Elizabeth Bowen’s Collected Stories (cont)
I have been working my way through #12 The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen (hard copy). I am very much enjoying them. This surprises me because I had believed I’d lost the ability to enjoy short stories. But I find myself loving these stories and finding it harder to make my way through her novel #11 (hard copy) The Death of the Heart. The book of stories has 81 stories organized (roughly) by decade published. I really like this approach because her style and subject changed over time.
I read and blogged about the stories that Victoria Glendinning identified as her best in earlier posts. This time around, I’m just reading straight through them in order.
This is a wicked little story about Mr Rossiter, a boarder who comes down late to breakfast and gets eaten alive…
“‘Behold, I die daily,’ thought Mr. Rossiter, entering the breakfast-room. He saw the family in silhouette against the windows; the windows looked out into a garden closed darkly in upon the walls. There were so many of the family it seemed as though they must have multiplied during the night; their flesh gleamed pinkly in the cold northern light and they were always moving. Often, like the weary shepherd, he could have prayed them to keep still that he might count them.” (p. 15)
Mr. Rossiter just wants to eat his breakfast in peace after a decent night’s sleep, but no “the family” inserts themselves into even his breakfast, remarking in manifold, needling ways about the fact that he slept in 15 minutes later than the others and so must settle for the cold remains of the meal. The women in the group all, regardless of age, consider themselves his potential suitors. The men are glad that he has taken attention away from them. This is one of Bowen’s many canny little slices of life – I envision her with an onion that is society, cutting off a bit of a layer here and a bit there and describing each little bit in her stories. This one is very delicate, subtle, and funny. Poor Mr. Rossiter!
This is the story of poor Miss Murcheson, a teacher of high school girls. She stops to buy some flowers to take home. We get a picture of a woman with a very narrow life trying to bring little comforts home on a small teacher’s salary. I found something a little confusing – did she buy columbines or daffodils? Or both? Bowen shows in small brushstrokes how limited her life is, but also that she is trying to break free a bit. It is spring, she is grading essays on “daffodils” and she is thinking about her students when she happens to notice three of them outside her window. Although these are three who clearly care for her less than some others, she is compelled to invite them in. They, with the insularity and awkwardness of girls their age, come in, but aren’t sure why and are in between derision and apprehension. They engage in an impossible dialogue, talking past and on top of each other, ceaselessly stepping on each others’ toes… Miss Murcheson, in her panic and insecurity, oscillates between teacher and school girl, trying, to no avail, to engage them. The misery of the encounter is classic Bowen: showing how British people, while maintaining a veneer of decorum, can maim each other’s feelings.
This is the story of Lydia, a servant in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Tottenham who have been away but just returned. It is told from Lydia’s perspective, contrasting her outward demeanor, all submission and proper servile response, with her internal thoughts which are all derisive. Mrs. Tottenham has heard from an old beau and shares this news with Lydia in the weird conglomeration of relationship between servant and master of a certain era: mixing the use of servants for confidantes with behavior that constantly reveals utter cluelessness that the servant could have thoughts and a life of their own.
In this story, Maurice and Veronica have been seeing each other on the side while Veronica has been engaged to Victor. Penelope has been confidante to all three. Most of the focus is on Penelope’s manipulation of the situation so that Maurice and Veronica are together in her home, for the first time, with no subterfuge. Veronica shares the news that Victor has cancelled their engagement. Penelope is on the point of exiting. Now that they can be alone, the shine seems to have gone off their relationship. At nearly the end of the story, Penelope reveals that she is going to Victor and it is understood that Victor has left Veronica, who didn’t really want him, for Penelope, the patient listener. Bowen illustrates the old adage “Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it.”
I’ll end with one of the last ones I’ve read:
“The Evil that Men Do -“
Often in Bowen’s writing, and this was especially pronounced in her later writing, we aren’t 100% sure what is going on. This is the case in this story. It begins with a man being accidentally run over and killed by a bus. We learn no more about him. The next scene is a woman in her home who has gotten a letter from a man she spent “an hour and ten minutes” with on a bus. The letter leads her to believe that they could be starting a relationship.
Meanwhile, her husband comes home from London. She expects a present, but there is none. Much of the story focuses on her growing sense that her relationship with her husband is unsatisfactory and that this other man would surely be much better for her. Her husband, of course, has no idea of any of this. The story ends as he gives her a beautiful purse he picked up for her in London – he has mislaid it and it took awhile to get it back. She is over the moon – suddenly her husband looks much better – now she amends a letter she has been writing to her potential lover to say that she can’t begin the affair. And then we learn (of course) that the man run over at the start was the potential lover and will never get the letter.
To me, this story illustrates a classic Bowen theme: the importance and intricacies of human relationship – our lives rise and fall with our relationships, but we so often blunder around hurting people in subtle and overt ways… and end up missing out on the potential for fulfillment from the people around us. She often contrasts ilicit, bad behavior (and, perhaps, people) with the arbitrary, unexpected gift of kindness from a good person. This gift, as she shows, can completely change a person’s trajectory. What if the husband hadn’t gotten the gift and the lover hadn’t been run over?
Happy reading, Ruby