Sunday 23 June 2013

Short Story Sunday: The Music Box

The Music Box, by Malachi Whitaker, reminded me of DH Lawrence – the setting, that is, not the style.
Short story writer Malachi Whitaker.
Here we have a sensitive woman and her timid young son living in a grim, bleak, northern mill town, married to a joyless man who works in the quarry and is hard and uncompromising as the stone he trims.

Theakstone Morphett, known to his wife and little Henry as ‘t’father’, knows life is a serious business, and the one bright spot in the lives of his wife and child is their weekly visit to the tiny stone chapel where they sit on ‘plain. Wooden forms’ covered in lengths of red baize. To be honest, it doesn’t sound all that beautiful, and it’s certainly not grand. In fact, it strikes me as being rather cheerless. But:

Everything at the chapel was delightful. There as a hanging chandelier filled with gas burners which had to be lighted, one by one, with a taper at the end of the pole, if ever the day grew too dark for the preacher to see. There was a pulpit with two lots of stairs running down from it, so that you could walk in at one side, and out of the other, if you were the preacher, and you wanted to. But the best thing of all was the music.

The music is provided by a harmonium – the only thing the congregation can afford. The boy and has mother love it, and love singing the hymns, however wet the day. On one never to be forgotten occasion there’s a tea at the chapel, and the boy discovers the unlocked instrument stored in a small side room, so he and his mother try it out.

Afterwards, because he yearns to have some music in the house, she starts saving to buy an instrument, even though she knows ‘t’father’ won’t approve. Eventually they set out to buy a harmonium, but the only thing they can afford is a yellow music box, decorated with red flowers. When I was a child I had a music box, with a little pink ballerina, which turned and turned as Brahms’ Lullaby tinkled out, and each time it played I was captivated by its magic. So I can understand how enchanted the boy and his mother are with their purchase, which is bigger than mine was and plays a variety of tunes.

I kept hoping and hoping that this tale would have a happy ending. After all, the music box is such a simple pleasure, and it offers hope for a brighter future. But I knew it wasn’t to be, for the man ‘could not see why his wife and son should want music when he did not’.

 This was such a sad little tale, and I thought the close relationship between mother and son was sensitively drawn, but the portrayal of lives lived without hope or aspiration was quite shocking in a way. ‘T’father’ remains a bit a cipher, but he doesn’t seem to have any enjoyment in life, or any desire for anything better, and he doesn’t want opportunities opened up for his wife and son. He has been defeated by life, so his wife and son are to be defeated as well, and must be denied the chance of a brief escape into happiness through the music.

As with so many short stories, there is no resolution at the end. Life must go on, however drudging and dreary – but I so hope poor little Henry got away and made a better life for himself.

Malachi Whitaker’s real name was Marjorie Taylor (apparently Whitaker was her married name, while Malachi came from the Bible). She’s new to me, but I gather she published almost 100 short stories, and was very popular during the 1920s and ‘30s, when she was known as the ‘Bradford Chechov’, and was admired by Vita Sackville-West and HE Bates. This story, the fifth in The Persephone Book of Short Stories, first appeared in 1929


  1. This sounds so sad I don't know if I could bear it. I have The Persephone Book of Short Stories and have only read a few. I find short stories difficult, sometimes leaving me with the feeling there should be more. I'll get back to the book one day.

    And I too loved the music box with a little pink ballerina twirling round and round - it wasn't mine, belonged to my aunty. I remembered it and gave a similar music box recently to my great niece, who loves it.

    1. Catching up on replying to comments! Until recently I found short stories difficult,but I am enjoying my new discovery, and I have a whole heap of them waiting to be read!