While I was there I borrowed her copy of The Penguin Book of Modern Women’s Short Stories, attracted by the cover which, apparently, is taken from Sir John Lavery’s 1887 painting Girl in a Red Dress Reading by a Swimming Pool. Here is the book:And here is the original painting which, not unnaturally, is far, far better, and benefits from not having a title plonked on top of it:
I love the bright, joyous colour of that dress, and the matching hat – you’d have to be very happy, and very sure about yourself to wear it I think, otherwise the outfit would wear you, and you’d be lost. She’s enjoying the short time she’s snatched for herself, sitting reading while her children are swimming (unless they’re nieces and nephews, or younger brothers and sisters). And although she seems lost in her book, part of her is still listening out for the children, to make sure they’re OK. It’s exactly what I used to do when I took the DDs to the swimming pool, the local theme park, or other unavoidable sporting activities!The picture is, I think, quite apt, since these are tales about women and how they cope with life. According to editor Susan Hill, these are ‘quiet, small-scale, intimate stories’. She adds: “They are about everyday but not trivial matters, about the business of being human and the concerns of the human heart.”
Anyway, since I have this book of 25 short stories I thought I would try and revive Short Story Sunday. First up is The Devastating Boys, by Elizabeth Taylor, where we meet middle-class, middle-aged Laura, whose husband Harold has decided to give two coloured London boys a holiday in the country. Laura, shy and diffident, accedes to his wishes just as she has always done, even though she is petrified at the prospect. Taylor says:
Laura, who was lonely in middle-age, seemed to herself to be frittering away her days, just waiting for her grandchildren to be born: she had agreed with Harold’s suggestion. She would have agreed anyway, whatever it was, as it was her nature - and his – for her to do so.
It tells us all we need to know about the relationship between the couple: where Harold leads, Laura follows. She has no confidence in herself (and would certainly never wear a red dress and hat like the woman in the painting on the front of this book!).
Her children had been her life, and her grandchildren one day would be; but here was an empty space. Life had fallen away from her. She had never been clever like the professors’ wives, or managed to have what they called ‘outside interests’. Committees frightened her, and good works made her feel embarrassed and clumsy.
Laura worries about what she will do with the boys, and how she will cope, but neither she nor her husband have any idea that their lives are about to be turned upside down. When Septimus and Benny arrive there are echoes of wartime evacuees as they step down from the train carrying cardboard cases and wearing labels printed with their names.
The boys sleep in the bedroom once occupied by Laura and Harold’s daughters Imogen and Lalage who were, it seems, ‘biddable’ - unlike Septimus and Benny who are, as a friend says, ‘devastating’. They don’t like the smell of the country, and are wary of new, unknown things. They quarrel, and make a mess, and don’t do as they’re told. But they do like the bathroom and the telephone…
Surprisingly, they are perfectly behaved when they are invited to tea with Helena, the wife of a colleague of Harold, who writes ‘clever clever’ little novels, and is everything that Laura is not. She has even put Harold into one of her books. Fortunately, perhaps (for he admires Helena) he never recognises himself in the unflattering portrait of an opinionated man with a ‘quelling manner’ towards his wife. But everyone else knows, including poor Laura. It is Helena who dubs the boys ‘devastating’, which I think she intends as a compliment.
At the start of the visit the two weeks stretch endlessly ahead of Laura: she counts the days until the boys must leave, and she can return to her normal existence. But gradually she comes to enjoy their company - she reads to them, plays the piano for them, and plays cricket with them. When they do leave, the house may be untidy and covered in sticky marks, but it is quiet without them. “Life, noise, laughter, bitter quarrelling had gone out of it,” Taylor tells us.
Even Harold, who was never involved with the upbringing of his daughters, feels their loss, for he is drawn into a new way of life, telling bedtime stories to the youngsters and even, when they request it, taking them to church. He considers the visit a success, but she wonders if they have done the right thing, or whether it will unsettle the b0ys for what they have to go back to.
Whether or not the experience has been beneficial for Septimus and Benny, it has certainly been good for Laura and Harold. It's not the boys themselves who are important, but their effect on the couple. Gradually the dynamic between husband and wife changes: she gains confidence, feels a sense of purpose and achievement, while he takes more account of her feelings, and listens what she has to say. By the end of the story the couple are talking to each other, sharing their thoughts and activities, and there are hopes of a better, happier future for them both.
Taylor, who is a terrifically understated author, manages to pack an awful lot into a very few pages, and the characters in this short story are as clearly drawn as those in her novels.