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.
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
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.