes from the lives of a variety of women - as you might expect - and a couple of men. Many of the stories focus on romance: proposals, affairs, temptations and partings often provide the dramatic pivot. Middle-aged women, often suburban, are exposed to romance directly and indirectly; apparently forty-three is a dangerous age for a woman. Thankfully, I shall be forty-four in a couple of months.

Two of the stories feature characters who appear elsewhere in Delafield's novels. "The Sprat" acquaints us with Raoul Radow, the sulky Roumanian violinist from Challenge to Clarissa. "Oil Painting, circa 1890" is a version of the later lives of the sisters Frederica and Cicely Marlowe from Thank Heaven Fasting; this story, entirely serious and rather tragic, shows the effects of a "morbid", introspective love between sisters that forbids either of them a life of her own. Delafield suspends her ironic voice again for "The Whole Duty of Woman", a story alluding clearly to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper". Elinor Ambrey, recuperating in a nursing home after a breakdown, considers interior design choices:

"How clever of them not to have wall-paper with a pattern.  Looking at that plain, unbroken, cream-coloured surface was very restful - one wasn't obliged to trace, with weary eyes and resentful brain, the repeated convolutions of twisting, impossible, floral combinations, to count and recount the spirals and horseshoes, and crescents, fomred by their distorted leaves and stems." (227)

This, of course, is exactly what the unfortunate heroine of "The Yellow Wallpaper" does spend her time doing, with tragic consequences.  But even a plain cream-coloured surface cannot save Mrs Ambrey from nervous collapse at the thought of resuming married life.  Delafield's story also has in common with Gilman's the medical control and regulation of women: Mrs Ambrey would prefer to sleep alone, but her doctor reminds her that the whole duty of woman resides in thinking of her husband and providing him with opportunities for procreation.

The majority of the stories, however, deploy Delafield's usual amusing ironic approach to love.  Middle-aged women pursuing romance are sympathetically ridiculed.  Modern girls, approaching love-affairs with scientific detachment and a grounding in Havelock Ellis, find that they care rather more than they expected.  Several stories contrast the morality of the late Victorian and Edwardian period with that of the 1920s, usually to the advantage of the modern age; a couple ironise the way in which mothers, unhappily married to minor domestic tyrants, ensure their daughters exploit to the full their own opportunities for unhappiness.

This is an entertaining collection, reminiscent at times of Dorothy Whipple, especially in those stories focusing on suburban middle-age; the final story, in which bad weather changes the lives of its two protagonists, reminded me, with its irony, bathos and slight cynicism, of Sylvia Townsend Warner.  There is enough variety in approach, narrative voice and subject matter to sustain the reader's interest and enjoyment.  My copy is a facsimile reprint by PFD and is pretty clear, although some pages have had the ends of the lines cut off by the scanner, requiring a little extra input from the reader.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

What Am I Doing Here? by Bruce Chatwin

Another collection of travel writing, including "stories" whose possibly fictional status Chatwin signposts in his forward. Chatwin the traveller is open and receptive, smiling and chatting with nuns sweeping the convent yard; recognising the conversational value of a fairly unrepentant old Nazi; peering in peoples' windows and waving at them when spotted. This approach bring him many stories - and probably also "stories" - to weave into his tales of places, usually exotic, often dangerous. He's a bit of a name-dropper, although shrewd enough to keep anecdotes of famous friends in check, and a master of the art of telling the reader just enough to whet the appetite for more. A real loss; but at least I have the majority of his work ahead of me.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

The Museum of Cheats by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Typically lyrical, tricky stories from STW. The title story is a long history of the eponymous museum spanning several centuries, much in the style of The Corner That Held Them; the story of an institution rather than the characters that populate it. Many of the stories focus on the immediate aftermath of the second world war, with separated couples reunited but unreconciled. It will make a good companion piece to Austerity Britain.