This collection of eight short stories by Penelope Fitzgerald – one of my all-time favourite writers – was first published in 2000, the year of her death. Interestingly, the settings range from the historical (19th century Brittany and 17th century Australia) to the more contemporary (Britain in the 1950s/’60s and Scotland at the end of the 20th century). In this respect, the book could be viewed as a kind of bridge between Fitzgerald’s early novels and her later, historical works.
As with other story collections I’ve reviewed, I won’t cover all of the individual pieces; instead, my aim is to give you a flavour of the highlights and what to expect from the book as a whole.
In The Axe – one of the standout stories in this collection – a middle manager is tasked with the job of making a number of his staff redundant to reduce resources. While some employees seem happy to move on or take early retirement, others may prove more reluctant to leave, especially if they have worked for the company for several years. The manager is particularly worried about his clerical assistant, Mr Singlebury, a rather apologetic, fastidious individual who appears to have no real life outside of work.
On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, he [Mr Singlebury] wore a blue suit and a green knitted garment with a front zip. On Tuesdays and Thursdays he wore a pair of grey trousers of man-made material which he called ‘my flannels’, and a fawn cardigan. The cardigan was omitted in summer. He had, however, one distinguishing feature, very light blue eyes, with a defensive expression, as though apologizing for something which he felt guilty about, but could not put right. The fact is that he was getting old. Getting old is, of course, a crime of which we grow more guilty every day. (p. 26)
The Axe is conveyed in the form of a written report from the manager to his superiors, recounting his experiences with the redundancies and Mr Singlebury in particular. At first, Singlebury seems to take the news reasonably quietly, much to the manager’s relief. Nevertheless, just before his departure, Singlebury invites the manager to dinner at his home – a suitably sad and depressing room in a boarding house – where he confesses his concerns as what will happen once the job ends. Consequently, the manager is left dreading the prospect of Singlebury’s return, fearing his assistant may take it upon himself to turn up to work as if nothing has happened.
This is a terrific story with a creeping sense of dread, particularly towards the end. As with the rest of Fitzgerald’s work, the central character of Singlebury is drawn with great insight and sensitivity. Here we have an ‘invisible’ man, beavering away at his role without any real credit or recognition, tossed aside with little thought in the name of economy. It’s a very striking story, brilliantly told.
In Beehernz – one of the contemporary stories set in the wilds of Scotland – an artistic director is dispatched to the remote island of Reilig to persuade a reclusive maestro to come out of retirement.
Iona is three miles long and one mile wide, and Reilig looked considerably smaller. The blue sky, cloudless that day, burned as if it was as salt as the water below them. There was no sand or white shell beach as you approached, and the rocky shoreline was not impressive, just enough to give you a nasty fall. (p. 60)
The director, Hopkins, is hoping Beehernz will agree to conduct a couple of Mahler concerts at a forthcoming festival, something the maestro has shied away from doing over the past 40 years. However, once Hopkins comes face-to-face with his target, any potential sense of influence begins to slip away.
On this island of Reilig he felt authority leaving him, with no prospect of being replaced by anything else. Authority was scarcely needed in a kingdom of potatoes and seabirds. (p. 66)
Beehernz is another beautifully observed story – this one underscored with Fitzgerald’s trademark dry wit.
There is humour too in Not Shown, a story of small-mindedness and petty jealousies. It features Fothergill, ‘the resident administrator, or dogsbody’ at Tailfirst Farm which sits in the grounds of a large country house. While the farm is open to the public during the summer, the house itself is not – the latter being home to Lady P, the somewhat dismissive head of the manor.
Assisting Fothergill at the farm are two local women: Mrs Fearne, formerly of The Old Pottery Shop, and Mrs Twine, who used to be a dinner lady at the village school, both lovingly described in the following passage.
So far there had been worryingly few visitors, but he disposed carefully of his small force. Mrs Twine couldn’t stand for too long, and was best off in the dining-room where there was a solid table to lean against; on the other hand, she was sharper than Mrs Feare, who let people linger in the conservatory and nick the tomatoes.
Mrs Feare was more at home in the shop with the fudge and postcards, and her ten-year-old son biked up after school to work out the day’s VAT on his calculator. Mrs Twine also fancied herself in the shop, but had no son to offer. (pp. 101–102)
This peaceful unit is soon disturbed by the arrival of Mrs Horrabin, who takes it upon herself to replace Mrs Feare and Mrs Twine, claiming ‘these two old boilers standing in the corners of the room’ will scare off the visitors. After all, members of the public just want to have a good nose around; ‘they want to see the bedroom and the john’, not all the other padding. As it turns out, Mrs Horrabin has designs on other aspects of Tailfirst, not least Mr Fothergill himself. Like many of the stories in this collection, Not Shown has an ending that leaves much to the reader’s imagination, opening up several possibilities of what might happen to these characters in the days and weeks that follow.
Overall, I found Fitzgerald’s contemporary/20th-century stories more satisfying than her historical ones, possibly because they chime more strongly with my general reading preferences per se. Nevertheless, one or two of the historical pieces certainly warrant a mention here.
The titular story, The Means of Escape, is perhaps one of the most striking pieces in the book – the tale of a Rector’s daughter who develops feelings for an escaped convict she finds hiding in her father’s church. The sense of time and place – 17th century Tasmania – is brilliantly evoked, from the details of the church and Rectory to the language and dialogue at play. This is a very memorable story with a surprising twist at the end. Definitely a highlight of the collection.
Other historical stories feature a group of artists on a painting trip to Brittany, and a couple who must rely on two homing pigeons for communication at a vital time (their home being on a remote farm in Auckland, miles from the nearest town). Irrespective of the period and setting, Fitzgerald is able to create characters and worlds that feel entirely credible and believable, such is her perception and attention to detail.
As ever, Fitzgerald displays great sympathy towards her characters, particularly when they are at their most vulnerable or damaged. These stories offer glimpses into strange, mysterious worlds, conveyed with sensitivity, credibility and intuition. All in all, a very worthwhile read.
The Means of Escape is published by 4th Estate; personal copy.