Persephone Book of Short Stories – serendipitous reading?

A long-held belief just got reaffirmed on reading this collection – of the fact that short-stories are the real gems, the brightest stars in the galaxy of fiction. The elegant dove grey binding, the beautiful endpapers inside were invitation enough to open and enjoy. As the blurb says “Most (of the thirty stories from 1909-1986) focus on the small, quiet or unspoken intricacies of human relationships rather than grand dramas…the use of metaphor is delicate and subtle; often the women are strong and capable and the men less so; shallow and selfish motives are exposed…”

From A to Z, by Susan Glaspell (1909), is set in Chicago. I was surprised by the clear aspirations of the protagonist, a young American graduate who hopes for a career in publishing. The job she finally gets falls short of some of the luxuries she’s dreamt of, and the office next door sells Dr Bunting’s Famous Kidney and Bladder Cure! “Thus had another ideal tumbled into the rubbish heap!” is the starting sentence to this bittersweet tale of how life manages to resolve beautiful dreams into something more realistic and gritty. Her job is to compile words for a dictionary and the help of a handsome, older colleague with a low, seductive voice, is the start of an inner awakening in Edna. He too falls for her youth, beauty and innocence. An intimate world is created and there is a moment of magic – but any dreams she might’ve had of nurturing this love affair are crushed because of Mr Clifford’s health. But Edna has lived and loved.

A classic Katherine Mansfield tale, The Black Cap (1917) is witty and sharp and a precursor to the classic film A Brief Encounter without the soppiness. An unappreciated wife makes sure her husband knows where to look for his pressed linen shirts and despairs when she sees no sign of devotion as she bids goodbye to him, as she rushes out to elope with her lover. Since she’s said it’s a trip to the dentist, the husband fails at this test and the wife leaves, somehow feeling justified. She gets into the train and is fretting when there’s no sign of her dashing lover. He is late and when he does turn up, she doesn’t recognise him – all because of an ugly black cap that he’s chosen to wear. He isn’t the same man anymore and is now most unappealing. Wife is home by afternoon and life as she knew it carries on.

I was touched by the stories of working women struggling to forge a life of their own in the big city – A Lovely Time, Dorothy Whipple, 1933 of an unattractive girl from Barnsley who works in an office in London, looks forward to a night-out with her stylish neighbour at the hostel, only to be snubbed and humiliated. The Photograph, by Phyllis Bentley (1936) is the story of a governess who is all too aware that families wanted much younger and more versatile applicants. She is rejected by many for this reason and is tempted to lie about her age – 29, no, early thirties, maybe. She decides to have a photograph taken as that seemed to be the requirement – and at the last minute decides to be honest about her age – she is 58! The happy ending is worth all the agony you experience with Miss Timperley.

Serendipity is an odd thing – in my more pared down, rational approach to life, I find coincidences interesting, but they don’t evoke wonder as they might’ve done before. But then, even I was caught feeling so uplifted and happy on reading The Rainy Day, the Good Mother and the Brown Suit written by Dorothy Canfield Fisher in 1937 – a story of bored and grumpy children stuck at home on a rainy day and a mother at her wits’ end about where she’d gone wrong and a cousin who drops by to regale them with a silly story about a mouse. It ends in the happiest way possible, with the children falling on the mother and smothering her with kisses – reading it on the eve of Mother’s day felt like a perfect gift. The Subject for a Sermon by Elizabeth Burridge (1944) is about a 20-year-old son returning home on leave from the war and finding a mother too busy with her charity work to spend time with him. And even when they do, there are too many crossed wires and differences of opinion. At that point I felt this book was showing me things about my life – a bit like when people open holy books and find answers!

I was also left disturbed by some – especially the one of a married woman who has entertained one particular gentleman for over nine years, for some extra cash. The tone is one of resentment than loss and I was more upset by the character of the husband and his willingness to accommodate her habit – Nine Years is a Long Time Norah Hoult (1938). Reading The Test by Angelica Gibbs (1940) about a smart young black maid-servant who fails her driving test because of racist teasing by the inspector was upsetting. The one that left me intrigued and a little unsettled was the Spade Man from over the Water by Frances Towers (1947) which describes a friendship between two women, one a widow and the other awaiting her husband to return. They live opposite each other and become firm friends. The implication of something beyond friendship hovers in the air and the abrupt, dramatic finish leaves so many unanswered questions.

There are many more that I would recommend – in case it wasn’t clear – I think this is a fabulous collection!

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