Short Story Sunday – Telling Tales with STW

I’m not sure if  a Gainsborough portrait of Arminella Blount
in the character actually exists, so here’s his painting of
his daughters chasing a butterfly.
This week a short story much more to my taste – A View of Exmoor, by Sylvia Townsend Warner, whose work I adore. Here the Finch family, dressed in their best, are off to a wedding in Devon, for Mrs Finch’s niece, Arminella Blount, is getting married. They make, says STW, a very ‘creditable’ contribution. Returning home, they’re still clad in their glad-rags: Mrs Finch in green moiré, Mr Finch is his ‘black-and-grey’,  12-year-old Arden looking pale and ‘owl-eyed’ in his Eton suit (he’s had measles), and Cordelia and Clara in their bridesmaids’ dresses ‘copied from the Gainsborough portrait of an earlier Arminella Blount in the character of Flora’. They also have Arminella’s piping bullfinch and the music box needed to continue its education, as well as the bridesmaids’ bouquets.
It was born in on Mr Finch that other travellers along the main road were noticing his car and its contents more than they needed to, and this impression was confirmed when the passengers in two successive charabancs cheered and waved. Mr Finch, the soul of consideration, turned in to a side road to save his wife and daughter the embarrassment of these public acclamations.
Actually, I suspect it is Mr Finch who is embarrassed by his family, and they’re about to get a whole lot more noticeable. He can’t find the map, and has no idea where he is, but he drives on and on across Exmoor, until they stop to look at the view and have a picnic. At this point Mrs Finch recounts a strange and seemingly pointless tale of Aunt Harriet’s ‘inexplicable’ boots, spotted by Aunt Harriet and her brother when they were children in an empty, open, horse-drawn cab on Exmoor. The duo continued their walk, and saw another pair of boots, on the ground by a sulky-looking man and a crying woman, who snatched up those boots, ran back to the cab, and off it went, leaving the man behind. The people were both wearing boots, and the strangest thing of all, says Mrs Finch, was that the woman had no hat. 
A bullfinch – in case you don’t know what they look like!

Explanations for this odd story keep everyone happy and entertained, and things seem more or less normal – but this is STW, and nothing is ever normal! Arden is playing tunes on the bars of the bullfinch’s cage when the door flips open and the bird flies out, and they all rush around trying to catch it. Arden falls out of a tree and makes his nose bleed, and they all get more and more dishevelled. Eventually they heave the music box out of the car, hoping that if the escapee hears the music he will come back.

The music box weighed about fifty pounds. It was contained in an ebony case that looked like a baby’s coffin, and at every movement it emitted reproachful chords. On one side it had a handle; on the other side, the handle had fallen off, and by the time the Finches had got the box out of the car, they were flushed and breathless. His groans mingling with the reproachful chords, Mr Finch, staggered up the lane in pursuit of the bullfinch, with the music box in his arms.
Isn’t that a wonderful image? I just love the description of the music box, which is not one of the flimsy, pretty, little trinkets we know today. No, this is a solid affair (my maths isn’t good, but I reckon it’s roughly as heavy as 25 bags of sugar) and its colour and shape, and the ghostly noises it produces (playing chords of its own accord) make it seem rather sinister. But Mr Finch is ‘devoted’ to music boxes – which makes him sound a lot less conventional than he’d have his believe. I know this is set in 1936 (and written in 1948), but even then I’ll bet there weren’t too many family men with a thing for music boxes!
So, while his wife and children rush off, still searching for the missing bird, takes a moment’s ‘repose’, sits on the ground, plays some music, and lights a cigar. Then, he realises they have company – a young man whose ‘bare ruined legs and rucksack suggested that he was on a walking tour’. And at that moment:
Around the bend of the lane came two replicas, in rather bad condition, of Gainsborough’s well-known portrait of Arminella Blount in the character of Flora, a cadaverous small boy draped in a bloodstained Indian shawl, and a middle-aged lady dressed in the height of fashion who carried a bird cage.
The young man on a walking tour continues his journey, skirting nervously round this apparition, and Mr Finch is mortified that his family, away from his ‘supervision’, have once again made themselves conspicuous. He thinks his wife should have explained the situation to the young man. But she says:
He looked so hot and careworn, and I expect he only gets a fortnight’s holiday all the year through. Why should I spoil it for him? Why shouldn’t he have something to look back on in his old age?
That made me smile, and I thought she’s absolutely right. By saying nothing she’s given something to that young man that he’ll remember for ever more, and I could imagine him at some stage in the future telling his children and grandchildren, and everyone sitting around trying to make sense of the mystery, using their imagination to tell stories which create possible explanations… Murder perhaps, madness, ancient rituals being re-enacted. And would anyone have believed the truth if they’d heard it?
And I thought back to Mrs Finch’s story about Aunt Harriet’s boot, where everyone had their own idea about what might have happened, because nothing is ever quite as it seems. So there are issues here about truth and reality, just as there are in many of the other pieces in The Persephone Book of Short Stories, but I also see this as a real celebration of the power of storytelling, linking up with old oral traditions.
I like Jeanne Elizabeth Chaudet’s picture Young Girl
with a Birdcage. It was painted in the late 18thC,
and her career overlapped Gainsborough, so the
 cage may  be similar to the one in the story.

Short Story Sunday: The Lottery

Oh, this was absolutely horrid and I hated it, hated it, hated it. Shirley Jackson may be highly esteemed by many of you, and she may be an excellent writer, but that doesn’t mean I have to like her. And if her other work is any way similar to The Lottery then I don’t want to read it. All in all, I found it deeply disturbing and unsettling. There are other pieces in The Persephone Book of Short Stories which I disliked, but I don’t think I felt quite as strongly about them as I did about this, and it is probably a failing on my part. All I can say is that this author is not for me.
It all starts off innocently enough. It’s a clear, sunny day in a small village, and it’s the day of the traditional lottery, when everyone gathers together and takes a slip of paper from a battered old box. The slips are blank, but one has a black spot on it… So someone is selected for something… Initially it’s hard to see where this is leading. There’s a festive mood, and everyone is dressed in their best, and the word ‘lottery’ makes one think of games, and raffles, and sweepstakes, and lucky winners. But a lottery is a game of chance, where the outcome is not necessarily happy. And the boys have filled their pockets with stones, which makes you wonder what is to happen.
Whether or not I like her (and I’ve already said I don’t), Jackson is a clever writer who builds the tension, line by line, word by word, and the feeling of menace gets heavier and heavier as the story progresses. Even so, I was shocked at the spine-chilling ending, which seems all the more horrendous when set against the ordinariness of the day, and the homely activities people have been engaged in.  Why do the villagers go along with this bizarre ritual? They must know it’s wrong, and other places have given up the old ways, but here they stick to the past just as they’ve always done. I suppose it’s a case of ‘there but for the grace of God go I’.
And I began to wonder just how random the choice of victim actually was, or whether there was an element of manipulation, or sleight of hand, ensuring that outsiders, trouble-makers or those that question are removed from society. This was published in 1948 – a few years later and I might have given more consideration to that thought, and seen the story as an allegory for the McCarthy ‘witch hunts’ against Communism. Perhaps Jackson was inspired by the awful events in Nazi Germany, where ordinary people were happy to point fingers of accusation against others, or to become complicit in the atrocities through their silence.
But there seems to be something more ancient here, connected with those old tales about scapegoats and sacrificial victims (willing or unwilling) whose fate ensures the well-being of others for another year. 

Short Story Sunday: Treachery, Freedom, and Beauty!

This gorgeous screen printed furnishing fabric
is reproduced on the back endpaper of The
Persephone Book of Short Stories. It’s called
Cote d’Azure,and was designed by Susan Collier
and Sarah Campbell for Fischbacher in 1983.

Oops! I forgot the title! And the intro! Sorry  – I will amend it now. Since this is Sunday, I have posted a Short Story Sunday piece, with brief notes on three of the tales. A kind of round-up, I guess. 

Spade Man from Over the Water, written by Frances Towers, starts gently with a conventional scene. Mrs Asher is taking tea with Mrs Penny (Laura) when a telegram arrives for the latter lady, saying her husband is coming home. Naturally she wants her friend and her husband to be friends. And what could be wrong with that? But a feeling of unease begins to build as Mrs Asher, with her dark eyes and waving hands (isn’t she a little too theatrical, I ask myself) looks at a photograph of a man she says looks ‘everything your husband should be’. On discovering the man is Laura’s cousin, Mrs Asher laughingly says: “I suppose you really married the Spade man from over the water!”
And at that point there is a definite sense that something is wrong, for Laura married Rupert, a dark stranger who keeps her isolated from friends and family, and although she is ‘wildly happy’ with him, she has a ‘queer feeling of disintegration’. And Spades are the cards which foretell doom and disaster… And Mrs Asher, whose husband Charles is also absent, is strangely silent when she sees a photo of the real Mr Penny, which is odd…

And Laura never does get to introduce her friend to her husband. The other woman’s house stands dark as the tomb, and an estate agent’s sign creaks in the wind. Treachery has taken place – but whose?

I loved this tale, with its building of tension, and the sense of unease. It’s almost like a ghost story, a haunting. And, as in so many of these stories (I keep saying this), there’s an ambiguity that keeps you guessing. At one stage I wondered if Mrs Asher is really ghost, but she is real enough I think, and I am sure she knows Laura’s husband. So are Rupert and Charles one and the same man? Did Mrs Asher steal Laura’s husband? Or is it the other way round, and has Laura, however inadvertently, stolen Mrs Asher’s husband?

Minnie’s Room, by the inimitable Mollie Panter-Downes, is one of my favourites from this collection. It is quite, quite superb. Here we have Minnie, who cooks for Mr and Mrs Southern and their grown-up children, Maurice and Norah. To all intents and purposes Minnie, an ‘ugly little Londoner’, is well looked after, well thought of, not badly paid, and quite happy. But she has always said she will leave service if she is not married by the time she is 45 – and that is just what she does. 

The family beg her to stay: they cannot understand why she wants a room of her own when she has a decent, comfortable room in their large house. But a room of her own is exactly what Minnie wants. She was independence, and she has been saving for years to make her dream come true. So she sticks to her guns, and tells Norah about the room she is renting, and how opposite the window is a lime tree which will smell lovely in hot weather. She even invites Norah to visit her and promises to make tea, with tea that will be kept in the antique caddy Miss Southern has presented as a parting gift.

And aging, spinsterish Norah, tied to her parents for ever more, envies the servant who has very little in material terms – but has found the freedom to live as she chooses, in a room of her own.
The English Lesson, by Margaret Bonham, is another of those quiet, understated tales where there is a little action, but which makes you think about the way we see each other, and how perceptions change, depending on your viewpoint.
Miss Maurer teaches English at a girls’ school. She seems rather ineffectual, is not particularly good at keeping discipline, and finds IVa especially trying (actually, trying doesn’t even begin to describe the behaviour of these supercilious little snobs). So, as some kind of antidote to the horrid girls, she decides that just for once she will have tea out, somewhere rich and warm. Which is how she comes to be spotted by Prue (from IVa) and her mother.

And this is where things get interesting. I’d visualised Miss Maurer as pale, dowdy and insignificant, Prue describes her as a ‘hag’, but Prue’s mother insists she is an unusually beautiful woman. At this point, since I hadn’t viewed Miss Maurer as being in any way attractive, I went back to the beginning and started reading again, searching for clues about her looks! I think my behaviour was the bookish equivalent of Prue and her friends, who spend their next English lesson staring fixedly at their teacher, which upsets her even more than their usual bad behaviour!
The design at the front of the book is taken from a roller-printed
cotton twill leave, manufactured at the Arnold Print Works,
Massachusetts, in 1911.

Mother and Child Reunion

It’s been a while since I’ve posted my thoughts on any tales from The Persephone Book of Short Stories, but I certainly haven’t forgotten them. So here’s are two for this week’s Short Story Sunday. You’ll find there is a kind of loose theme, or link, in that both today’s tales explore the failing relationship between mother and child during a reunion.

Elizabeth Berridge.
Subject for a Sermon, by Elizabeth Berridge, studies the relationship between Lady Hayley and her son John, and the conflict between tradition and duty, and an individual’s independence. It is set in 1944 and opens as Lady Hayley addresses the Guides, on behalf of the Red Cross – on the very night her son is due home on leave. As her train pulled out, we are told, his train pulled in. And she must catch the early train next morning, because she has a meeting a meeting at noon, and John will understand.
Everyone thinks Lady Hayley is marvellous, for doing so much, and putting duty before her family, but she reminds me of EM Delafield’s monstrous Charmian Vivian, Director of The Midland Supply Depot in The War Workers. They are both overbearing women who have created an image of themselves as busy, selfless workers which is at odds with the hollow central core within. And there are moments when you sense the faith of Lady Hayley’s adoring fans is shaken, and they query her motives. Miss Pollett, from the Guides, for example.
… she had a strange feeling that if the other coffee cup had not been on the table, the cap beside it, she could have believed herself alone in the room. And to allay the disturbing feeling that she could never get past that quick smile – to prevent it pushing her away – she asked about the morning train.
For Lady Hayley her duties, especially in war, are everything, pushing personal feelings, family and her own likes and dislikes into the background, and she cannot understand John, whose outlook is very different, and she tells him:
Always you see things in the wrong perspective. There are many things I do not like doing – Miss Pollett frays my nerves, I dislike long journeys made in uncomfortable circumstances, I am nervous when on a bicycle. But if I did not do these things, who would? It is expected of my position – our lives are not our own John.
But John believes she is wrong, and that she should let people organises their own schemes. And he realises she doesn’t really care about people, doesn’t want to know them and wouldn’t recognise them if she met them again. She’ll talk to them to raise money for the war effort, but she’s only interested in maintaining her own position, he says, and seeing that other people keep to their place.
I’ve lived among them, mother. I know what they think about people like us. I know what they’re like, and what they want – and it’s nothing we represent. We’ve had our chance as leaders of society, and lost it.
He can see that the world is changing, but I think the thing that angers and distresses him most about his mother is not her values, or moral code, or political views, but the fact she seems to have as little interest in him as she does in anyone else, and ignores him while administering to the needs of thousands of unknown men, and it’s this which causes the impasse between them.
During his visit Lady Hayley continues her relentless round of meetings, but she keeps the afternoon and evening of his last day free. However, it’s a gesture which comes too late, for he leaves earlier than planned, to meet an Army friend. The two part still unable to understand each other, and Lady Hayley pedals off to a meeting where, as usual, she preaches at her audience, telling them that in war women must be companions, mothers and organisers, and how this involves sacrifice, loss and pain. She stresses the need for solidarity and tells the women she feels ‘so much at one’ them… and once again we find Miss Pollett wondering, and wishing Lady Hayley really means it.
I hadn’t come across Berridge before, but apparently Persephone also publish Tell It To A Stranger, her collection of short stories, and she also wrote nine novels, which were very popular in their day.
Wednesday, by Dorothy Whipple is an old favourite – it’s in The Closed Door, an

Dorothy Whipple

anthology of her short stories put together by Persephone, which I reviewed hereand, should you wonder, I know this post is beginning to sound like a promotional piece for Persephone, but they do publish some exceedingly good books, and I do read lots of books published by other companies.

In Wednesday we meet divorced wife Mrs Bulford (she still refers to herself by her married name) paying her monthly visit to her three children, who are already beginning to forget (and, possibly, to resent) her, and are forming allegiances to their new ‘mumsie’, for their father has remarried.
She waits for the children outside the garden wall, and we learn that she is an outsider in every sense of the word, shut out from the home and family that were once her’s, and shut off from respectable society. For Mrs Bulford, ‘on the verge of middle age’ went ‘gallivanting’ with a younger man. When the affair was discovered her young lover’s family took him abroad, her husband (who she believes pushed her into adultery) divorced her, and she was deemed neither fit to proper to care for her children. Now, lonely and friendless, with nothing to do to fill her time, she cannot understand what has happened to her, and still harbours a forlorn hope that one day she will be able to walk back into her old life.
She was like an exile waiting all the time to go home, devouring news of the place she longed to be in. She bought the Beddingworth papers, morning and evening, and read every word, even the advertisements. She knew who was born and who died or was married, she knew who wanted domestic help or houses.
She knows more about the city and its people than she did when she lived there. What she doesn’t know is what her children are doing, how they are growing and changing, what they like and don’t like, and how they feel. But as she stands waiting to meet them she imagines them inside their house, eating their lunch. She takes to them to the park, and treats them to afternoon tea, but the relationship between mother and children is uneasy, and they are growing away from her – indeed, they are pleased to be reunited with their father and ‘mumsie’. As they disappear from view Mrs Bulford cannot bring herself to pass the house.
But later when the dusk was deeper, she passed it on her way to the bus. Elsie had just come out to pick up the hoop on the lawn. Upstairs someone was drawing the curtains, first at one window, then at another. They were all gathered in for the night. Everything was very quiet. Even from the gate she could smell the sweet peas. She walked away down the road.

Mrs Bulford may be a very silly woman, but it is a touching and beautifully written tale, and it’s hard not to feel sorry for her watching life carrying on without her. Whipple’s writing is so understated – she really does ‘show not tell’ and doesn’t go in for big emotional scenes, but the details of the routine of family life are so perfect, right down to the perfume of the sweet peas, and it all highlights Mrs Bulford’s feeling of loss. 
The endpaper at the back of the book is
Cote d’Azure, a scree- printed cotton
furnishing fabric designed by Susan Collier
 and Sarah Campbell for Fidchbscher.

Struggling with a Short Story…

Well, it’s Sunday again – they do seem to roll round very quickly, don’t they? Anyway, that means it’s time for some sort stories, and this week I’m back with my lovely Persephone collection, and a tale called Nine Years is a Long Time, by Norah Hoult.  And oh, how I struggled with this one. I couldn’t engage with it on any level whatsoever, and found it so wearisome I nearly gave up, but I felt I should be able to see a short story through to the end.
A woman is waiting for a man to return. She doesn’t know his name, or what he does, but she knows he comes from Rotherfield, so she refers to him as ‘my Rotherfield friend’ and we learn that she has met him once a month for nine years, regular as clockwork, and that she has received £3 a time for some unspecified service… then nothing. No telegram, no letter, no visit. Is he dead? Ill? Has he lost interest?

He brought a welcome change to her life, she decides. It had been a sort of holiday when she got his wire or letter. Then Mr Scott (she always thinks of her husband this way) knew he’d ‘have to manage everything himself’. She would take a bath, dress with care, add a drop or two of Coty’s Chypre (too expensive for any but special occasions) then off to the lounge of the Queen’s for a light lunch, sitting with well-dressed people, having a drink and a chat and another drink before going to the hotel…  

Now, if he never came to see her again, or if she never saw him again, life would just go on as if it were a wet November all the time.
At this point I realised my suspicions about the exact nature of the service she provided were quite correct. Our lady is on the game, and her Rotherfield friend is her only client, and has been for a long time, although she once had many more gentlemen friends. But it all seems very normal, mundane almost, and she approaches sex much as she does any other domestic activity, and enjoys a nice cup of tea afterwards! She even discusses the situation with her husband (who is unemployed) in much the same way that other women might talk about problems at the factory, or the shop, or the office. Mrs Scott is very matter of fact about things. She will miss the £3 a month, and her husband will have to go without tobacco.
I imagine Mrs Scott a bit like this Beryl Cook woman,
but in 1940s clothes, with red hair. A rather sad figure really,
 but still liking a good time 

Her chances of finding another ‘friend’ are not good. She’s getting older, putting on weight, wears too much rouge and make up, and too much henna on her hair. She’s too conspicuous says her critical daughter, with all the confidence of youth on her side.

There is no resolution here, no happy ending. At the end of the tale there is still no news from the mysterious Rotherfield friend, and life goes on in its usual fashion.
The Test, by Angelica Gibbs, is very different, which is just as well really! Published in 1940 (two years after the last tale) it’s a very short story about the nature of prejudice, which leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Marian has a college degree, and has held a driving licence for three years, but must take another in the state where she now works, so she can take her employer’s children to school and bring them home again. She’s already failed one test, and her employer accompanies her.
“It’s probably better to have someone a little older with you,” Mrs Ericson said as Marian slipped into the driver’s seat beside her. “Perhaps last time your cousin Bill made you nervous, talking too much on the way.”

But Marian knows only too well what went wrong last time, and she fears the ordeal that lies ahead. It doesn’t matter how well she drives, the inspector will fail her – because she is coloured. And that’s the exactly what happens. The inspector is outrageously offensive – he made my blood boil with his crass remarks and behaviour. He calls Marian Mandy-Lou, talks about picaninnies, and treats her like dirt, as if she belongs to some lesser species.
Eventually she loses her temper (frankly, I think she should have gone the whole hog and smacked him in the mouth), and he makes four random crosses on her application form.
It would be nice to think that we’ve learned something over the last 70 years, and that people no longer treat others like this in America, or anywhere else. But sadly, prejudice still exists, and all kinds of people are victimised all over the world, because of their ethnicity, or their religion, or sexuality, so we don’t seem to have learned anything at all.

Short Story Sunday: A Seaside Holiday

It’s Week Five of my Short Story Adventure, and I’m on the fourth tale in The Persephone Book of Short Stories. Holiday Group, by the wonderful EM Delafield (of Provincial Lady fame, hereand here), shows how summer breaks, however eagerly anticipated they may be, do not always live up to expectations, especially for harassed mothers who face a whole heap of extra work and worry, with no help or consideration.
Sunbathing and sea air were considered beneficial. Trains were
 a popular method of travel. This London Midland  and Scottish
Railway poster for holidays  in Saltcoats  was produced in 1935,
a few years after Holiday Group was written.

A legacy enables the Reverend Herbert Cliff-Hay to take a ‘real holiday’, a second honeymoon as he calls it – though his wife Julia is quick to point out that they will be accompanied by their three young children, Martin, Theodore and Constance. You quickly catch the flavour of relationships within the Rev H C-H household:

When twelve o’clock on the 15th of July came, the packing was done, the suitcase and portmanteau belonging to Herbert, and a small tin trunk containing the effects of Julia and the three children, were locked and labelled, the basket, with sandwiches and bananas in it, stood ready. The village Ford that was to take them to the station was due in twenty minutes – and Herbert, Julia and their two elder children waited anxiously for the infant Theodore to wake from his morning sleep, so that the pram could be put into its sacking and its label tied to the handle.
Midland & Glasgow & South Western
Railways used this poster, extolling the virtues
of holidays on the West Coast of Scotland
in 1910, 

Julia worries that if the baby is woken he will be cross all the way down; Herbert worries that they will miss the train, and Constance wants a spade. However, they reach their destination without mishap, and head for Eventide, which is to be their home for the next two weeks.  There plain buns (which sound very unexciting if I may say so) await them, and it appears that landlady Mrs Parker offers few services and no assistance, although she does provide early morning tea, which I think would be wonderful – having a cup of tea brought to you in bed is my idea of luxury, and should never be taken for granted.

Bathing belles on the beach at Shanklin on the Isle of White.
These are the outfits fashionable young women would have
worn in 1926 when Delefield’s short story was published, 

As the days pass poor tired Julia shops (there are always things to be bought for the children) and mends (there are always clothes to be repaired). She gets the children up, puts them to bed, supervises them on the beach and in the sea, and produces cold food and hot drinks – in defiance of the landlady’s ‘no cooking at night’ rule she has brought a spirit stove with them so they can boil water and be independent. She does all this without her usual help, since Ethel, the family’s servant, has been left behind to look after the house.

Julia was intolerably sleepy. She was often sleepy at home, too, since she had never been without a baby in her room after the firsty ear of her marriage, and was always awakened early in the morning…
Delafield mentions bathing machines, which had largely fallen out
of favour by the mid-20s, but perhaps she was thinking of
something like these stripey wheeled huts, pictured at
St Leonard’s-on-Sea in 1895.

And there’s not much in the way of practical support from Herbert although, as usual, he is ‘goodness itself’ and ‘as kind as ever’, always willing to offer Julia advice on what she should and shouldn’t do. He cannot understand why she is even more tired than usual, or why she finds it so difficult to get up in the morning when she is awake directly if one of the children so much as turns over in the night.

Julia wondered, but did not like to ask, if that was the reason she was so sleepy now. She said feebly that she thought there was an instinct which woke mothers on behalf of their children. ‘When we get home,’ she said hopefully, ‘and I know that Martin and Constance are in their nursery with Ethel next door, I shan’t wake so early in the mornings, and then I shan’t be so tired at night. Besides, it’s this wonderful sea air. It’s – doing – wonders.’
Julia may not be convinced that the holiday is a good thing, but her husband has no such doubts.
‘Now that we’ve got this legacy, Julia dearest, and that our debts are all paid, I want to afford a holiday every year,’ said the Reverend Herbert, adding with unwanted effusiveness, for was a reserved man, ‘You and I, and little Martin and Constance and the baby – and perhaps other little ones if we should be blessed with them. To get right away from home cares and worries and responsibilities, and have a thorough rest and change. I value it even more on your account than on my own.’
EM Delafield

Julia yearns for a good night’s sleep and is nostalgic for childhood, when she was still Julia and hadn’t become ‘Mamma’, and holidays were spent with her own Mamma and Papa in a nice hotel, where no-one was bothered about ‘extras’ on the bill, and they all enjoyed a real meal at the end of the day, rather than cold ham, bread and cheese, with cocoa made over the spirit lamp. However, she says nothing. Instead:

… her eyes – her tired eyes – filled with the easy tears of utter contentment. She thought, as she had often thought before, that she was a very fortunate woman. Her heart swelled with gratitude as she thought of her kind husband, her splendid children, and the wonderful holiday that they had all had together.
Mmm, I thought, who is she kidding? That’s self-delusion on a grand scale and, as with some other stories in this anthology, there’s a degree of ambiguity. I know this was written in 1926, when women’s roles and expectations were very different to what they are today, but even so Julia seems to be remarkably listless, apathetic, and thoroughly downtrodden, and is completely submerged by the children, her own personality sunk without a trace. I’m not even sure that she really likes them all that much: she seems to use them as a barrier to keep the rest of the world – and her husband – at a distance. She would be quite happy, I think, to let baby Theodore carry on sleeping, so the pram cannot be packed, and if she misses the train and can’t go on holiday it won’t be her fault.
I couldn’t decide if there’s an element of complicity in her acceptance of a role as domestic martyr, or whether married life has squashed the life out of her. Perhaps she’s simply decided that life is easier if she takes the line of least resistance, which is understandable, because Herbert is what I would call a steamroller man, trampling over other people’s dreams and aspirations without ever realising that they have hopes and fears, likes and dislikes which are very different to his own.
All the photos in this post, with the exception of the portrait of EM Delafield, came from Place and Leisure, Book 4, AA 100 The Arts Past and Present, published by the Open University.

Short Story Sunday

Back to Persephone this week, and a sweetly moving tale about enduring love, and faith. The Pain was written by South African born Pauline Smith in 1923, and is set in her native land. Juriaan van Royien and his wife Deltje have been married almost 50 years. They have no children and few possessions, and live frugally in a three-roomed, mud-walled house, scraping a living from the poor soil. But they consider themselves rich, because they have each other – and they are all in all to each other.
When Deltje falls ill and is racked with pain in her side, Juriaan cannot bear to see her suffer, so when he hears of a new hospital where the poor and sick are restored to good health he yokes his oxen to his cart, lays his wife on a nest of the feather bed, pillows and blankets, and sets off. The journey takes them three nights and the better part of three days, but when they arrive the old couple are unprepared for the fact that they must be separated. Apart, they are lonely and afraid. They miss each other and the peace and beauty of their isolated home, and they are bewildered by the interfering nurse, and the routine of hospital life.
So late one night Juriaan, who has been camping on the veld next to the hospital, hitches up his oxen again, breaks into the building, and takes his dying wife back home.
Like Susan Glaspell’s ‘From A to Z’ (the first story in the anthology), this is a simple tale, and it’s simply told, but there’s a very different feel to it, because ‘The Pain’ is about a couple whose love is so strong it has lasted for almost half a century, and everything that has happened over the years – their childlessness, their poverty, their hard life – has only served to deepen the bond between them. Juriaane and Deltje have absolute faith in each other, and in God, and those are the tenets on which their lives are built. They want for nothing: as long as they have each other they are happy, content, and joyful. There is a degree of sentimentality, which may not appeal to all modern readers, but it never seems false, and is never mawkish. I found it a very touching, very tender portrayal of a marriage, and of old age.
Smith’s short story raises questions about where and how we care for the elderly and terminally ill that are still topical and relevant. Are people better off in their own home with those they love? And do we always treat them with the respect and dignity they deserve?  Sadly, you do come across health workers like Nurse Robert, who Jurianne and Deltje fear ‘as they had never before feared any other human being’ because while she is kind, and believes she is acting for their good, she takes control, and doesn’t listen to them, or consider the way they feel, or explain anything – when the doctor makes his rounds she doesn’t allow Deltje to speak, and answers questions for her.
There’s a tremendous sense of place and space in this story, and the descriptions of the old couple’s home are so detailed I felt I could reach out and touch the mud walls, which are smeared with a protective layer of cow-dung and ashes, or the earth floor with its peach stones beaten into the surface.
I had a lump in my throat as I read of their few ‘treasures’, stored on three small shelves in the bedroom, and the account of his preparation for the journey give an indication of just how hard their life was, and how old-fashioned they must have seemed to folk in the new-fangled hospital.
He went back to the house, and stretching an old sailcloth across a bamboo frame fixed this tent to the ox cart. Under the cart he tied the big black kettle and the three-legged pot which were their only cooking utensils. He filled a small water-cask from the stream and tied that also below the cart. He brought out the painted wagon-box and fixed it in front of the cart for a seat. In the cart was their small store of provisions: biltong, a small bag of coffee, a kid-skin full of dried rusks, meal for griddle cakes, and the salted ribs of a goat recently killed. Behind the cart he tied some bundles of forage, and below the forage dangled a folding stool. On the floor of the cart he spread the feather bed, pillows and blankets for Deltje’s nest.
It’s that last sentence which is so revealing, because it tells you so much about the relationship between husband and wife – and that, above all else, is at the heart of this tale. Smith paints a touching picture of Jurianne helping Deltje into the cart and calling her ‘by those tender, beautiful and endearing names which were the natural expression of his love’.
The scene where he creeps into the room where she lies in a narrow bed and tells her he is taking her home is a masterpiece of simple elegance and understated emotion.
He stooped down, opened the locker, and drew out her clothes. With a strange, gentle deliberation he helped her into her petticoats, and tied up her Bible, her mug, and her shell-covered box. The bottle of medicine left standing on the locker he slipped into his pocket. Then he gathered the little old woman up into his arms and carried her out into the moonlit night.
And Deltje is ‘filled with that sense of security which his mere presence brought her’ and her heart is ‘overflowing with its quiet content’.

Pauline Smith is writer I’ve not heard of before, and her output does not seem to be great, but I’m curious to read more of her work. Apparently, after leaving South Africa she lived in Dorset with her mother and sister, and was close friends with the novelist Arnold Bennett, who encouraged her to write. According to the ‘Author Biographies’ at the back of The Persephone Book of Short Stories, her short story collection ‘The Little Karoo’ appeared in 1925, and ‘The Beadle’, her only novel, was published a year later.