'How pleasant it is to spend an evening in this way! I declare that after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! — When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.' No one made any reply. She then yawned again, threw aside her book, and cast her eyes round the room in quest of some amusement. — from Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen (1775-1817)
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September 2, 2016

Tea with Mr. Rochester {Persephone no. 44|



      Hartwell House, her home, was up on the hill. It was a Palladian house, as white as the shell of a cuttlefish and with something of the portly, bow-fronted elegance of a Regency buck. The antique furniture within had not been picked up at sales, but had been bequeathed to successive generations of Hallidays, and seemed in its turn to have transmitted a kind of Chippendale grace to the small-boned,slender Halliday girls. The glazed chintz with its delicate posies, the pale carpets, were an expression of something pale and delicate in Mrs. Hallliday's mind. She had an antipathy to the colour red, as to all strong, violent colours, which was natural, perhaps, in a person who never seemed to go very deep into anything.
      But the Vicarage, down in the village, was red. One might have expected it to be brown inside to match its little brown mistress. But it wasn't. It was rather nice, if one liked a jumble of periods and a good taste that was the negation of 'taste.' There were no faded photographs of Rome, Switzerland, or any place whatever, and no Highland cattle, such as are usually found in country vicarages. A large coloured  print of the Sistine Madonna dominated the space over the drawing-room chimney-piece, and below her a Dresden shepherdess, all roses and forget-me-nots,had a somewhat prinking and incongruous air, flanked as she was by two chaste Chinese bowls. Warm colours glowed in the room, indigo and Venetian red and cinnamon; as if, unlike Mrs. Halliday, Mrs. Potter delved sometimes below the surface of life. Her figure was slight but somewhat globular, reminding one of an old castor-oil bottle, though soft and cushiony to touch.

I don't read short stories very often. I always think that I'm not especially drawn to or interested in this form of fiction, then I read some excellent ones and it occurs to me that I enjoy them more than I remember. :)

These were surprising, sometimes a little bit odd, or daring, and wonderful. The main characters, almost always women, are schoolgirls, or newlyweds, or spinster aunts, or middle-aged friends,and Frances Towers had great skill in vividly painting in their appearance and personalities in just a few words and some very vivid images.{She also accomplished this in telling us about the houses they lived in, something else that made these stories very appealing to me.} There's a little bit of snarkiness, a little bit of something dark, sometimes, but it's tempered; in many ways the writing and a certain kind of humor reminded me just a little of what I like in Margery Sharp or Barbara Pym.

As in most short stories {I think}, this descriptiveness sets up a moment,in lieu of a plot.  In some of these, that moment is on the conventional side, but in others it's so perfect, or even so ambiguous,that it will stay with me longer. In one of my favorite stories {though I liked them all, really}, two middle-aged women, friends since thy were schoolgirls, decide to share a cottage together. The two friends {and their cottage} are a little 'arty-crafty,' and they're surprised and delighted when Mrs. Pryde, the glamorous lady of the local manor, invites  them to tea. Lucy and Florence don't expect Mr. Pryde to notice them {'People's husbands are often disappointing. They lurk in the study until one has gone ...or, if they do like one, it is at secondhand.'} During their first visit, Lucy has what she realizes are romantic imaginings about Mr. Pryde, but they are both shocked, a little later, when Mrs. Pryde tells them that she expects to die soon.
      'I said to him, only the other night - 'When you are left alone, my dear, you must marry one of those dear creatures. I'll pave the way,' I said. And, do you know, he looked quite distressed. He said -- 'for God's sake, not --'
      Here, Hildegarde paused, and laughed softly, looking from one to the other.
      'I am not going to tell you which name. I couldn't very well, could I?  But it seems, doesn't it? that the prospect of one of you does not not displease him. Dear Lucy, dear Florence,' holding out a hand to each. 'I hope that one of you will not refuse to take my place.'
It's possibly unwitting, but we're left convinced that her words are devastating.

In another, a newlywed befriends Mrs. Asher, the young widow who moves in across the street. Mrs. Penny's husband has been working abroad, and she spends much of her time assuring herself that he will approve of her new friend when he returns. But it turns out (on the second to last page) that Mrs. Asher has all along mistaken a photograph of Mrs. Penny's dull cousin on the mantel for one of her husband, and in the very last paragraph one of the houses is empty and there is a cry of 'Treachery.' We're left completely unsure of what has happened, or better yet left to decide for ourselves {since it's up to us, I'm going with bigamy, myself}. It's a brilliant way to end a short story, something you really couldn't do in a novel, could you?


Tea with Mr. Rochester, by Frances Towers
Persephone Books, 2003 {first published in 1949)
Borrowed from the Boston Athenaeum



1 comment:

Vintage Reading said...

I agree with you. In theory I don't like short stories and then I remember Katherine Mansfield! Yes, the short form works very differently and I suspect is harder to write than a novel. I like the extracts you've posted.

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