Sunday 5 January 2014

Short Story Sunday: Treachery, Freedom, and Beauty!

This gorgeous screen printed furnishing fabric
is reproduced on the back endpaper of The
Persephone Book of Short Stories. It's called
Cote d'Azure,and was designed by Susan Collier
and Sarah Campbell for Fischbacher in 1983.

Oops! I forgot the title! And the intro! Sorry  - I will amend it now. Since this is Sunday, I have posted a Short Story Sunday piece, with brief notes on three of the tales. A kind of round-up, I guess. 

Spade Man from Over the Water, written by Frances Towers, starts gently with a conventional scene. Mrs Asher is taking tea with Mrs Penny (Laura) when a telegram arrives for the latter lady, saying her husband is coming home. Naturally she wants her friend and her husband to be friends. And what could be wrong with that? But a feeling of unease begins to build as Mrs Asher, with her dark eyes and waving hands (isn’t she a little too theatrical, I ask myself) looks at a photograph of a man she says looks ‘everything your husband should be’. On discovering the man is Laura’s cousin, Mrs Asher laughingly says: “I suppose you really married the Spade man from over the water!”
And at that point there is a definite sense that something is wrong, for Laura married Rupert, a dark stranger who keeps her isolated from friends and family, and although she is ‘wildly happy’ with him, she has a ‘queer feeling of disintegration’. And Spades are the cards which foretell doom and disaster... And Mrs Asher, whose husband Charles is also absent, is strangely silent when she sees a photo of the real Mr Penny, which is odd…

And Laura never does get to introduce her friend to her husband. The other woman’s house stands dark as the tomb, and an estate agent’s sign creaks in the wind. Treachery has taken place – but whose?

I loved this tale, with its building of tension, and the sense of unease. It’s almost like a ghost story, a haunting. And, as in so many of these stories (I keep saying this), there’s an ambiguity that keeps you guessing. At one stage I wondered if Mrs Asher is really ghost, but she is real enough I think, and I am sure she knows Laura’s husband. So are Rupert and Charles one and the same man? Did Mrs Asher steal Laura’s husband? Or is it the other way round, and has Laura, however inadvertently, stolen Mrs Asher’s husband?

Minnie’s Room, by the inimitable Mollie Panter-Downes, is one of my favourites from this collection. It is quite, quite superb. Here we have Minnie, who cooks for Mr and Mrs Southern and their grown-up children, Maurice and Norah. To all intents and purposes Minnie, an ‘ugly little Londoner’, is well looked after, well thought of, not badly paid, and quite happy. But she has always said she will leave service if she is not married by the time she is 45 – and that is just what she does. 

The family beg her to stay: they cannot understand why she wants a room of her own when she has a decent, comfortable room in their large house. But a room of her own is exactly what Minnie wants. She was independence, and she has been saving for years to make her dream come true. So she sticks to her guns, and tells Norah about the room she is renting, and how opposite the window is a lime tree which will smell lovely in hot weather. She even invites Norah to visit her and promises to make tea, with tea that will be kept in the antique caddy Miss Southern has presented as a parting gift.

And aging, spinsterish Norah, tied to her parents for ever more, envies the servant who has very little in material terms – but has found the freedom to live as she chooses, in a room of her own.

The English Lesson, by Margaret Bonham, is another of those quiet, understated tales where there is a little action, but which makes you think about the way we see each other, and how perceptions change, depending on your viewpoint.

Miss Maurer teaches English at a girls’ school. She seems rather ineffectual, is not particularly good at keeping discipline, and finds IVa especially trying (actually, trying doesn’t even begin to describe the behaviour of these supercilious little snobs). So, as some kind of antidote to the horrid girls, she decides that just for once she will have tea out, somewhere rich and warm. Which is how she comes to be spotted by Prue (from IVa) and her mother.

And this is where things get interesting. I’d visualised Miss Maurer as pale, dowdy and insignificant, Prue describes her as a ‘hag’, but Prue’s mother insists she is an unusually beautiful woman. At this point, since I hadn’t viewed Miss Maurer as being in any way attractive, I went back to the beginning and started reading again, searching for clues about her looks! I think my behaviour was the bookish equivalent of Prue and her friends, who spend their next English lesson staring fixedly at their teacher, which upsets her even more than their usual bad behaviour!
The design at the front of the book is taken from a roller-printed
cotton twill leave, manufactured at the Arnold Print Works,
Massachusetts, in 1911.


  1. That Cote d'Azur fabric is gorgeous - I sort of see myself lounging on a pile of C.d'A. cushions, perhaps in a conservatory, reading a Persephone (of course). Isn't Mollie Panter-Downes such a great writer - I loved her wartime stories.

    1. The cushions would be on a lovely rounded bamboo/rattan chair, and there would be lots and lots of big, jungly plants all around! MPD's wartime stories are wonderful - I'm amazed they were forgotten until Persephone published them again. I am definitely visiting their shop on my next London trip.