This book sat on a shelf for such a long time, until a week or so ago, when I realised that it was months since I had read a short story or a Persephone book, and I picked it up.
I had high hopes, because I had stumbled across Elizabeth Berridge’s final novel a few years ago and I had been impressed by it. I suspected that it wasn’t the work of an author at the height of her powers, but I saw things that told me that I had found an author who could write with wonderful insight and clarity, and I found moments that suggested that she was very special indeed.
This collection of stories, published when the author was in her late twenties, lived up to those hopes.
They speak lucidly of human lives and relationships during and just after the war; and of our failure to speak of the things that are really important to us.
The first story – ‘Snowstorm’ – was so striking.
A woman doctor looks on as a group of expectant mothers arrives at a nursing home.
“As she looked the doors of the charabanc opened and the women dropped heavily, one by one, on to the snow-buried gravel. For a moment she was reminded of the blundering honey-bees of summer, over-weighted with pollen. But the moment passed as they clustered together before the house, gazing about, their faces cold, movements distrustful. She counted them.”
It is business as usual; but one of those women is different. Her situation is irregular and she is dignified and undemonstrative; she fails to do the things and to express the feelings expected of her. That disturbs her doctor, and she begins to question her vocation.
The writing was perfectly controlled, and the skill of the author drew me right in and made me think so much of the situation of each woman.
That control, that skill, and an extraordinary clarity made every story fascinating.
It was the clarity that really struck me; I can only compare it to the feeling you have when you have new glasses and you see the world just that little more clearly than you did through the old pair.
The stories sit well together, but they are wonderfully diverse.
‘Lullaby’ is another story of motherhood, and it is so short that it would spoil it to write of any specifics at all; but I must say that shows that the author had a wonderful range, and was able to manage suspense and leave her reader a little shaken.
There are more stories of motherhood, and there are stories that show the differences between the generations.
The most striking of these is ‘Subject for a Sermon’.
A young man who has come home on embarkation leave finds that his mother has no time for him; because she is so caught up in her role as lady of the manor, leading the community in doing everything possible to win the war, that she has failed to understand what the war means for him.
The story illuminates the differing viewpoints of their two generations. She is so very sure of her place in the world, and has no doubt that the war will be won and nothing will change; while he, facing the very real prospect of going to war and fighting, is sure that the future will be very different.
They cannot – will not – find common ground.
There is a touch of social comedy, but there is much more poignancy.
I could say the same for the title story.
Mrs Hatfield, who has returned to her London home to find it ransacked, rehearses how she will tell her story when she returns to the seaside guest house where she and others have lodged in the hope of escaping the impact of the war.
“She had something to tell this time. Here was real news, directly touching her, every person at Belvedere. The war had at last affected them personally; they were no longer grouped outside it, they shared in the general lawlessness. Lack of respect for property. What are we coming to? Police finishing off the whiskey, wouldn’t be surprised if – and so it would grow and, filling more than an evening, filling the days, recreating their lives, and more important, affirming their belief in the past.”
Her story will not play out as she expects.
There are many stories that speak of how we deal with loss.
I was touched by ‘The Prisoner’ the story of a woman who is alone and grieving and who is at first disturbed but later concerned for a group of German POWs working in the area. When one young man is sent to her house on an errand a tentative friendship grows between two lonely souls.
‘The Notebook’ tells a very different story, of a widow who must cope with being alone and with being the guardian of her husband’s legacy. That takes her life in an unexpected direction, and brings her some small comfort. I felt for her when her first instinct was to hide away, and I was pleased to be able to follow her progress.
(Endpapers of the Persephone Books edition)
I could go on writing about specifics, about different aspects of different stories, but it would probably be better to say that you really should read them.
Each one has its own distinctive character. Each one is well written and beautifully judged, with a wonderful awareness of the different aspects of each tale. There are some lovely turns of phrase, there is often a hint of subversion, and there was almost always an unexpected twist or a sting in the tale.
There is also an occasional burst of an entirely justifiable anger.
“What would she do, what would the people like her do, once they realised that their lives were indeed their own? Had she, had they, the courage to take them up and see?”
That such a young author showed such understanding of the people and the world around her, and distilled that into such exquisite and distinctive stories, is quite extraordinary.
There is just one more story that I really must mention.
‘Woman About The House’ tells the story of a man who is a disappointment to his wife and her family, having failed to proved for her as they would have liked and having failed to even find a steady job. He was a disappointment to himself too, but he stirred himself to set out to try to secure a job he had heard about. He got the job, he found lodgings nearby, and he began to build a better life for himself. When he went home his wife was gone, but he didn’t lose heart, he continued to plan for the future.
It’s an odd little story, but it speaks profoundly. It speaks about how poverty can be a trap, about how employment brings self-esteem, and about how just one chance can create the momentum to transform a life.
That story still resonated.
It really should be required reading for people in power.