Monthly Archives: October 2020

The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield (1922)

What to say about this collection of fifteen of Mansfield’s short stories, other than to highlight its brilliance? I loved working my way through this short volume, reading one or two pieces on a daily basis.

A much-anticipated garden party is tainted by news of a fatal accident, for one member of the family at least; a man longs to be alone with his wife following her return from a trip, only for their closeness to be disturbed by the shadow of a stranger; a lady’s maid remains devoted to her employer, forsaking the offer of marriage for a life in service. These are just a few of the scenarios Mansfield explores with great insight and perceptiveness.

There is a beautiful fluidity of emotion in these stories, as they move seamlessly from gaiety and happiness to sadness and loneliness in the blink of an eye. Almost one hundred years on, the writing still feels fresh and vivid, focusing as it does on the inner lives of Mansfield’s characters. These pieces, many of which end rather suddenly, pinpoint the significance of small moments in our existence, highlighting the profound in day-to-day life.

Grief, loneliness, isolation and longing are all common themes, possibly reflecting Mansfield’s state of mind at the time of writing. (Having received a diagnosis of tuberculosis, Mansfield must have known by the early 1920s that her time was strictly limited.) Unanticipated thoughts or realisations punctuate several of the pieces – for example, Miss Brill, in which a lonely woman’s fragile sense of self-esteem is shattered when she overhears a thoughtless conversation.

There are some wonderful examples of Mansfield’s style here, passages of literary impressionism that capture the rhythms of life and the natural world.

Ah– Aah! sounded the sleepy sea. And from the bush there came the sound of little streams flowing, quickly, lightly, slipping between the smooth stones, gushing into ferny basins and out again; and there was the splashing of big drops on large leaves, and something else – what was it? – A faint stirring and shaking, the snapping of a twig and then such silence that it seemed someone was listening. (p. 1)

Precision plays a significant role, too – not a word out of place or misjudged along the way.

Alongside the modernist prose style, there is a willingness on the part of Mansfield to explore progressive (and potentially controversial) views in her fiction. In At the Bay, one of the standout stories in this remarkable collection, a mother expresses a lack of love for her children. And yet, despite this potentially shocking revelation, Mansfield portrays Linda (the protagonist), in an insightful, compassionate way, enabling the reader to sympathise with her position – to some degree at least.

But the trouble was – here Linda felt almost inclined to laugh, though Heaven knows it was no laughing matter – she saw her Stanley so seldom. There were glimpses, moments, breathing spaces of calm, but all the rest of the time it was like living in a house that couldn’t be cured of the habit of catching on fire, on a ship that got wrecked every day. And it was always Stanley who was in the thick of the danger. Her whole time was spent in rescuing him, and restoring him, and calming him down, and listening to his story. And what was left of her time was spent in the dread of having children. (p. 18–19)

It’s a story that flits from character to character, allowing us to see certain situations from more than one point of view – including that of Linda’s husband, Stanley.

Other vignettes focus on a young girl’s experiences of her first ball, with the mix of nervous and excitement this entails; a teacher’s rapidly changing emotions as her forthcoming marriage appears to be in jeopardy; and a patriarch’s weariness and isolation as he ponders the cumulative effects of providing for his family.

These are marvellous stories, beautifully expressed. I adored them.

The Garden Party is published by Penguin Books, personal copy.

Civil to Strangers by Barbara Pym

Regular readers of this blog will be aware of my fondness for the novels of Barbara Pym, with their gentle social comedy and musings on day-to-day village life. Civil to Strangers is an early Pym, written in 1936 when the author was just twenty-three. However, it lay dormant until 1987 when it was published alongside three unfinished novels (edited down by Hazel Holt) and four short stories.

In this early titular novel, Pym begins to map out her territory, creating a world populated by excellent, unassuming women, thoughtless husbands, bespectacled curates, and one or two spikier characters. This is a world where everyone knows everyone else’s business, where social occasions consist of sherry parties and bridge. Naturally, everything is beautifully observed in typical Pym fashion; she has such a wonderful eye for social comedy, tempered with touches of poignancy here and there, qualities which give the reader much to enjoy.

Civil to Strangers revolves around Cassandra Marsh-Gibbon and her rather self-absorbed husband, Adam, a writer who is struggling with his craft – his attempts to fashion a novel about a gardener are not progressing well. Twenty-eight-year-old Cassandra is warm-hearted and dignified, yet Adam seems somewhat blind to her qualities, preferring to play the part of the tortured genius, complete with velvet coat and suede shoes.

Living alongside the Marsh-Gibbons in the small town of Up Callow are the rector, Rockingham Wilmot, his wife, Mrs Wilmot, and their nineteen-year-old-daughter, Janie. Mr Gay, a bachelor in his fifties, shares a house with his niece, Angela, a thirty-year-old spinster constantly on the lookout for an eligible man. Her latest target is Mr Paladin, the new curate in the parish, a bright young man in his mid-twenties with a degree from Oxford, who seems to be proving rather resistant to Angela’s charms.

Mr Gay and his niece occasionally gave an evening party. Perhaps they were still hoping that there was a rich woman or an eligible husband in the town whom they had somehow missed in their search. Certainly there was more hope for Angela then for her uncle, as a new curate has just come to Up Callow. He was twenty-six years old and unmarried, and Miss Gay had seized upon him almost as soon as he had arrived. Ever since then he had been contriving to avoid her. (p. 32) 

Angela also has a soft spot for Adam Marsh-Gibbon, something that colours her rather spiteful behaviour towards Cassandra whenever the pair meet. Finally, for now at least, there is Mrs Gower, an amiable widow who, over the course of the novel, develops a rather touching relationship with Angela’s uncle, Philip Gay.

Into this sleepy community comes Stefan Tilos, a Hungarian gentleman with all the glamour and mystery of Budapest. Unsurprisingly, this rather unusual arrival sets the residents of Up Callow all of a flutter.

“Holmwood is let,” said Mrs Gower in tones of satisfaction, “and to a foreigner!”

“Oh!” Mrs Wilmot gasped. “Are you sure it’s true?”

“Oh yes,” Mrs Gower replied. “I saw him coming down the drive. Quite dark and wearing a black hat.”

“Really…” mused Mrs Wilmot, a smile stealing over her eager little face. After the black hat there could of course be no doubt. (p. 43)

When Angela Gay runs into Mr Tilos in the town, she is captivated by this handsome stranger, promptly dropping all thoughts of the eligible curate before you can say “knife”.

Cassandra, with her generosity of spirit, decides to throw a sherry party for Mr Tilos, giving him a chance to get to know the various residents in their circle. Naturally, Adam is not quite as enthusiastic as his wife – a creative talent should guard against such tiresome interruptions. As the occasion fast approaches, even Cassandra begins to doubt the wisdom of her decision.

“I’m beginning to wish we hadn’t asked this man,” said Cassandra to Adam as they were getting ready for the party. “After all, we don’t really know anything about him.”

“It is really very inconvenient to have invited anyone at all,” said Adam. “I am so busy, I really ought not to spare the time.”

Cassandra sighed. “Well, you can always rush out to your study if you’re suddenly inspired,” she said, for Adam’s inspiration was now coming very irregularly, and one never knew when to expect it. He had laid aside the novel about the gardener, as she had hoped, and was now at work on an epic poem, which was nearly as bad. (p. 65)

Mr Tilos it seems is smitten with Cassandra, forever bringing her gifts of flowers, Tokay wine and photographs of Budapest. Cassandra, for her part, has no desire to cultivate her admirer’s affections. Nevertheless, something must be done to give Adam a jolt. Perhaps if she went away on her own for a while, Adam might realise what is at risk. So, inspired by Mr Tilos’s love for Hungary, Cassandra decides to spend a fortnight alone in Budapest. Little does she know that Mr Tilos also happens to be travelling back to the city at the same time. In fact, as fate would have it, Cassandra and her admirer bump into one another on the train…

What follows is a gentle comedy as Cassandra tries to distance herself from Mr Tilos, hoping somewhat wistfully that Adam will ultimately decide to follow her to Budapest. To the residents of Up Callow, it looks as if Cassandra and Mr Tilos have run away together. So furious is Angela Gay at this development that she throws a pullover she has been knitting for Mr Tilos on the fire in disgust, leaving a detectable note of singed wool to linger in the house.

While Civil to Strangers is something of a minor Pym, there is a touch of The Enchanted April to the story with its themes of unappreciative husbands and a desire for transformation. As ever with Pym, the characters are lovingly drawn, particularly Cassandra with her observant nature and grounded approach to life. A thoroughly enjoyable story that will please fans of this author’s other work.

More Pym next month when I’ll be posting a second piece covering the unfinished novels and short stories – there really is quite a lot to appreciate in this lovely collection.

(My hardback copy of Civil to Strangers was published by Macmillan, but the book is currently in print with Virago.)

The Story of Stanley Brent by Elizabeth Berridge (1945)

This is wonderful – a story that compresses the key moments of a man’s life into just 75 pages. It’s the debut novel (or novella) by the English writer Elizabeth Berridge, whose Sing Me Who You Are (1967) I read earlier this year.

The novella opens with a notable event as Stanley – an assistant at a traditional Estate Agents in Belgravia – proposes marriage to his girlfriend, Ada, following an outing in the rain. It’s a touching, self-effacing scene, one that captures something of the tone in this thoughtful little book.

After a long engagement, Stanley and Ada marry. However, their hopes of a bright, optimistic future are somewhat tainted by a difficult honeymoon, particularly as their attempts at lovemaking leave Ada traumatised by the experience. Stanley, for his part, feels angry and ashamed, trapped in his own sense of isolation as he surveys the world outside.

The sight of the flat sands, the quietness of the night, emphasised by the slight sea-noise of dark waters, bought him uncomfortably face to face with himself. Time seemed absent. This was an hour that would not tally with his accustomed thoughts – not only was Ada a stranger to him, he was a stranger to himself. He was conscious of life and death flowing in and around him, desolating and building his spirit, testing and judging. He had never felt so helpless. (p. 22)

On their return home, the Brents slip into a life of routine and domesticity. Two daughters come along; various illnesses and disabilities are hinted at; and suddenly WW1 breaks out (although Stanley is not admitted to the army, presumably for health reasons).

What Berridge does so well throughout the book is to convey the feeling of a life slipping by. Stanley is rather passive and unambitious, qualities that are reflected both in his marriage and in his approach to work. Despite being made a junior partner at the firm, Stanley fails to see that the world around him is changing. He is too snobbish and wedded to tradition to take advantage of the demand for modest properties, a trend that accelerates in the years following the war. There is a degree of passivity too in Stanley’s response to his wife’s brief dalliance, something that gives Ada a sense of freedom and enjoyment. In another affecting scene, the two briefly reconcile when Ada realises the foolishness of her actions and Stanley reveals his deep-seated fear of loss.

As the years go by, the Brents continue to drift apart, fuelled by Ada’s ambitions for her daughters and Stanley’s inherent inertia and possibly depression – signs of an increasing dependence on alcohol begin to appear, especially when Stanley enters middle age.

…but he, Stanley Brent, why should he be lonely? Was it his own fault that Ada treated him so impatiently? Was he so impossible? Take that remark she had flung at him this morning, so final it had sounded. She seemed to know just what to say to agitate and make him appear muddle-headed. What he thought of as calmness was to her merely torpor. But what had she said? Like a splinter it had penetrated the surface of his mind; he could feel it working on his nerves, hurtfully. (p. 56)

There is such poignancy in Berridge’s portrayal of Stanley, which succeeds in capturing the loneliness a man can feel, even when he is surrounded by his family. As a novella, it highlights the small yet significant moments in day-to-day life, the unspoken tragedies of missed opportunities and other lives that might have been lived. Berridge accentuates this theme with a recurring motif, an unfinished tune on a violin that signals a connection between Stanley and Ada’s step-father, Monsieur Boucher, another man whose life seems shrouded in melancholy.

I really loved this novella, which manages to pack an impressive depth of feeling into a very compact story. The book itself comes in a beautiful hardback edition from Michael Walmer’s publishing house. My thanks for kindly providing a review copy.

Saturday Lunch with the Brownings by Penelope Mortimer

The British writer and journalist Penelope Mortimer is perhaps best known for her 1962 novel The Pumpkin Eater, a semi-autobiographical story of a woman’s breakdown precipitated by the strains of a fractured marriage. Mortimer also drew on her own experiences for Saturday Lunch with the Brownings, a collection of sharply unnerving stories of motherhood, marriage and family relations, many of which uncover the horrors that lie beneath the surface veneer of domestic life. First published in 1960, this excellent collection has recently been reissued by the publishing arm of Daunt Books – my thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy.

In The Skylight, one of the standout stories in this volume, a mother and her five-year-old son are travelling to France for a family holiday in a remote part of the countryside. The weather is stiflingly hot, conditions that make for a tiring journey, leaving the woman and her child anxious to arrive at their destination (a house they have rented in advance). On arrival, they find the property all locked up with the owners nowhere in sight. The only potential point of access is an open skylight in the roof, too small for the woman to squeeze through but just large enough for the child. So, with no other option at her disposal, the woman proceeds to instruct her son on what to do once she drops him through the skylight. (Luckily, there is a ladder to hand, making it possible for them to reach the open window.)

This is a brilliantly paced story, shot through with a mounting sense of tension as we await the narrative’s denouement. In a tale strongly reminiscent of the work of Daphne du Maurier and Shirley Jackson, much of the horror comes from the imagination – our own visions of what might be unfolding inside the house once the young boy has entered through the skylight. Sound plays a particularly important role here; for instance, the torturous sound of a dripping tap serves to accentuate the intense feeling of unease…

In the silence she heard, quite distinctly, a tap dripping. A regular, metallic drip, like torture. She shouted directions to him, waiting between each one, straining to hear the slightest sound, the faintest answer. The tap dripped. The house seemed to be holding its breath. (p. 21)

Children appear in many of the stories, partly as a way for Mortimer to highlight some of the challenges of motherhood. Interestingly though, it is often the knock-on responses of the fathers to their offspring that precipitate crises for Mortimer’s female protagonists, rather than the actions of the children themselves. In the titular tale – another highlight of the collection – we gain an insight into the lives of Madge and William Browning, two writers who live with their daughter, seven-year-old Bessie. Also living in the house are Melissa (15) and Rachel (9), Madge’s daughters from a previous marriage. The story opens with what appears to be a commonplace domestic setting – a family waking up at home on an ordinary Saturday morning. However, the apparent mundanity of the scene is swiftly undercut by Mortimer’s pin-sharp observations on the underlying tensions at play.

Madge never went down to breakfast. She refused, out of a strong feeling of self-preservation, to acknowledge its existence. William’s temper was unreliable in the early morning, and particularly on Saturdays, with Rachel and Bessie lolling about in a holocaust of cornflakes and burnt toast, the German maid reading letters from home while the coffee boiled dry and the neighbouring children, small, ugly and savage, standing in a row outside the french windows watching him eat, a curiosity which they observed once a week, swarming over the low walls dressed for holiday in feathers, jeans and their mother’s broken jewellery. (pp. 34–35)

Rachel in particular in a source of irritation for William, prompting an eruption of violence as the story progresses. While Madge tries to hold it together for the family, desperately clinging to a false picture of domestic stability she has constructed for herself, William succeeds in undermining her efforts, forcing a confrontation between the couple – this despite Madge’s desire to shield the children from witnessing their marital conflicts. It’s an excellent story, full of telling insights into the presumptions William has made about Madge’s role as primary caregiver within the family.

In other pieces – Such a Super Evening being a case in point – Mortimer demonstrates her eye for sharp humour. The story is narrated by a modest married woman, the wife of a barrister, who is delighted by the prospect of having the infamous Mathiesons over to dinner. Philip and Felicity Mathieson – again, both writers – are a kind of literary power couple, often called upon to comment on various topical issues from childcare (they have eight children) to household management to cultural affairs. They appear to have it all – the perfect marriage, successful careers, remarkable children – in short, the whole shebang.

As the dinner party progresses, the scene becomes increasingly surreal, particularly as the Mathiesons begin to talk so openly about their lives. Gradually, throughout the evening, the ‘perfect couple’ reveal themselves to be money-grabbing, self-centred individuals, dismissive of many of the values they appear to project in public. It’s a deliciously amusing story, relayed in a gossipy style that works perfectly with the satirical subject matter. Another standout piece in this subversive collection.

Miriam’s earrings were quite still, petrified with shock. I cleared away and brought in the Tocinos del Cielo. I’m very proud of these, and perfectly happy to explain how I make them. However, no one seemed to want to know. They were all beginning to look as though they were at a funeral, except for Philip. He was talking about getting away from it all. (p. 67)

One of things that strikes me about this collection is how relevant these stories feel, sixty years after their initial publication. In addition to the topics outlined above, other themes include infidelity, the oppression of women, mental illness, unwanted pregnancies and the use of children as leverage in a marriage.

In the haunting story Little Miss Perkins, a mother – recovering in hospital following the birth of her baby – is sharing a room with a young woman at risk of miscarriage, their beds separated by a flimsy curtain. At first, the narrator assumes her roommate is traumatised at the thought of potentially losing her baby; but as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that this mother-to-be has other, more pressing priorities on her mind. Once again, there is a touch of Daphne du Maurier about this tale which first appeared in The New Yorker in 1960. It’s another story that blends flashes of dark humour with the underlying emotions of horror and tragedy. I couldn’t help but highlight this passage about the young woman’s doctor, complete with his slick appearance and patronising manner.

Her doctor, a Mr Macauley, was better dressed, slightly more suntanned than mine; otherwise, like all successful obstetricians, he looked like a one-time matinée idol who, in early middle-age, had struck oil. (p. 120)

In summary, this is a sharply devastating collection of stories – pitch-perfect vignettes that subvert the supposed idylls of marriage and motherhood with a spiky precision. There is a strong sense of foreboding in many of these tales, a feeling that flashes of rage, violence or cruelty may erupt at any moment… Very highly recommended indeed.

Thieves and Rascals by Mavis Gallant – a post for the #1956Club

A few months ago, I wrote about the first six stories in The Cost of Living, an excellent collection of early pieces by the Canadian writer Mavis Gallant. (If you missed it, you can read it by clicking on the link here.) The post covered stories from 1951 to 1955; something that brings us rather conveniently to 1956, which is the subject of Simon and Karen’s latest ‘Club’ week (more details here). So, for my contribution to the #1956Club, I’m going to focus on one story from the collection: Thieves and Rascals, which first appeared in Esquire magazine in 1956.

Gallant is particularly perceptive on the emptiness of suburban domesticity, the type of stifling, loveless marriage depicted in Mad Men and the novels of Richard Yates. It’s something that comes through in Thieves and Rascals, a story featuring Charles and Marian Kimber, a married couple who live in New York.

As the story opens, Charles – an emotionally-absent lawyer – learns that his teenage daughter, Joyce, is being sent home from her respectable boarding school for spending a weekend in a hotel with a young man. Rather than expressing anger or concern for his daughter’s welfare, Charles seems more puzzled than anything else, particularly as he considers Joyce to be rather plain and gauche.

His mind could not construct the image of stolid Joyce, in the moccasins, the tweed skirt, the innocent sweaters, registering (as she surely had) in a shabby hotel on a side street in Albany. He wondered not so much how it had happened, but that it had happened at all. Joyce, as far as he knew, didn’t know any young men, except, perhaps, the brothers of her classmates. And why, he wondered, would any young man, even the most callow and inexperienced, pick Joyce? There are so many girls her age who are graceful, pretty, knowing, and who have weekends here and there written all over them. (p. 117)

Marian, by contrast to her husband, is fragile, brittle and highly strung. Somewhat unusually for a married woman in the mid-1950s, Marian has a career; but as a successful high-end model, she is objectified by men, admired for her undoubted poise and beauty above any other qualities.

News of Joyce’s indiscretion reignites memories for Marian – reflections on an impetuous relationship from her own adolescence, something that caused a rift within the family at the time. As Marian begins to talk about the situation with Charles, a mistrust of men is revealed – both in general and more specifically with Charles himself.

They can’t own up. They can’t be trusted. They can’t face things. Not at that age. Not at any age. I think it’s getting a little far to say you can’t trust any man, at any age, said to Charles. I don’t know any, said his wife. Well, he said, there’s me for instance, when she did not reply, he said: well it’s a fine time to find out you don’t trust me. The question isn’t whether I do or not, said Marion. I have to trust you. I mean, I live with you, and keep the thing on the tracks, or I don’t. So then, of course, I have to trust you. (p.124)

This development offers a revealing picture of the couple’s relationship. Charles, with his lack of emotional investment in the marriage, isn’t terribly good at empathising or reading the nuances of the situation. (Or maybe he does understand the true meaning of what is being said but simply chooses not to acknowledge it.) There is also a mistress in the background, a secretary named Bernice, whose company Charles finds straightforward and ‘restful’. Bernice, for her part, places few demands on Charles, seemingly content with the two evenings a week she spends cooking dinner for him at her apartment.

As the story draws to a close, we sense that Marian is fully aware of the limitations of her marriage, a common situation for American women in this period. (I couldn’t help but be reminded of Mad Men’s Betty Draper at this point.) And Charles? His primary concern seems to be the avoidance of any kind of ‘scene’ with Marian, stressing her upcoming modelling commitments as a reason to stem the tears…

Along with several other stories in this collection, Thieves and Rascals leaves the reader with much to consider as they try to read between the lines and imagine what might happen next. This is another richly textured story from this marvellous collection, lovingly reissued by NYRB Classics (personal copy).