Time for Short Story Sunday again, and I will start by saying I absolutely hated this week’s offering, and had it been the first tale in The Persephone Book of Short Stories I doubt I would have read any further. Fortunately it’s story number two, and ahead of me lie Dorothy Whipple, EM Delafield, Edith Wharton, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Mollie Panter-Downes and a host of other wonderful authors, so it’s onwards and upwards as Eric Robson might say, and I’m certainly not giving up. By the way, for anyone who never listens to Radio 4, Eric Robson is the presenter of Gardeners’ Question Time (one of the best things about Sunday afternoons) and that’s his catchphrase, which I always find rather comforting – almost on par with Julian of Norwich who said: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
Anyway, as usual I am digressing. I hear you ask what it is that I do not like, and the answer
is Katherine Mansfield’s The Black Cap. She’s an author I always feel I ought to read partly, I suspect, because she was a cousin of Elizabeth von Arnim, whose books I love. Over the years I’ve picked up work by Mansfield on several occasions, and browsed through a page or two, but it’s never appealed enough to make me buy or borrow, and this story hasn’t made me change my mind. Dated 1917, it’s written as if it were a script for a series of short scenes in a play or film, and despite the fact it’s so short it’s obviously a complete work, with a very clearly defined beginning, middle and end, which is fine, because I was always taught that every good story should have these qualities, in the correct order. Of course, literary rules like this are frequently broken very successfully, but the format works OK here – it’s that scripted style I don’t like, which is odd, because I enjoy reading plays, so that can’t be the only reason I don’t like this.
And it can’t be the fact that we never get to know the characters’ names, because there are plenty of books with anonymous central characters which I read over and over again – Daphne du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’ is one of my all-time favourites. Nor can the subject matter be to blame: after all, there are lots of great stories which hinge on a woman meeting her lover.
Here the twist is that the woman then abandons him – because he has lost his hat and is wearing an appalling black cap which looks absurd. From this moment it’s obvious the assignation won’t go according to plan, because the black cap is more than a fashion or lifestyle faux pas: it seems to reference the black cap worn by judges announcing the death sentence, but in this case it heralds the end of the affair. The woman decides it highlights their differences in outlook, and feels it is impossible to love a man like that because he is not her style. So she heads back home to her husband (who we last saw over breakfast), looking forward to a meal of cold fowl and orange jelly. It shows how small, unimportant things can change perceptions and alter lives, but I disliked the lady intensely, and couldn’t feel any kind of sympathy for her. I would go so far as to say I thought she was a shallow, small-minded, self-satisfied, selfish bitch, and her lover was well out of the relationship, and I felt really sorry for her husband. But I didn’t like the two of them either. And I found the dialogue stilted.
Reading this through, none of my comments sound like a coherent critique of ‘The Black Cap’, and I suspect my attempt at an appraisal is very much an emotional response. It’s just one of those stories that didn’t gel with me, largely because I didn’t like that script format or Mansfield’s writing style. But, mad though it sounds, I might have enjoyed the same plotline written by a different author. Currently I’m trying to think who would do it justice!