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The six who were shortlisted for the Persephone Prize: at Pushkin House on March 11th. From left to right Emma West, Aimee Gasston, Eve Lacey, Sue Kennedy, Charlotte Ford and Lucy Razzall


Winner: Eve Lacey, 'Katherine Mansfield, in the Archive and the Hereafter'


I am training to become a librarian and it was through a collection of Persephone books that I came to Katherine Mansfield's swansong works; those stories written in the months before her death. I was intrigued by the Publisher's Note in The Montana Stories, and particularly the editorial admission that:

For several reasons publishing her work as “The Montana Stories” is unlikely to have been how Katherine Mansfield herself would have wanted to be read. Few short story writers arrange their work chronologically, preferring to intersperse moods and themes. [...] Nor would Katherine have wanted fragments included – yet these unfinished pagescan give just as much insight into her mind as a fully completed and polished story...[1]

It struck me as brazen to go so explicitly against the author's wishes. Posthumous publications tend towards eulogy in their introductions and often bury all trace of editorial interference in effort to preserve the author's reputation. The ordering of the text within a collection is usually presented as the gathered but untouched remains of the writer's work, a mausoleum of their final words. The Montana Stories marks a bold addition to Mansfield's afterlife – it remains in dialogue with her wishes, but not obedient to their demands. It favours the archive over the art and takes its order from all that is extant, rather than what the writer herself deemed worthy.

I liked the editorial intervention. Having spent years studying the beauty in things, I was now being trained to see how that beauty was stored, learning the housekeeping behind the party and the technical legwork behind cultural heritage. Chronological order aims to leave nothing out, but this particular hubris of the archive meets its downfall at the end of a well-stocked shelf: space is limited, even if time is not.

For institutions that aim to conserve and chronicle, libraries often display an astonishing lack of foresight. The classification system at Newnham, for example, has one number – 673 – assigned to English novels of the 20th century. There are eight decimal points chosen for the most prominent authors at the time, or the personal favourites of the librarians who created the system. All other writers from 1900 onwards are squeezed under 673.9, including all 21st century novels. This curious miscalculation is a telling error, and reveals the unpreparedness of the archive. In a system so fundamentally concerned with retrospection, futurity remains an afterthought.

As a librarian-in-training, I decided to prize the archive above the author in my reading. The books I was cataloguing were not yet ready to borrow, so I gathered a series of older editions: The Collected Stories, The Garden Party & other stories and The Doves' Nest & other stories. I jumped to and fro, within and across these books, sticking strictly to the order stated in The Montana Stories, and broke my reading up further by returning to the Persephone Publisher's Commentary after each story. This commentary records Mansfield's letter to Lady Ottoline Morrell:

[My cousin Elizabeth von Arnim and I] have occasional lovely talks which are rather like what talks in the after-life will be like, I imagine... ruminative, and reminiscent – although dear knows what it is really all about. How strange talking is – what mists rise and fall – how one loses the other and then thinks to have found the other – then down comes another soft final curtain...[2]

Mansfield's ruminations here do away with time constraints, but there is a clear tension between the notion of an endless afterlife and the traditional framework of storytelling. Within the limited span of a book, problems must be raised, wrought and resolved, whereas with all the time in the world, a plot will lose its urgency. Continuing discussion past the point of death leaves narrative in crisis: talks in the afterlife teeter on the brink of fiction's own vanishing point.

Katherine Mansfield's inclination is to play around with time, yet time has since played a trick on her. As I read on, it becomes increasingly apparent that her stories are conversations in the afterlife, both in their conception and more so, in their posthumous publication. Mansfield expertly incorporated a sense of the hereafter into her writing, but she could not anticipate the extent to which the forced inclusion of her unfinished work would enhance that 'ruminative, and reminiscent' style after her death.

Once again, order proves crucial. Most of Mansfield's stories begin in the wake of a passing; her characters' lives only get going after a death. Persephone honoured this tradition in the timing of their collection – the death of the author came first. The location of her sickbed became the eponymous focus of The Montana Stories, and the sequence of its contents charts the countdown of her life.

There is a causality in Mansfield's priorities – death does not so much precede life as give rise to it. She reverses the normal chronology of a lifetime and, in a phoenix-like literary trick, positions death as the dust from which her stories will rise. Figuratively too, she uses the spectre of death to cultivate the epiphany trope of short stories. For example, in 'Taking the Veil', it takes an imagined afterlife in which Edna sees her fiancé in mourning at her own funeral for her to realise that she does love him after all. The story entails a coming-to-her-senses by way of a fantasy demise; death throws life into stark relief and a play at the brink is what drags the dreamer home.

The brink, as ever, is the sea. Mansfield's stories read as a litany of waves and shores, seas as beach holiday and seas as death. She has a littoral preoccupation with mortality – most evident in 'At the Bay' – and the sea becomes shorthand for an undulating, limbo-like style. The flickering of dark and light has a similar effect. In the unfinished manuscript of 'A Married Man's Story', images flare with religious luminescence, then fade:

'She sits, bent forward, clasping the little bare foot, staring into the glow, and as the fire quickens, falls, flares again, her shadow – an immense Mother and Child – is here and gone again upon the wall...'[3]

Conversations in the afterlife require the incorporation of absence into the story and Mansfield crafts a prose shot through with loss until, as the Married Man muses: 'The darks stretches, theblanks, are much bigger than the bright glimpses.'[4]

The archive encounters a similar predicament. The attempt to include everything requires the incorporation of unfinished work – the blanks. Rather than stopping at the blanks, both the story and the library must continue, heedless of the gaps, until each dark stretch speaks volumes. In 'Six Years After', this compulsion to carry on beyond absence manifests as social etiquette in conversations with the bereft: 'As a rule men were not fond of chat as Mother understood it. They did not seem to understand that it does not matter very much what one says: the important thing is not to let the conversation drop.'[5] Mother's sentiment here may be read as the fundamental intention of the archive – if it must acknowledge its failure, it will, but that will not stop its accumulation.

'The Garden Party' takes place against the backdrop of a neighbour's death. Laura, the daughter of the host, leaves the party to take some food to the newly-widowed woman who lives down the road. Death proves difficult to stomach, and her sandwiches are left untouched at the end of the story. Through Laura and her chronically bad taste, Mansfield teaches the reader a lesson:

She feels things ought to happen differently. First one and then another. But life isn't like that. We haven't the ordering of it. […] And they do all happen, it is inevitable. And it seems to me there is beauty in that inevitability.[6]

It is the chaos of life and death that Mansfield wishes to stress, the synchronicity of the two states, and the fact that, like archive, we haven't the ordering of it. These are states which refuse separation, or cataloguing, or even effective description. And yet, they go on. Without sufficient words to describe or stories to order, life and death persist, and the archive continues to grow. All this production will not cease, Mansfield suggests, but we would do well to heed its intermingling. And so her stories conclude with the uneasy sense that the party, and the conversation, will not be dropped, but that all our fêteing is held in the shadow of death.

Publishers were disavowing Mansfield's wishes long before the Persephone publication. Her widower, John Murry, began the tradition just one year after her death, confessing that, 'I have no doubt that Katherine Mansfield, were she still alive, would not have suffered some of these stories to appear.'[7] The title of that collection – Something Childish and other stories – resonates with Mansfield's unsettling depictions of family life; there is indeed something child-ish about the stories she left behind, in the sense that they are legacy-like. The written word becomes an heir-of-sorts, which can subsume the will of the deceased. Jurisdiction over a body of work expires on the author's deathbed when they are forced to relinquish absolute control. This is a surrender to chronology, which must always win at the long-game, and such a surrender allows the will of the archive to take over.

This difficult relationship with, and dubious control over, creative offspring is evident throughout Mansfield's work, and might explain why children – 'unaccountable little creatures' – so often appear as uncanny.[8] In 'An Ideal Family', Mr Neave 'stared at his youngest daughter; he felt he hadnever seen her before.'[9] Of his older daughter, he observes: Strange! When she was a little girl she had such a soft, hesitating voice; she had even stuttered, and now, whatever she said – even if it was only “Jam, please, father” – it rang out as though she were on the stage.[10] In Mansfield's prose, the process of growing up is a process of becoming strange and, in this case, the distancing is paralleled with a kind of publication. The daughter seems further from her father because she has moved from the home to the stage. In projection, her voice acquires an uncanny tone and rings with the shrill discomfort of children who masquerade as grown individuals with impetuous lives of their own.

Again, Mansfield taps into the disquiet of a child outside the home in 'A Married Man's Story':

A queer thing is I can't connect him with my wife and myself; I've never accepted him as ours. Each time when I come into the hall and see the perambulator, I catch myself thinking: “H'm, someone has brought a baby!” Or, when his crying wakes me at night, I feel inclined to blame my wife for having brought the baby in from outside.[11]

The narrator struggles to determine whether his son belongs within or without the house, and his distress emphasises the unhomeliness of the child. With an unfamiliar heir, the boundaries of inside and out, self and other, are blurred. It is this troubled lineage of the separate-self that situates Mansfield's story firmly in that unsettling place she prefers, at the point of surgery, somewhere between domesticity and the wild limbo of the afterlife.

'The Fly' contains Mansfield's most explicit projection of an afterlife onto a text, and her most stark conflation of literary and biological progeny. Until his son's grave is mentioned in passing, the narrator had 'never thought of the boy except as lying unchanged, unblemished in his uniform, asleep forever.'[12] From this fantasy of imagined stasis, the bereaved father turns his attention to a fly that has fallen into his ink pot: 'For a fraction of a second it lay still on the dark patch that oozed around it. Then the front legs waved, took hold, and, pulling its small, sodden body up it began the immense task of cleaning the ink from its wings. […] The horrible danger was over; it had escaped; it was ready for life again.[13] He repeats the process over and over, continually resurrecting and eventually killing the insect. For the span of his cruel experiment, the narrator discovers the magic of ink. It allows a creature to be killed off and brought back, only to survive another drowning. The weapon becomes the salve and the writing instrument, the gift of life. But the narrator who could see his son in a fly could not recognise him in a photograph. It is perhaps the stasis of a published self that makes one's legacy uncanny – the further an idea gets from its conception, the more static it becomes.

Librarians study this evolution from the cerebral to the physical. The theory behind cataloguing returns to the fundamentals of intellectual property, and relates to what Mansfield called 'the strange barrier to be crossed from thinking it to writing it'.[14] Broadly speaking, it makes a distinction between the Work – an artistic endeavour; the Expression – the form in which this endeavour is realised; the Manifestation – the physical exemplar of that expression; and the Item – the single entity on the shelves. However uncanny this travel from concept to product may be, it is a necessary distancing if the author wishes to see her work embodied. Mansfield recognised this distinction and transition: 'This is a proof (never too often proved) that once one has thought out a story nothing remains but the labour.'[15] For the living, work is effort and toil, for the dead it settles into an oeuvre. The archive is clinical, it flattens, and works can grow macabre when reduced to just their itemised remains.

Death is incorporated into publishing as a nuisance: 'widows' and 'orphans' are a burden to typesetters and editors alike. Incomplete stories and multiple drafted endings undermine the authority of a tale. In The Montana Stories, the unfinished works often unfinish at the point of death. 'A Married Man's Story' ends when the speaker did beyond words consciously turn towards [his] silent brothers...[16] 'Six Years After' concludes with the description of another falling curtain and, in 'Widowed', the final sentence describes a head injury: 'For there was nothing to be seen of Jimmie; the sheet was pulled right over...'[17] Each of these stories stops abruptly, with a truncated sentence and ellipses. Repeatedly, Mansfield interrupts her own party with the kind of unfinishing that runs syntax-deep and falls short of a certain end.

There's an admission of powerlessness in such an ending, as though the story ran away from the author right in the middle of things. Mansfield wrote in her diary on 17th January 1922:

Chekhov made a mistake in thinking that if he had had more time he would have written more fully […]. It's always a kind of race to get in as much as one can before it disappears.[18]

A sense of belatedness pervades Mansfield's work and the urgency is palpable because these texts lost their endings to her illness. The Persephone edition records how she abandoned her preferred stories in favour of the more commercial texts, whose magazine publication would pay her medical bills.[19] So, even before she died, her editorial decisions were subject to morbid compromise. But the unfinished text lingers longer than those stories with a definite end. Syntactically they are forever marked by the author's death, yet they need never yield to that final act of punctation: they never have to die.

In Katherine Mansfield's work, death disturbs the normal passage of time. In The Montana Stories, chronology is meticulously restored. This strict adherence to the precise sequence of her final writings lends the collection an asynchrony all of its own. Each story is subject to temporal disruption because each was punctuated by illness and composed beneath the looming spectre of death. However, custodians of the archive will observe that the only curator left is time, the only order, chronology, and that the important thing is not to let the conversation drop.

Today is the 14th October, Katherine's 126th birthday, and three days after my own 25th. I finish this essay 93 years, to the day, after she finished 'The Garden Party'. There again, time performs its trickery, organising coincidence, and prompting identification with the past. As readers, we arecompelled to meaning-making – that is the pleasure of the text – and chronology, it turns out, can be an aesthete after all. I am halfway through cataloguing the Persephone collection at Newnham. The archive remains, though we haven't the ordering of it, and all that survives must be stored. The work will go on without end.


1 The Montana Stories, (London: Persephone Books, 2001), vii-viii; hereafter abbreviated MS.
2 MS, p. 309.16 'A Married Man's Story', DN, p. 83.
3 'A Married Man's Story', The Doves' Nest and other stories, (London: Constable and Co. Ltd., 1923), p. 61; hereafter
abbreviated DN.
4 'A Married Man's Story', DN, p. 76.
5 'Six Years After', DN, p. 107-8.
6 Letter to William Gerhardi, 13 March 1922, as quoted in MS, p. 318.
7 Something Childish and other stories (London: Constable and Co. Ltd., 1924), ix.
8 'Sixpence', The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield (London: Constable and Co. Ltd., 1945), p. 687.
9 'An Ideal Family', The Garden Party and other stories (London: Constable and Co. Ltd., 1922), p. 262; hereafter
abbreviated GP.
10 'An Ideal Family', GP, p. 263.
11 'A Married Man's Story', DN, p. 64.
12 'The Fly', DN, p. 50.
13 'The Fly', DN, p. 52.
14 MS, p. 323.
15 MS, p. 323.
17 'Widowed', DN, p.197.
18 As quoted in MS, p. 326.
19 MS, viii.

 

Runner up: Sue Kennedy, 'Nora Ranskill, Accidental Radical?'

 

The more I read and reread Miss Ranskill Comes Home the more remarkable, and radical, it seems. Although published in 1946 there is a great deal more to the novel than a straightforward, if bizarre, narrative of the Home Front. It shows its radical edge in two distinct strands.  Firstly there is a muted love story, and secondly an outsider’s account of life in England four years into war. In each of these strands the text subverts fixed notions of gender, class, patriotism and authoritarianism. It pays little respect to patent manifestations of the absurd in the execution of the monumental mechanisms of war; rather more to a concern for rehabilitation and regeneration.  Yet far from being a polemic this is an elegantly expressed narrative, freighted with humour, anger, and pathos. Curiously it is the author’s only novel for adults written, significantly, at a crisis point in the history of civilization.

Grounded in biblical allusions and Christian morality the extent of Miss Ranskill’s radicalism comes as something of a surprise. Might she not be better engaged as a missionary? Yet her no-nonsense character and overwhelming instinct for survival lay the foundation for a ‘dream team’ combination with Reid, the Carpenter, who hauls her ashore after her fall overboard from a cruise liner just a month before the start of World War Two. (The fact that she embarks at this point in history surely suggests something about her economic and social class position and, perhaps more, about her spirit). Reid’s death ends the desert island story and propels it onto ‘this other island’; a now alien England (192). The narrative takes off from such a preposterous premise to reveal a touching liaison between the two, forged in a cross class relationship worthy of a DH Lawrence situation, but without the sex. [1]

Barbara Euphan Todd’s innovative style very effectively takes the reader back to the desert island and to Reid’s words by way of italicised passages in Miss Ranskill’s memory. Although not a first person narration the thoughts, feelings and perceptions of the eponymous protagonist are made crystal clear. The mode of life that prefigures Miss Ranskill’s changed consciousness is skillfully drawn as she and Reid prepare diligently for repatriation.

An unwavering belief in ultimate rescue is sustained by Reid and reinforced by the active collaboration of Miss Ranskill. From the outset, however, Reid upholds the social conventions of the English class system and never stops calling her ‘Miss Ranskill’; probably does not even know her first name. She in turn refers to him as Reid.

The ‘Miss’ and her surname had made her armour against an assault that had never been hinted at. She had called the Carpenter, Reid. His surname seemed to set the right distance between them. At home, on that other island, she had always addressed the village carpenter by his surname, so the distinction had come easily enough (2).

Despite the careful maintenance of social distance over four years Miss Ranskill’s day-to-day living with a working-class man, a fount of resourcefulness and skill, initiates profound changes in the middle-aged spinster’s outlook. His instruction in the practicalities of making fire, the correct manner of digging, of catching and cooking fish, of providing shelter in their scrupulously separate and ‘homely like’ accommodation, combines with an imaginative strength demonstrated in his ingenious way of keeping memories of home alive; ‘going to the pictures’ (12).

Here she learns of his life history; ‘he had gone to sea in the last war and had liked the life’ but returned to learn his trade (13). He tells of his home in the Berkshire village and of his marriage to Annie; ‘you should have seen Annie then – pretty girl she was’ (13); (a veiled hint at what she might be now?). He speaks most often, though of his cherished son, Colin; ‘just over seven’ (13) when Reid had seen him last. Miss Ranskill soaks up the atmosphere of this unfamiliar intimacy, receiving it with respect, and more than a little envy. Her own comfortable bedtime scenes lack the same intensity of interest.

The hospitality promised by Reid on their assured return generates unease in Miss Ranskill. She is well aware of what her sister Edith’s class prejudiced reaction will be when she invites Reid to visit her home. The supposed conversation with her sister constitutes Miss Ranskill’s first attack on the snobbishness of English mid-century life that is just one of a series of biting critiques delivered by the ‘accidental’ radical. Barbara Euphan Todd places Miss Ranskill firmly in the vanguard of a changing class-consciousness accelerated by the conditions of conflict. The contrast between the two sisters flags up the ‘appalling pocks in our civilisation’ exposed during the years of war (191).

But, Nona, it’s impossible. The man is neither fish, fowl nor good red herring now that you have made a friend of him, as it were. Yes, I know the circumstances are peculiar, but that makes it all the more difficult: people won’t understand. … but you always have managed to do uncomfortable things. … you can’t possibly have anything in common with him. You mustn’t be too democratic (16).

Her vehement, imagined retaliation reveals a transformation in her viewpoint brought about by Miss Ranskill’s growing affinity to Reid. Could it be that for her ‘the personal’ is becoming ‘the political’? She goes on to articulate their relationship with reference to political systems, though claiming adherence to none exclusively.

As for democracy – it was more a mixture of monarchy and communism. He was the monarch – he made the rules and I had to keep them to save my own life. I didn’t know the rules of tree-cutting and fishing and boat-building. I suppose we were communistic in a way – neither of us took the bigger share of fish or anything like that (17).

She articulates a system that ensures the best deployment of resources at the same time as it challenges gender roles and class divisions; a system radically different from the one left behind in England. More than this simple practicality, though, she acknowledges the merits of shared effort and reward, of mutuality. It happens that the ‘masculine’ skills that the craftsman Reid possesses are enhanced by Miss Ranskill’s ‘feminine’ aptitude for stitching and making use of scant resources; typical, maybe, but not stereotypical. But Reid also displays a softer, more ‘feminised’ version of masculinity, more akin to the ‘New Man’, valuing domesticity and parenthood. In turn he appreciates Miss Ranskill’s growing strength and capability.

Interestingly, other male characters in the novel are portrayed more sympathetically than the women whose behaviour appears deplorable. The sailors on her rescuing ship show more kindness than the shop girls and ‘knock-kneed chits’ in the department store, and certainly more imagination than her sister Edith, or Philippa Phillips, or Marjorie, the school friend, or saddest of all, the slatternly Mrs Reid. Miss Ranskill may not be a radical feminist, in the sense that we have come to understand the term today; a battler against male oppression, or ‘man hater’. Rather she is a woman who enacts the aspiration for women and men to have equal rights and opportunities, without limitation on the basis of their gender. Neither does she shy away from ‘telling it like it is’. Her most stinging rebukes are actually aimed at the stupidities perpetrated by women in the name of the war effort; a position that could be viewed in the twenty-first century as ‘propping up the patriarchy’. Miss Ranskill’s challenge to their interpretation of the male generated rules of the war effort is, in effect, telling women to think for themselves; to ‘get out from under’; a truly progressive sentiment.

What is, I think, truly radical is that as the scales fall from her eyes Miss Ranskill confronts the reality of genuine equal human value between man and woman, working-class and upper class. The work they undertake together is based not just on survival, but also on fellowship. It is creative as well as essential.  In terms of gender roles it exceeds the vision of utopia expressed by thinkers such as William Morris in News From Nowhere (1890) that retains the domestic position of women. What is more their desert island microcosm is not one of guilt-free sex. Miss Ranskill’s growing awareness of Reid’s personal qualities and her consequent esteem for him is not consummated in a sexual, or even in an openly loving manner. The revelation of the depth of her feelings for Reid occurs only after his death when she buries him ‘reverently because she revered him, practically because of what she had once heard, lovingly because she had loved him’. Yet she ‘had cherished the flower of her virginity’ and proudly retains her integrity, and that of Reid, too, making ‘between them a greater story than the ones usually begotten on desert islands in books’ (2-3). She freely chooses celibacy and comradeship.

Euphan Todd’s ‘soft science fiction’ conceit of the traveller’s return to a now alien homeland empowers Miss Ranskill’s transformed attitudes. The ‘eyes wide open’ vision of an expatriate returning to England, four years into war is revelatory. Viewing the ‘condition of England’ through the gaze of a virtual outsider lays bare many of the absurdities of life on the Home Front. The disturbing reunion with the old school friend finds Marjorie behaving much as she did as Head Girl in her new role as ARP organiser; bossy and unremitting, and loving every minute. Miss Ranskill’s near miraculous return is given little consideration, and her seemingly strange appearance and behaviour only give rise to suspicions of espionage, or even worse, deserting from ‘any of the Women’s Services’ (133).  Poor Miss Ranskill is viewed with the tunnel vision created by propaganda, rules and regulations. She herself observes uneasily

…a little petty people, strangled by red tape, nagging along, intent on their own tiny quarrels, fretting over the fat ration, playing at war and pretending to be important in their ARP uniforms and gardening dungarees (234).

The novel might simply be construed as ‘anti-Home Front’ narrative. Yet, written at the end of the war it is more centrally concerned with recovery and regeneration. In Marjorie’s house, Miss Ranskill has her first shocking experience of the actuality of bombing raids, hearing first the siren, then seeing a young boy transformed into a ‘pig-faced goblin’ by the wearing of a gas mask. On top of her own terror at the noise and debris of destruction, she encounters the fear of the boy, the birth of a litter of kittens, and, in this rarified atmosphere, meets Marjorie’s son, a fighter pilot. They are both outsiders looking in on an unfamiliar world; a world to which he finds it equally disorienting to return on his ‘leaves’.  Later Miss Ranskill reflects on the fate of such young men as she sits in the train and meditates on the damaging effect of war on unformed youth.

The young airman in the far corner of the carriage was asleep. There were dark shadows under his eyes and his mouth was restless. It must be odd for him to be travelling like this. He and his kind were evolving slowly into a race apart. Engendered just before the last war, they were already incomprehensible and remote. They had seen what none but their generation could see – cities burning below them and the bowl of stars above (193).

Miss Ranskill’s engagement with the Home Front is rendered with the humour that attaches to the absurd. Barbara Euphan Todd’s acute powers of observation (already fully exercised in her Worzel Gummidge stories) are now deployed in representing the struggle of the upper classes to be conspicuous in their contribution to the war effort. In so doing they blithely enforce the rules in their habitual disciplinarian, unquestioning manner. For instance, Marjorie ‘shops’ Miss Ranskill for trying to steal her identity card; Philippa remonstrates with her for using too much bath water, and Edith castigates her for many transgressions, not least amongst them wishing to bring Colin to stay:

“If you knew these children as I do”, Edith put down the half-finished seaman’s sock, “you would know that the idea is absolutely impossible. The village is only just clear of evacuees. I know, if you don’t that it is perfectly senseless to try to take these children out of their proper places’

A Line from Blake frisked through Miss Ranskill’s mind – “White as an angel is the English child”. But only the child of the upper middle classes, not the little gutter boy… (259-60).

The gulf that separates Nona Ranskill from Edith is summed up here; highlighted by the emblematic ‘half-finished seaman’s sock’. She need never meet the foot that wears that sock. Nona, on the other hand has more ‘hands on’ nurturing sensibilities, especially towards the young, who must be offered support in recovering from the trauma of loss and the dismantling of old certainties

Philippa Phillips, the host and exploiter of Edith, and widow of Captain Phillips, is keen to co-opt Nona’s island adventure, even to suggest a holiday trip there after the war! She envisions it as ‘one of our islands’, a possession of ‘My Country’ (233) and presses Nona to give a talk about it to the women of the village. Indeed, Philippa Phillips is the perfect vehicle for lambasting all the prejudices of upper middle class England incorporating an incisive challenge to British colonialism.

Mrs Phillips’ outlook was Red, White and Blue. She stood stout and stalwart for thin red lines, for British possessions coloured red, for white feathers (to be given to all men not in uniform) and for true blue of every shade. She believed in the flogging of boys and coloured persons, the shooting of shirkers, the quashing of Jews, the feudal system, cold baths for invalids…

Edith Ranskill was terrified of her and Nona Ranskill was not … (223).

Miss Ranskill’s steely fearlessness has been tempered in the furnace of the island, with Reid as flux. She can now see the wood from the trees; she knows what matters. And what is most important to her is to preserve the memory of Reid through his son, Colin. ‘From the moment she had been left alone on the island, she had known herself inheritor, not only of the boat and the jack-knife and the Carpenter’s ragged clothing, but of his purpose also…. the restoring of a father to a son’ (261). This visionary concern is a metaphor for the task of ensuring a future for the inheritors of the mess of war. Miss Ranskill’s remit extends also to the babies and sweethearts of fighter pilots, who, like Reid, might not live to fulfil their paternal role. She has no hesitation in taking on that surrogacy. Ultimately the privileges of her social class background permit her to reclaim the family home after requisitioning when, instead of retreating to relative personal security she strikes out in yet another startling way to provide a homestead for all of these vulnerable individuals. This in itself is a radical manifestation of doing things differently for pragmatic as well as emotional and ideological motives. Paradoxically her determination to restore ‘a father to a son’ is not literally fulfilled. Her solution, though, previsions a principle of twenty-first century social policy that holds that the gender of a parent is not the overriding measure of effectiveness. Single parents, same-sex parents and communal parenting are equally viable models in fulfilling the role. Ahead of its time, hers is a twentieth-century utopia; a communal mode of life, similar to the counter-cultural communes of the nineteen-sixties, where the mutual esteem and collaboration learned on the island can flourish afresh.

Miss Ranskill’s radicalisation is, of course, more than accidental. The pre-conditions for being receptive to change are present in her character, awaiting ignition. The extraordinary circumstances she experiences open up many sites for Miss Ranskill’s radical vision. She readily rejects those roles dictated by gender alone and follows a model based firmly on practical outcomes and shared humanity. Her pride in sexual integrity seems not to flow from repression or prudishness but from a consciously weighed choice. Her easy dismissal of feminine pride in appearance demonstrates a considered distancing from stereotypes. The fierce decrying of the class-ridden, war depleted society in England is firmly based in a form of humanitarian socialism. Most powerfully of all the dominant theme of regeneration of the young after the cataclysm of war is expressed through the metaphor of a safe haven as a legacy for the young. Across all these areas Miss Ranskill offers a glimmer of hope for the future.

Most interestingly, Barbara Euphan Todd positions her, ultimately, as a version of a ‘fifth columnist’, unleashing an outsider’s critique informed by the inside knowledge of a member of the upper classes. So, by demonstrating such progressive instincts, she is more than an ‘accidental radical’, or an incipient feminist. In fact, I would dare to position Nona Ranskill as a ‘postfeminist’ prototype, and, for me, something of a heroine. ‘What would the Carpenter make of that?’ (192).

1 Cf. Sons and Lovers (1913); The Rainbow (1915); Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928); or, famously,  the 1951 movie adaptation of CS Forester’s 1935 novel The African Queen, in which the protagonists, Charlie Allnutt and ‘Miss Sayer’ move slowly but steadily towards a sexual liaison and indeed, marriage.

 

 Shortlisted: Charlotte Ford, 'The Provincial Lady's Husband'


It is perhaps unwise, as well as rather rude, to enter an essay for the Persephone Prize which disagrees fundamentally with Nicola Beauman; but in the hope that the fullest and frankest of debates is welcomed on matters as important as the Diary of a Provincial Lady, this essay will seek to argue that a) the Provincial Lady’s husband is actually rather lovable; b) his character supports and complements the Provincial Lady’s to their mutual benefit ;  and c) the Provincial Lady fully appreciates both a) and b).  It will then Go Further, and argue that Robert is in fact The Perfect Husband.

Nicola Beauman writes in her 1984 Introduction to the Virago omnibus edition that the Provincial Lady’s husband is “grotesque” and the Provincial Lady’s marriage “depressingly unharmonious”; she considers that Robert is “the only character who deteriorates into caricature” and that he is “someone unbelievable, so aloof and uninterested that no one could imagine for a moment that he had any resemblance to reality”.[1] Her opinion does not appear to have softened over the thirty years since that Introduction; when Persephone Books reissued the Diary in April 2014,  she writes that the Provincial Lady is unable to “abandon her rather irritating husband because [of] the cruel constraints of the divorce laws." [2]

The charges against Robert are easily assembled: he is frustratingly reluctant to engage in conversation, let alone debate, with the Provincial Lady or anyone else (“Robert says nothing” becomes almost a catchphrase in the Diary); he is unimaginative and unadventurous in everything from women’s appearance to politics; he is unsympathetic to others’ illnesses or foibles, needlessly unbending in matters of household management, and unreasonably stern with his children.  And, frankly, compared with the witty, literary, sociable heroine, he is really rather dull.

These traits are undeniable; they are also instantly recognisable to many married women.  By recording them in her brief, elegant, witty style, E.M. Delafield makes the reader laugh - whether in sympathetic recognition  (much as when we listen to a modern stand-up comedian), or because of the comic juxtapositions (talkative wife and laconic husband,  exuberant children and stern father), or, often, just because of the rhythms of her language.  “Ask Robert while dressing for dinner what he thinks of Cissie. He says he has not known her long enough to judge. Ask if he thinks her good-looking. He says he has not thought about it. Ask what they talked about on the way from the station. He says he does not remember.” [3]

E.M. Delafield’s comic purpose in the Diary is clearly served better by recounting Robert’s faults rather than his virtues. But the Diary has warmth as well as wit, and celebrates the joys of marriage and home life as well as their manifold irritations.   Although the Provincial Lady does not dwell on Robert’s Good Points (sentimentality is emphatically not her style), she does in fact give plentiful evidence of them in the Diary. This essay will attempt, rather laboriously, to enumerate them.

Robert spends a large part of the Diary doing things to benefit others. Like his wife with her Good Works, he is active in village life; he attends Vestry Meetings [4] and the Local Flower Show [5] and takes a full part in the arrangements for the Garden Fête held at their house in aid of funds for the Village Hall [6] (accepting it without great enthusiasm but as part of his duty). He may grumble about the Provincial Lady’s visitors and friends, but he is regularly despatched to meet them from the station, or give them a lift to parties [7]; he is “horrified” at the suggestion of a grand picnic at the sea with the children and Miss Pankerton [8] but nonetheless goes along with the plans, helpfully hiring bathing huts as they Run Into heavy rain on the appointed day. [9]

At home Robert is also kept busy, checking the range [10] or “mysterious trouble with the water-supply” [11]; he helps out with the children’s New Year party [12] and makes a noble, if ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to help his wife by recruiting the infamous Howard Fitzsimmons as house-parlourman. [13]

Robert may not always be as responsive as his wife would like, but he does, on the whole, treat her with kindness and consideration; he is aware of her fear of horses and kindly protects her from “terrifying-looking animal” during a post-lunch tour of some neighbours’ stables [14]; he is tolerant of her trips to London [15] and the South of France [16] and appears to understand and appreciate why they are important for her; and once he realises that she is in fact very ill with measles takes steps to sort out a trip to Bude for her and the children [17]. He is generous with the unexpected legacy of Five Hundred Pounds from his godfather, “warmly” concurring in his wife’s suggestion that the great-aunt’s diamond ring be retrieved from the Plymouth pawnbroker’s in time to figure at the Garden Fête [18]. Even Robert’s final comment, that the whole diary is a Waste of Time, is softened by the qualification that it is In his opinion – and he says it “kindly”. [19]

Robert’s character may be very different from the Provincial Lady’s, and he may have different opinions about fox-hunting or politics, but they are a couple essentially in sympathy. On people, they are generally of the same mind, even if his opinions are expressed more laconically (or not at all). He “does not seem pleased” to hear about the imminent arrival of “dear old school-friend Cissie Crabbe” [20] - but then neither is she; just like his wife,  Robert is much more taken with “dear Mary” [21].  The Provincial Lady regularly records the tendency of Our Vicar’s Wife to outstay her welcome, and does not seem unsympathetic when after one particularly long evening (and, incidentally, after Robert has helped push Our Vicar’s Wife’s car down the road) “Robert inhospitably says, let us put out the lights and fasten up the hall-door and go up to bed immediately, in case she comes back for anything.”[ 22] Hearing about Mrs Blenkinsop’s obstruction of Barbara’s engagement, Robert “returns – very, very briefly – that old Mrs Blenkinsop ought to be Shot”; this meets with his wife’s “entire approval” [23].  About Lady Boxe, he is, perhaps understandably, more discreet, but the Provincial Lady nonetheless records that she feels he shares her opinion – for example after she gives him her account of Lady Boxe’s “insufferable behaviour” at a tea-party [24], or at the final dinner party of the Diary (where the Provincial Lady expresses the “charitable – but improbable – hope” that the champagne apparently being enjoyed by Lady B’s house guests may poison them) [25] .  The two of them in fact seem generally very much in harmony during this final episode in the Diary

Robert’s politics appear to be more conservative than the Provincial Lady’s, but he is not shown as intolerant or bigoted; contrast the dreadful Mr and Mrs White, who the Provincial Lady hopes “never to set eyes on” again after having to listen to their views on “Prohibition and the Jews and Everything” [26].

Similarly, Robert’s literary tastes are perhaps not as dissimilar from his wife’s as might at first appear. Although it is noted that he does not join in a general conversation about books at one of Lady Boxe’s dinner parties [27], the description of that conversation does not suggest any great intellectual insights from the other guests either.  (It is, for example, generally agreed that The Good Companions “is a very long book”, and that High Wind in Jamaica “is quite a short book”.) The Provincial Lady is clearly very well-read, and has a Bohemian past in Hampstead as well as being connected to literary circles in London; she likes making literary references which her husband does not appreciate. But she is also very suspicious of intellectual pretension, and she seems just as irritated as her husband by Miss Pankerton and Jahsper [28] .  Robert may not engage in literary banter, but he is clearly no fool;  The Times crossword, after all, is a test of brainpower, and, perhaps most surprisingly of all, Robert also apparently sends in an entry to the Time and Tide competition (which receives an “honourable mention”, compared with his wife’s second place) [29].

As well as having broad sympathy in many areas of life, the Provincial Lady and her husband clearly benefit from each other’s contrasting skills and attitudes.  The Provincial Lady recognises that she sometimes becomes over-anxious or over-enthusiastic about plans, and Robert’s phlegmatic response often provides a useful balance; he is calm and rational while she gets anxious about her departure to France, for example [30]; but he does not tell her that she is being ridiculous to fuss over her passport, or to worry about something terrible happening to the children; and “rightly ignores” her last-minute suggestion that she should abandon going altogether. He appears very accepting of her character, even though it is so different from his own. Similarly, when the Provincial Lady starts making extravagant plans to celebrate the unexpected legacy with a combined party and Garden Fête, he reasonably suggests “that this would not conduce to the success of either entertainment” and the scheme is wisely abandoned [31].

Robert is much more of a countryman and a sportsman than his wife, which makes him a reassuring and comforting companion for her at many of the country events she attends; she is “thrilled” for example when he demonstrates his skill at billiards (which she feels to be a “more satisfactory way of acquiring distinction than even authorship of Symphony in Three Sexes”) [32] ; and clearly proud of his similar ability at tennis [33] .

The Provincial Lady famously remarks that “the most wonderful thing in the world must be to be a childless widow” (a remark unsurprisingly met by “unsympathetic silence from Robert”) [34].  And in the same passage (when she is suggesting that she should join Rose in the South of France), he pauses for such a long time that she has “mentally gone through the Divorce Court with him”. But the Diary does not reveal any real or permanent desire on the Provincial Lady’s part to abandon her husband or to live a whole life of carefree abandon with literary friends in London or the South of France; she clearly enjoys her trips away from domestic and village responsibilities, but she does also miss Robert as well as the children (worrying about Robert “sitting down to minced beef and macaroni cheese” while she is having a “marvellous dinner” with Rose [35]).   They are as much a part of her life and her happiness as the travel and the books and the intellectual discussions.

The Provincial Lady is also “entirely furious” when Miss Pankerton suggests that she appears to be “a woman whose life has never known fulfilment” ; even though she says that she has “often thought exactly the same thing” herself, she becomes angry at the suggestion that she is a “domestic beast of burden”;  she clearly does not want to be somehow rescued from her life as a country wife and mother, and her portrayals of the literary or intellectual characters in the Diary make it clear that she can see their limitations as well as their charms.

The Provincial Lady records an interesting conversation with Lady Boxe about husbands[36]. Lady B states that “she always advises girls to marry, no matter what the man is like, as any husband is better than none, and there are not nearly enough to go round.” In vain does the Provincial Lady refer to “Rose’s collection of distinguished Feminists”; Lady B replies that “if they could have got husbands they wouldn’t be Feminists” before adding - the “Final straw” - that the Provincial Lady can have “nothing to complain of, as she always thinks Robert such a safe, respectable husband for any woman.”

The Provincial Lady is clearly enraged by this discussion (driven even to claim to Lady B that “Robert is in reality a compound of Don Juan, the Marquis de Sade, and Dr Crippen, but that we do not care to let it be known locally”).  There seem a number of reasons why she feels so: she clearly thinks that it is possible to be a Feminist and a wife, but also that it is false to suggest that any husband is better than none; and she also does not like to think of Robert as being merely a “safe, respectable husband”. This passage is of course not intended to be analysed too solemnly, but it does seem to say some important and positive things about the Provincial Lady’s attitude to Robert and her own marriage. 

Being married to Robert allows the Provincial Lady to be herself, and to develop her own interests and friendships and character, both domestic and literary, in Devon, London, and further afield. Robert supports his wife when they are together, and allows her to go her separate way when she wants to; he understands that she sometimes likes different things from him, and is not jealous of that.  Like his wife, he has a sense of humour and a sense of public duty. Like his wife, he distrusts pretension and showing off, and is a shrewd judge of character. He is reliable, trustworthy and kind. 

He is, In Short, The Perfect Husband.

 



1 Introduction to Virago Modern Classic Number 162: “The Diary of a Provincial Lady” by E.M. Delafield, first published 1984, page xiii

2 The Persephone Biannually  Nº 15 Spring/Summer 2014, page 3

3 November 17th

4 November 17th: though agrees to abandon this one in order to meet Cissie Crabbe from the station

5 August 7th

6 June 17th

7 October 23rd

8 August 9th

9 August 15th

10 November 8th

11 December 12th

12 January 1st

13 March 22nd

14 June 1st

15 January 5th

16 July 6th

17 May 7th

18 June 9th

19 October 23rd

20 November 14th

21 January 23rd

22 March 3rd

23 April 4th

24 February 12th

25 October 23rd

26 March 14th

27 November 25th

28 August 8th, August 15th and 16th

29 May 30th

30 July 17th

31 June 9th

32 November 25th

33 June 23rd

34 July 3rd

35 March 17th

36 April 12th

 

Shortlisted: Aimee Gasston, 'The short story in the twentieth-century: home of the overlooked'


‘Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small.’

            - Virginia Woolf, ‘Modern Fiction’ (1925) [1]

 

For its landmark one-hundredth publication, Persephone Books published a collection of short stories; an apposite choice given that many of these stories are dedicated to bringing to light that which is often overlooked. Like Persephone, these stories help us to read the neglected nooks and crannies of the world and have helped to revolutionise the geography of fiction. Their terrain is most often the quiet, local and domestic; their focus the glimmers of truth that inhere in the untapped detail of the everyday world.

The Persephone logo depicts a female reading a scroll with a goose, a symbol of domesticity, standing proudly at her feet. Reading the domestic is a primary concern of these stories, which help us to see those everyday things which can otherwise wear what Roger Fry called a ‘cap of invisibility’, a sightlessness initiated by the familiarity of habitual use.[2] Short stories shine a light on these things we live with but cannot always see. Nadine Gordimer once wrote that short story writers ‘see by the flash’, dealing in discrete moments of glimpsed vision which perhaps more authentically reflect lived experience in the modern world, a place so huge and bustling that it is only possible to see a tiny part of it at a time.[3] In her biography And So Did I, fellow short story author Malachi Whitaker wrote similarly, ‘I can see things in flashes’.[4] We can see this propensity almost literally demonstrated in Kay Boyle’s story ‘Defeat’, in which ‘the illumination of the dance pavilion in the square shone in through the windows and lit the rows of storage batteries and the cases of spare parts and spark plugs with an uncanny and partial brilliance’.[5] Here, even in wartime, attention is still paid to dusty articles on the sidelines of the main event, with light controlled by the Nazis but not to the extent that they might have hoped.

Joanne Trautmann Banks has observed that the stories of writers such as Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield seem to ‘bear out one of the oldest observations about women writers’, that they are ‘unusually attuned to the delicate details of daily life’.[6] Banks considers this area worthy of further investigation but in 1985 shies away from doing this herself, because it is dangerous ground, ‘so often tangled up with prejudiced assumptions about there being more important subjects and more solid techniques’.[7] Yet, without prejudice, there are surely no more important subjects than those otherwise unreported. These stories represent a literary democracy. Thus, the domestic environment is not only a site of the modestly-sized and the privately-enacted; we might also consider it a place of revolution. After the death of their father, Virginia Woolf (then Stephen) and her sister Vanessa moved to Gordon Square in Bloomsbury famously ‘full of experiment and reform’.[8] They were ‘going to paint; to write; to have coffee after dinner instead of tea at nine o’clock’; ‘[e]verything was going to be new; everything was going to be different. Everything was on trial’.[9] It is in this radical spirit that the stories considered here should also be conceived, whether they reflect homely revolution in their contents or not. In focusing their vision on the domestic, these writers work to rebalance an established axis of power. In producing art from the home and delivering it back to it, they redefine concepts of both professionalism and what it is that makes up the ‘proper stuff of fiction’.[10] They stay true to Woolf’s conception of what modern fiction should comprise, proving that ‘the precious stuff of which books are made lies all about one, in drawing-rooms and kitchens where women live, and accumulates with the tick of every clock’.[11] Like the post-impressionists, they recognised that domestic still life could be as vivacious as more sensational subject matter. Take, for example, Mansfield’s ‘At the Bay’, in which ‘[t]he dressing-table […] was a packing-case in a sprigged muslin petticoat, and the mirror above was very strange; it was as though a little piece of forked lightning was imprisoned in it. On the table there stood a jar of sea-pinks, pressed so tightly together they looked more like a velvet pincushion’.[12] This is one example out of hundreds, where the contraction of the short story form seems to encourage writers not to speed ahead with plot, but instead luxuriate in the pleasure of discreet material detail. 

It makes sense that the short story form should flourish especially in the hands of female writers during the twentieth-century. In A Room of One’s Own, it is suggested that the literature of the future should be ergonomic and sympathetic to the demands of modern life:

The book has somehow to be adapted to the body, and at a venture one would say that women’s books should be shorter, more concentrated, than those of men, and framed so that they do not need long hours of steady and uninterrupted work.[13]

Usefully, for both writers and readers, short stories can fit around the everyday as well as encompass it. Often their fictional contents are at such a small remove from the lived experience of their creators precisely because the way in which they are written cements an inseparable relationship between the story and the everyday. Elizabeth Bowen described the way in which she began to feel an ‘uncanny complicity with her surroundings’ when writing her first collection of short stories, noting the ways in which ‘[t]he room, the table, the convulsive and anxious grating of [the] chair on the floor were made hyper-significant’ by the fact that they were witnesses to her literary voyaging, a type of alchemy.[14] It is perhaps not surprising that these very surroundings might seep into the contents of such a sensitive and adaptable form, designed to fit around interruptions but malleable enough to also encapsulate them. So, in a story like Pauline Smith’s ‘The Pain’ we find a plethora of detail about the home the couple in the piece have built together; there is interest and meaning even to be found in the partition wall which manages to tell its own story about their life together: ‘built like the outer walls of mud, [it] did not go up to the reed-and-thatch roof, but ended, within reach, in a flat ledge on which pumpkins, twisted rolls of tobacco, little bags of seed, bars of homemade soap and water-candles, and various odds and ends were stored’ (PS 39). These intricate details not only pay homage to the scene of creation but also build the poetry of these stories, as in the opening of Dorothy Whipple’s ‘A Lovely Time’, where we encounter a bed lamp which ‘bloomed now like an orange in the dusk it created’ (PS 101); a humble gesture expressive of the youthful hopes of its narrator.

Irène Némirovsky’s ‘Dimanche’ (1934) is crowded with such detail; it encapsulates all Gaston Bachelard meant when he spoke of the home as a custodial shelter that allows its occupant to rest and dream, ‘the non-I that protects the I’.[15] I will quote at length from the story to protect its temperate mood:

Her home was a refuge, a warm enclosed shell sealed against the noise outside. When, in the wintry dusk, she walked along the Rue Las Cases, an island of shadows, and saw the stone sculpture of the smiling woman above the door, that sweet, familiar face decorated with narrow, carved ribbons, she felt oddly relaxed and peaceful, floating in waves of happiness and calm. Her house… how she loved the delicious silence, the slight, furtive creaking of the furniture, the delicate inlaid tables shining palely in the gloom. She sat down; although she normally held herself so erect, now she curled up in an armchair.
‘Guillaume says I like objects more than human beings… That may be true.’
Objects enfolded her in a gentle, wordless spell. The copper and tortoiseshell clock ticked slowly and peacefully in the silence. The familiar musical clinking of a silver cup gleaming in the shadows responded to her every movement, her every sigh, as if it were her friend. (PS 146-7)

Like the furniture that bore witness to the birth of Bowen’s first short stories, these objects are also imbued with their own asserted presence and near-mystical meaning.[16]

Raymond Carver once stated that it is possible in either a poem or a story to ‘write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow these things – a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring – with immense, even startling power.’[17] Here Carver expresses the poeticism of the everyday that is the most natural terrain of the short story. The short story’s scope of vision is necessarily reduced in terms of both its language and its subject (or enlarged, depending on how you think of it). As Sean O’Faolain put it, ‘where the short-story writer seems to work with the sentence, and the word in it, the novelist works with the paragraph, or even with the chapter’.[18] Because short story writers work in miniature, individual words and things carry a weight they would not otherwise and are simultaneously tasked with expressing the intricacies of life in a way that the novel is not expected to. Short stories are more likely to be home to ‘hybrid objects, subject objects’, which ‘through us and for us […] have a quality of intimacy’.[19]

So we might find, as in Malachi Whitaker’s ‘The Music Box’, the drama of a story unfolding around ‘a square yellow box, covered with painted red flowers’ (PS 81). Love might be expressed in terms of found objects gifted, as in Frances Towers’ ‘The Spade Man From Over the Water’: ‘[h]e was the sort of man who would bring her the first white violets, or a dead bee, or a young fir cone’ (PS 320). In ‘The Pain’, shared treasures sit upon a shelf as witnesses to fifty years of a couple’s love: ‘a green-and-red crocheted wool mat’; ‘two cups and saucers, thick and heavy, with roses like red cabbages around them’; ‘an ostrich egg, and a small box lined with blue satin and covered with rows of little shells round an inch-square mirror’ (PS 40). Or, as in Mansfield’s ‘The Doll’s House’, a kernel of significance converges on a lamp, ‘an exquisite little amber lamp with a white globe’ (MS 176), which hangs in the air long after the Kelvey children are ejected from the Burnells’ for their crime of being dishevelled and poor. These small, seemingly insignificant objects are brought to life in intimate, almost magical environments, where it might seem possible that ‘everything, even the bed-post, knows you, responds, shares your secret…’ (MS 95).

Although her most accomplished stories also focus on the small and are told quietly, in the autobiography she shared with the poet Robert McAlmon, Kay Boyle criticised Mansfield for using ‘“little” adjectives’ so that the ‘universe itself was diminished’.[20] She considered that Mansfield’s stories suffered from having a ‘constricted’ gaze.[21] It might be a step too far to cast Boyle’s comments as subconsciously sexist, but they are certainly decidedly wrong-footed. Despite her short life, Mansfield breathed vitality into the short story, she renovated it, innovated it; her horizons were assuredly broad, though the geography of her fiction was local (even, as we have seen, miniature). As Bachelard states, home is ‘our corner of the world […] a real cosmos in every sense of the world’; it is a microcosm where revelation might as easily occur as on battlefield or boardroom, and likely with increased frequency.[22] By creating so many flawless models, Mansfield epitomised the story of her century, where very local, infinitesimal shifts, tensions and ruptures work to dramatise conflicts and concerns that have far-reaching and significant resonance.

The moments I consider most powerful in The Persephone Book of Short Stories all comprise brief moments of unveiling and realisation that occur in the privacy of the home; glanced poetic climaxes that occur at the end of stories where once we might have expected a grand ‘reveal’. Thus Sheila in Dorothy Whipple’s ‘A Lovely Time’ allows her upbeat self-delusion to stammer and fails as she stares into ‘the shadows of her narrow room’, thinking ‘[s]he would never be able to be gay and smart like other people’, ‘never know what to say, what to wear, what to do; never be happy and at ease. It was terrible, terrible to be so lonely, so outside…’ (PS 116). John in Elizabeth Berridge’s ‘Subject for a Sermon’ returns home from war to question his inherited privilege, challenging his well-to-do mother whose benefaction is another means of wielding power: ‘Instead of just accepting things like war and unemployment and all the rest, I began to wonder why, and if it couldn’t be prevented. Then I thought of you – ’ (PS 293). While in Betty Miller’s ‘The Exile’, Arthur finds an abject lack of meaning in conventional middle-class existence; ‘Just suffocating in day-to-day material things – doping ourselves comfortably, pretending we’ll never die. Doping ourselves so as not to realise – and thinking the dope is all that matters’ (PS 188). And then we have the hypnotic, devastating ending of Helen Hull’s ‘It All Begins Again’, which it would be insolent not to quote in full:           
           
A land where a man can be free, and his children after him, she thought. Free? We have thought the world was run for us, that we could go on turning always in these narrow, petty, selfish cells. We are losing them again, peace, freedom. We had them only as a promise. My father, my sons, and now these children. They have lost them, having no dream to hold them safe, to strive to keep them. They are blind and empty, passionless – I must tell them this, perhaps Hilda heard me, it may not be too late. She thought, it all begins again, the old struggle. She could not lift her eyelids, her heart climbed up into her throat, it floated away like a bright and burning word. When you have the word, it is too late to speak. It all begins again. (PS 253)

For their modest settings, none of these are small topics: exclusion; social conscience; liberty; authentic living; failed communication; mortality. They are grand themes told small.
           
These same themes play out in Mansfield’s stories; all are contained within ‘The Garden Party’, in which ‘absurd class distinctions’ (MS 156) and the death of a neighbour work to complicate the indulgent distractions of the party scene – cream puffs, hats, meringues and roses. Almost all her stories deal with matters of love and loneliness, so suited to the domestic setting which can shelter either conviviality or aloneness.  ‘The Canary’, one of Mansfield’s last stories, is one such piece. Again, its subject matter is diminutive – the death of a pet canary – once more, its treatment is otherwise. The story ends with rumination on a bittersweet and ineffable melancholy that sits just below the surface of the narrator’s life:

I must confess that there does seem something sad in life. It is hard to say what it is. I don’t mean the sorrow that we all know, like illness and poverty and death. No, it is something different. It is there, deep down, part of one, like one’s breathing. However hard I work and tire myself I have only to stop to know it is there, waiting. (MS 297).

If the short story of the twentieth-century can be said to have defining characteristic, I would venture it to be loneliness. This is though a loneliness which permits communion with the external world and allows awareness, reflection and creativity; a loneliness afforded by the shelter of the domestic environment.
           
Claire Hanson has recognised the short story as ‘the chosen form of the exile – not the self-willed émigré, but the writer who longs to return to a home culture which is denied him/her’.[23] So it is perhaps unsurprising that the home is the environment most often conjured in these stories and revivified with such dedication.[24] One of Mansfield’s final journal entries, often quoted, speaks to the importance of the idea of home to her artistic ambition, as a place where she might be herself, a ‘silent, crystallised being’ (J 45) able to authentically create:

I want a garden, a small house, grass, animals, books, pictures, music. And out of this, I want to be writing. (Though I may write about cabmen. That’s no matter.)
But warm, eager, living life – to be rooted in life – to learn, to desire to know, to feel, to think, to act. That is what I want. And nothing less. That is what I must try for. (J 251)

The domestic values of ‘leisure, comfort, the privacy that protects diversity [and] artistic creativity’ enabled the sensuous and manifold stories left to us by the twentieth-century.[25] They are values understatedly, lyrically eulogised by these short fictions and enshrined in them. They are values importantly extended to us as we read them. So perhaps these stories are never entirely replete with loneliness – they are themselves small, deliberately furnished homes offered up generously and shared gladly. As readers, we are allowed fleeting visits but remarkable company.



[1] Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader Vol. I (London: Vintage, 2003), p. 170.

[2] Roger Fry, Vision & Design (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), p.18.

[3] Nadine Gordimer, Telling Times (London: Bloomsbury, 2011). p. 170.

[4] Malachi Whitaker, And So Did I (London: Paladin, 1990), p. 11.

[5] Kay Boyle, ‘Defeat’ in The Persephone Book of Short Stories (London: Persephone Books, 2012), p. 266. Hereafter referred to as PS with further references given in the text.

[6] Joanne Trautmann Banks, ‘Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield’, The Short Story 1880-1945, ed. by Joseph M. Flora (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1985), p. 79.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Woolf, Moments of Being, p. 163.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Woolf, The Common Reader Vol. I, p. 150.

[11] Virginia Woolf, A Haunted House: The Complete Shorter Fiction, ed. by Susan Dick (London: Vintage, 2003), p. 69.

[12] Katherine Mansfield, The Montana Stories (London: Persephone Books, 2007), p. 76. Hereafter referred to as MS with further references given in the text.

[13] Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, p.90.

[14] Elizabeth Bowen, ‘Preface’ in Encounters (London: First Ace Books, 1981) p. 8. Encounters was first published in 1921.

[15] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. by Maria Jolas (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), p. 5.

[16] Némirovsky’s story suggests that, like Katherine Mansfield, Agnès might also feel ‘content to live here, in a furnished room, and watch’. Katherine Mansfield, Journal of Katherine Mansfield, ed. by John Middleton Murry (London: Persephone Books, 2006), p. 30. Hereafter referred to as J with further references given in the text.

[17] Raymond Carver, ‘On Writing’, The New Short Story Theories, ed. by Charles E. May (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1994), p. 275.

[18] Sean O’Faolain, The Short Story (Cork: The Mercier Press, 1972), p. 256.

[19] Bachelard, p. 78.

[20] Robert McAlmon and Kay Boyle, Being Geniuses Together 1920-1930 (London: The Hogarth Press, 1984, p. 153

[21] McAlmon and Boyle, p. 151

[22] Bachelard, p. 4.

[23] Claire Hanson, Re-reading the Short Story (London: Macmillan Press, 1989), p. 3.

[24] We are all, after all, exiles of some form - distanced from our original homes by time and (in most cases) geography.

[25] Christopher Reed, Bloomsbury Rooms: Modernism, Subculture and Domesticity (New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 2004), p.7.

 

 

Shortlisted: Luzy Razzall, 'Reading Hands in Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes'

 

In a letter to Joan Williams, c. 1952, William Faulkner wrote: ‘a short story is a crystallised instant, arbitrarily selected, in which character conflicts with character or environment or itself. We both agreed long since, that next to poetry, it is the hardest art form’.[1] To date, the Persephone catalogue features no fewer than eleven volumes of short stories, the first of which was Persephone no. 8, Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes. Until this collection was published in 1999, coinciding with the sixtieth anniversary of the outbreak of the second world war, Mollie Panter-Downes (1906-1997) was better known as a journalist. Having achieved remarkable success with her first novel, written when she was only sixteen, by 1938 she had convinced her agent that she should write for the New Yorker. A short story appeared that very year, the first of thirty-six to be published in the New Yorker over the next three decades. In 1939 she began a regular column, ‘A Letter from London’, which brought detailed pictures of life in Britain to an American readership, continuing until 1984.[2]

The ‘Letter from London’ columns were immensely popular, and they were republished in collected volumes in 1940 and 1972. Her novels and short stories have enjoyed less success, and Persephone no. 8 brings together twenty-oneshort stories which have not otherwise been reprinted since their first appearance in the New Yorker.[3] Although Panter-Downes seems to have identified as a journalist first and foremost – her Letters greatly outnumber her short stories – both literary forms offered ways for her to document and respond to the civilian experience of war. Each ‘Letter from London’ frames the war through the shared, collective experience of ‘the London crowds’, ‘people’, and ‘everyone’ on the public Home Front, while her short stories are concerned with the personal struggles of individuals, often explored in the more private setting of the home. The London Letters bore witness to the rapid transformation of the city as war took over: ‘everybody is so busy that no one has time to look up at the airplanes that pass overhead all day’, Panter-Downes observed in her Letter of 3 September 1939, which is included in Good Evening, Mrs. Craven.[4] In contrast, her stories offer some of what might be Faulkner’s ‘crystallised instan[ces]’; moments of intensely personal and particular drama. During these years of concentrated productivity,Panter-Downesdemonstrated the rich potential not only of the magazine column but also of Faulkner’s ‘hardest art form’ to capture the war through the lens of domestic experience.

In his Preface to Good Evening, Mrs. Craven, Gregory LeStage describes Panter-Downes as ‘in her prime and bristling with the writer’s powers of perception’ (p. viii) at this time. These ‘powers of perception’ are manifest in the very ordinary,middle-class women who populate her stories, and whose interior worlds are brought to life in understated, unsentimental narrative. WhilePanter-Downes is engages intensely with the psychological sphere in the wartime stories, it is by no means at the expense of her characters’ external worlds. She is equally attentive to the small, material details of these women’s circumstances – the hats and gloves they buy, the ornaments on their mantelpieces, the photographs on their dressing tables – and the interactions that take place in these environments.

Although her narrative consistently maintains a sense of distance, never straying beyond the third-personvoice, her wartime stories are often very intimate. Panter-Downesis particularly interested in the nature of intimacy and how it might be changed by the context of war, and one way in which we can trace her interrogation of intimacy in these stories is through her repeated attention to hands, and the things they might do. Hands may reach out to touch a lover or comfort a child; they can shake, caress, and possess.[5] In Good Evening, Mrs. Craven, they fumble with gas masks, stitch pyjamas for soldiers, wash the dishes, and write letters to faraway lovers. As instruments of personal agency, they encapsulate human emotion, and can make commanding statements about gender or class, and about the dynamic of a relationship. They often bridge the gap between the interior and the exterior, communicating more about an individual’s state of mind than spoken words might. Like the short story itself as a literary form, the hand can work as a fragmentary sign that stands in for something else, offering fleeting but significant gestures towards a larger whole.

Several of the stories in Good Evening, Mrs. Craven depict pairs of people – married couples,extra-marital liaisons, or other unhappy relationships – and the emotional tensions both of being apart, and being together. The first story, ‘Date with Romance’, begins with Mrs.

Ramsay’s preparations for lunch in a London club with a man called Gerald, who has just returned from Malaya. It takes her ‘some time to decide what to wear’, and after buying a suitable hat, she ‘also dropped in for a manicure’, for ‘Gerald had always been rather foolish about her hands, she remembered’ (p. 1). These hands become the gauge for their relationship, which has changed after five years apart, she quickly realises:

‘Gerald, dear,’ said Mrs. Ramsay softly. She held out both her hands, which Gerald pumped up and down. ‘Well, well,’ he said, ‘old Helen.’ Mrs. Ramsay felt a slight but definite chill. Not noticing that the atmosphere of the tender moment had fallen several degrees, Gerald dropped her hands and sat down (p. 2).

Few words are exchanged; instead, the dissolving of any relationship she thought they might still have happens through physical contact, focussed on their hands. Hands can ‘augment orality’6, Janet Zandy reminds us, and here Gerald’s dissatisfying physical response when Mrs. Ramsay ‘held out both her hands’ not only augments the awkwardness of their oral exchange, but supersedes it. In one clumsy gesture we, along with Mrs. Ramsay, learn that this encounter isill-fated, and in the confined spaces of both the London club and the short story, there is no need for more words.

The agony of the rest of the date is expressed through the continued play of their hands. When Mrs. Ramsay says she does not want to talk about her husband or children, but she would like to hear all of Gerald’s news, he ‘patted her knee absently, as though it were the head of a retriever’. It is only when they are reading the menus in ‘a dim, panelled corner of the dining- room’ that he purports to notice the hands he had once been ‘foolish about’: ‘‘You’ve still got lovely hands, Helen,’ he said, in a tone which implied that everything else had gone pretty much to rack and ruin’, before commencing ‘some moreretriever-pattingunder the table’ (p. 3). Thehoped-forromantic scenario unravels, and this moment illustratesPanter-Downes’sefficiency at capturing an overwhelming sense of disappointment in but a few lines, or in a casual gesture. Mrs. Ramsay’s own final gesture is to catch sight of herself in a shop window as she walks home: ‘she couldn’t help observing how nice she looked in the navy alpaca suit’. Seizing control of her own appearance once again with this gesture ofself-confidence,she leaves the retriever-patting Gerald in the ‘mercifullystone-deadpast’ (p. 5) as the story closes.

In ‘Date with Romance’ the author occupies the position of the lone observer at a neighbouring table, who quietly observes her dinner companions, and builds up a picture of their relationship from the visual clues of their body language, as well as fragments of overheard conversation.

She does the same in ‘Good Evening, Mrs. Craven’, another story about an illicit affair. The protagonists, who pretend that they are married to each other, meet ‘every Thursday evening’ in a London club where they sit ‘in their corner’, ‘talking quietly, sometimes holding hands under the tablecloth’. If he arrived first, she would ‘go over to their table, sit down, and slide her hand palm upwards along the sofa seat until his hand closed round it’ (p. 114). Hands can be very discreet, communicating privately even in thesemi-publicspace of a dining room, but here they are also emblematic of a relationship that has to be carefully veiled behind the pretence of a shared name, as if hidden under a tablecloth.

The short story is in many ways the ideal literary form forextra-maritalaffairs: its brevity and immediacy allow for intense bursts of emotion, but it is essentially a peripheral form, and it allows its protagonists only snatched encounters, rather than the full legitimacy of a novel. In ‘Good Evening, Mrs. Craven’, Panter-Downes emphasises the precariousness of illicit affection, and the vulnerability of a woman in a relationship with a married man. Sometimes, the female protagonist in this story discovers, ‘if she slid her hand towards his knee, he would pretend not to notice, and he would talk in a brisk, cheerful way which, at a distance, might look like the kind of manner one would use when dining with a female cousin up from the country’ (p. 115). Their relationship is defined by performance, but the role she plays is an insecure one, in which gestures might be genuinely intimate one day, but mean nothing the next. The tiny details of their body language, and especially the things they do with their hands, are all part of the successful façade of their relationship, but they are simultaneously what threaten its secrecy. We never learn the real name of ‘Mrs. Craven’, and by the end of the story, she realises the truth about this performance: ‘all those years of Thursday evenings seemed like a pathetic game ofmake-believe– two children playing at housekeeping in a playhouse with three walls’ (p. 120). The affection she has received is exposed as ephemeral and incomplete, but unlike Mrs. Ramsay in ‘Date with Romance’, she fails to grasp any personal redemption by the end of the story.

Other stories in Good Evening, Mrs. Craven paint individuals in the social context of a group, and particularly in the new kinds of community initiated by the Home Front. In ‘Meeting at the Pringles’’, a committee gathers ‘to organise a Hospital Supplies Depot in the village’ (p. 7). Against this backdrop, tension between various members emerges as they bicker over the practical details. As disagreements about suitable venues ensue, the voices of named individuals come to the fore, while the rest of the committee fades to a homogenous,near-silent mass. The description of these observers focuses on their hands, rather than anything they say: ‘the committee politely hid their lavender knuckles and agreed’ (p. 11). This singular image of ‘the committee’ acting in unison amalgamates a group of people in one seemingly trivial gesture, and is typical of the understatement that characterisesPanter-Downes’s prose. When the meeting draws to an end, the disconcerting anonymity and uniformity continue: ‘the committee started getting to their feet and inserting their lifeless hands into doeskin gloves’ (p. 12). The ‘lavender knuckles’ have been diminished even further to ‘lifeless hands’, all enthusiasm and individuality drained from them, and by extension, from the people attached to them, by the petty manoeuvrings of the dominant voices in the story.

Doeskin gloves return in another story, ‘This Flower, Safety’, when Aunt Mildred reacts to her nephew’s tactless comment about Britain being invaded, by ‘tugging at a doeskin glove so violently that it split at the seam’ (p. 41). The contrast between the delicate, feminine associations of the glove and the force that rips it apart hints at the unsettling intrusion of war into the comfortable bourgeois world in which most ofPanter-Downes’sprotagonists live. In two other stories, both of which focus around a Red Cross sewing party which meets in Mrs. Ramsay’s house,Panter-Downes sets up a similar juxtaposition between cosy domesticity and the looming shadow of the violent realities of conflict. ‘Battle of the Greeks’ reveals the reaction of Mrs. Ramsay’s fellow stitchers to her suggestion that they might direct their next parcel of clothing to Greek soldiers. The conversation soon becomes very heated, and as world politics collide with the scene of domesticity, the stitchers’ hands seem to do things of their own accord, as if becoming detached from the mundane reality of their setting. When someone asks for some buttons, ‘half a dozen hands reached out cards of buttons to her’ (p. 62) and as the discussion continues, even the inanimate objects held in each person’s hands take on an exaggerated autonomy: ‘needles were still while the shivering Greeks waited’ (p. 64).

The effect on the stitchers of Mrs. Ramsay’s politically-charged intervention should not be surprising, for as we learn in ‘Literary Scandal at the Sewing Party’, the conversation ‘rarely touched on other topics than the gossip of the little Sussex village’ (p. 77). Someone remembers, however, the story of a young woman who was murdered in the village ‘ever so many years ago’ (p. 78), and as the talk turns to rumours of ‘’uman bloodstains’, the sewing stops: ‘needles were suspended while the circle gave its heavily breathing attention to the tragedy’ (p. 80). Amidst the speculation, Mrs. Peters is seen ‘jabbing a needle into her needlecase’, and Mrs. Ramsay wishes ‘that the needlecase, with its bristling arsenal winking temptingly, was not still in Mrs. Peters’ hand’ (p. 83). In the hands of the stitchers, these miniature tools are transformed, by the past and present tragedies that have crept into conversation, into uncanny reminders of the real bloodshed happening beyond the comfort of the sewing circle, and beyond the story itself.

Like many twentieth-century short stories, the contents of Persephone no. 8 originally appeared in the more ephemeral context of a magazine. Whether they are read in a magazine or in a collected volume such as Good Evening, Mrs. Craven, short stories are by their nature texts that can be picked up and enjoyed in a brief moment, perhaps in the middle of doing something else with the hands. The appearance of each Persephone book emphasises its indulgent tactility as an artefact combining the aesthetic delights of text and textile which is a pleasure to handle as well as to read and look at. The endpaper for Persephone no. 21, Winifred Watson’s Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, is a furnishing fabric by Marion Dorn from 1938, and so contemporaneous with the publication of Mollie Panter-Downes’s first story in the New Yorker. Featuring a repeating pattern of a hand with flowers and grass, this print exploits the hand as an elegant image, enjoyed for its visual abstraction. The hand can be a powerful icon, often politically charged, and as the title of Anne Boston’s anthology of wartime short stories, Wave Me Goodbye, suggests, in the context of the second world war allusions to the hand and the things it can do are often shorthand for a whole world of human relationships and experiences. The writing of MolliePanter-Downes demonstrates that of all literary forms, the short story works most like a journalistic snapshot or a portrait, allowing the diminutive to come into greater focus for a fleeting moment, but with lasting effects, like the brush of one hand against another.

 

1 Joan Williams, ‘Faulkner’s Advice to a Young Writer’, in Faulkner and the Short Story, ed. by Evans Harrington

Nicola Beauman, ‘Downes, Mary Patricia Panter- (1906–1997)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/65675, accessed 1 October 2014].

Ten further stories were reprinted in Persephone no. 34, Minnie’s Room: The Peacetime Stories of Mollie Panter- Downes.

4 Good Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes (London: Persephone, 1999), p. xxviii. All further page references to this volume are given parenthetically in the main text.

5 On the cultural history of hands as a fundamental human technology, see Claire Richter Sherman, Writing on Hands: Memory and Knowledge in Early Modern Europe (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000); Jonathan Goldberg, Writing Matter: From the Hands of the English Renaissance (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990); Katherine Rowe, Dead Hands: Fictions of Agency, Renaissance to Modern (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999).

6 Hands: Physical Labor, Class, and Cultural Work (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2004), p. 1.

 

Bibliography

Beauman, Nicola, ‘Downes, Mary Patricia Panter- (1906–1997)’,Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004)

Boston, Anne, ed., Wave Me Goodbye: Stories of the Second World War (London: Virago, 1988) Goldberg, Jonathan, Writing Matter: From the Hands of the English Renaissance (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990)

Harrington, Evans, and Ann J. Abadie, eds., Faulkner and the Short Story (Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 1992)

Panter-Downes, Mollie, Good Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes (London: Persephone Books, 1999; repr. 2009)

Rowe, Katherine, Dead Hands: Fictions of Agency, Renaissance to Modern (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999)

Sherman, Claire Richter, Writing on Hands: Memory and Knowledge in Early Modern Europe (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000)

Zandy, Janet, Hands: Physical Labor, Class, and Cultural Work (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2004)


Shortlisted: Emma West, ‘The Cinderella dream’: Fashion and transformation in Miss Ranskill Comes Home and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

 

One of the first things that struck me when I read Barbara Euphan Todd’s castaway story Miss Ranskill Comes Home was not the fact that Nona Ranskill had been marooned, but rather that she had become marooned because of her hat. It was not a hat she particularly liked, either, but ‘only a silly little pull-on felt’, one she had only taken to wearing because ‘it generally stayed on better than the others’.[1] Clearly, the hat did not stay on well enough. In climbing over the rails to reach it, Miss Ranskill slipped and the end result was four years spent on a desert island with one Mr Reid, ‘the Carpenter’, for company.

Miss Ranskill’s incident with the hat struck me so forcibly because I had recently read Muriel Spark’s wonderful wartime novella The Girls of Slender Means (1963), in which a girl re-enters a burning building to rescue her Schiaparelli dress.[2] It seems that during periods of strife (war, or a depression), clothes are worth risking one’s life for. As Miss Ranskill herself says, ‘clothes make a difference’ (40). They did (and still do) make a difference to women’s lives. They are a source of obsession and pleasure, desire and anxiety, creativity and conformity. Although external, they are intimately connected to our internal lives, to our sense of self.

Clothes, too, can be transformational. The best-known literary instance of transformation is of course ‘Cinderella’, a fairy-tale which has exceeded its simple origins and become a by-word for any rags-to-riches tale. It has provided an endless source of inspiration in literature, film and drama, especially in the early twentieth century, when such tales were commonplace in Hollywood and in British cinema. There was even a stage musical, Mr Cinders (1929; film version, 1934), in which the heroine was replaced by a hero, and the glass slipper by a hat.

It is in this context that we can situate two of the four ‘Miss’ Persephone novels, Miss Ranskill Comes Home (1946) and Winifred Watson’s Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (1938).[3] Although they strike a very different tone, both novels can be read as modern re-workings of the Cinderella myth. Both novels revolve around a single ‘transformation scene’, in which the heroines are left profoundly altered by their encounters with dress. In Miss Pettigrew, our tentative titular heroine emerges from a makeover as a strong, fearless, modern woman. For Miss Ranskill, on the other hand, her failed attempt to buy a new set of clothes without coupons cements her withdrawal from an increasingly alien England. Despite their differences, however, in both cases it is dress that reflects and enables their very personal processes of renewal, moving from persecuted heroines to fulfilled, independent women.

When we first meet both heroines their clothes express their desperate situation. Miss Ranskill, having survived on a desert island with nothing other than ‘two pairs of knickers […], a vest, a brasserie, a knitted jumper, and the tweed coat-and-skirt’ (10), is understandably in poor shape. Shrunken by seawater, pillaged for threads and used as fishing nets, her clothes have ceased to operate as objects of desire, modesty or even warmth.

And yet, somehow Miss Ranskill ‘had managed to make her clothes last, or at least, hang together, by never wearing skirt and knickers at the same time except on Sundays’ (10). Despite everything, Miss Ranskill, image of the English gentlewoman, manages to hang on to both her respectability and her virginity. It had ‘taken her two years to appear before the Carpenter in brasserie with no coat’, and she ‘only did it then because the vest had been used as a fishing-net, and both jumper and coat were wet’. (11)

From her approach towards clothes, then, we get a sense of Miss Ranskill’s personality and upbringing before she came to the island. She is a practical, outdoorsy woman whose figure ‘demanded tailored tweeds, good silk shirts, flat shoes and hat-shaped hats’ (10). Her determination to dress appropriately for the Carpenter’s funeral speaks of her high regard for ritual and decorum: ‘she had dressed for the ceremony as well and suitably as she could. No more could be expected from any gentlewoman.’ (7) But we also learn that Miss Ranskill is ‘an absentminded dresser’ (10); a hint that perhaps her current bedraggled state speaks more of her inner life than a respectable tweed suit.

Although she has remained on dry land, Miss Pettigrew’s situation is nearly as perilous as Miss Ranskill’s. She is unemployed, about to become homeless and without a ‘friend or relation in the whole world who knew or cared whether [she] was alive or dead’.[4] A failed governess increasingly ‘afraid’ of children (233), her last hope rests on a position with the glamorous Miss LaFosse. Hurrying across London for her appointment, Miss Pettigrew’s sense of terror and defeat is encapsulated in her ‘shabby clothes’, in particular her ‘nondescript, ugly brown’ coat (2). This five-year-old garment comes to embody her timid, unassertive personality; an impression made all the more stark in contrast to her prospective employer.

Miss LaFosse answers the door in a ‘foamy robe, no mere dressing gown, worn by the most famous of stars in seduction scenes in the films’ (3). As we can see in the accompanying illustration, the difference between the two women is absolute. Delysia LaFosse stands oozing sensuality and sophistication in an elaborate confection of a gown, replete with bows and flounces. Miss Pettigrew, opposite, stands in her moth-eaten brown coat clutching her handbag and stooping slightly. Where Miss Pettigrew is dark, Miss LaFosse is all in white – ironic, considering the latter can hardly be described as virginal. But here white casts off its associations of innocence and comes to stand for an alluring effervescence.

Both of our heroines, then, are made painfully aware of their own shabbiness. Following her rescue, Miss Ranskill arrives back in England only to be greeted by a ‘shrill – “Coo-er! Look at ‘er skirt!” from a small girl’ (55). Instead of the warm welcome she has dreamt of for years, she is received by ‘whispering and giggling children’ (55). Embarrassed, she hastens to the nearest department store and thus begins her fateful attempt at transformation. In a scene nightmarishly reminiscent of Franz Kafka’s The Trial (1925), Miss Ranskill chooses and changes into a whole new outfit, only to be denied the clothes for reasons that she cannot understand.

The scene is worth looking at in some detail, as it is here that Miss Ranskill comes to the grim realisation that her beloved England no longer exists. It is also the scene which engages most directly with the Cinderella myth, even if Todd references it only to subvert it. On walking up the stairs to the department store, Miss Ranskill catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror. Instead of causing her ‘horror’, her eccentric appearance actually gives her a perverse sense of pleasure. ‘Better,’ she thinks, ‘to be a Cinderella and be a Cinderella properly if one was to enjoy the metamorphosis thoroughly’ (71). There is a sense of excitement and anticipation in the forthcoming makeover; she really believes in the power of dress to transform not only her appearance but also her sense of self. She feels that the 'world would be better in half an hour, for she would be wearing silk against her skin and her shoes would fit. The tautness of her stockings would make her a woman again and her story might take on more dignity if she wore a new dress'. (69) She has faith in clothes; after all, one of the things that kept her and the Carpenter going on the island was the thought that they would ‘smarten themselves up one day’ (75).

It is all the more tragic, then, when Miss Ranskill’s expectations are so abruptly quashed. Instead of silk or lisle, she is offered ‘garments in artificial silk whose sheen seemed to fade as she looked at them’ (74). Like her dream of England, the reality does not live up to her fantasy. Similarly, her hope of buying a beautiful red jersey-suit is also disappointed. Bright, bold, glamorous red is substituted for a one in ‘meek fawn’ and a ‘paler toned sweater’ (74). Despite the initial disappointments, though, once on the clothes change Miss Ranskill’s appearance completely. They allow her to reclaim her body, to appreciate anew the ‘subtle curving and the flatness where flatness should be’ (75). Her figure makes even the ‘cheap wool sliding over silkiness look expensive’ (75). The change is not just physical, either; on looking out of the window at passers-by, Miss Ranskill finally feels that she belongs: ‘The people there were her own people, she could walk among them inconspicuously: she had a place in the world again’ (75). For a moment, it seems that Miss Ranskill will go the ball. But the transformation, so tantalisingly close, is not to be. Without a ration book, Miss Ranskill cannot buy anything. Slowly, despondently, she is forced to remove the new clothes. With each garment, off comes another hope for her life back in England:

“Exceptions!” Miss Ranskill laughed, as she took off the coat of the new jersey-suit that had turned her into a woman again. “I haven’t got anything […].” Off came the skirt. “I may seem stupid to you: you may seem obstinate to me, but can’t we try to understand each other? I have tried …” Off came the jumper. … “I’m a foreigner here and I thought I was coming home. Nobody can explain or tell me anything.” (78)

But her appeals fall on deaf ears. By the time she has ‘stripped the artificial silk from her body and dragged herself into the clothes she had worn before’, her social and emotional alienation is complete. Her ‘Cinderella dream was a niggling fancy now’ (79). With the new clothes has gone her hope of finding a sense of belonging or community: ‘This then, this England, was to be her desert island, a place […] where there was no reckoning but hardness’ (79). In a final, darkly-comic inversion of the fairy-tale, Miss Ranskill flees, leaving behind her navy-issue Midshipman’s shoes (both of which were too big for her anyway). A search then begins, not to find a future princess but rather a suspected German spy. This is the ultimate humiliation: instead of being welcomed back to Britain she is chastised, castigated, and accused of being a traitor. It is hard to imagine a way in which the Cinderella myth could be more thoroughly trounced.

Miss Pettigrew’s transformation, on the other hand, is a much more familiar progression from rags to riches. In an extended makeover scene, Miss LaFosse and her make-up artist friend Miss Dubarry remodel the dowdy Miss Pettigrew as a sophisticated woman. The first and most significant change is the replacement of woollen underclothes with silk ones:

She felt wicked, daring, ready for anything. She left her hesitations behind with her home-made woollens.

“The psychology of silk underclothes has not yet been full considered,” mused Miss Pettigrew happily. (92-3)

In casting off her woollens, Miss Pettigrew begins a parallel process of casting off her sense of proprietary and old-fashioned morality. Prior to her makeover, Miss Pettigrew had begun to assert herself, but only by imitating her formidable ex-mistress Mrs Brummegan (46). Although apparently calm on the outside, her inner dialogue is full of doubt and self-recrimination. Following the makeover, however, Miss Pettigrew ceases to worry about what her mother would have thought and begins ‘savouring to the full a blissful sense of adventure, of wrongdoing’ (97). For Miss Pettigrew, the makeover is ‘the important moment of the day’ (93): a true rebirth. Afterwards, when her nerves began to creep back ‘all she had to do was take a peep at herself in the mirror at once to be reassured’ (107).

Writing about the Cinderella story, the art and dress historian Ann Hollander notes that Cinderella 'keeps the same self all through her changes of clothes. In real life, however, rags obviously cannot be “seen through” to something lovely underneath because they themselves express and also create a tattered condition of soul. The habit of fine clothes, however, can actually produce a true personal grace.'[5]

This is certainly true of Miss Pettigrew. Before her makeover, her clothing (both a product and representation of her impoverished condition) produced a ‘meek carriage’ and a ‘dowdy figure’ (99); afterwards, ‘painted like the best of them, shameless as the worst of them’, she feels ‘uplifted with ecstasy’ (168). For the first time in her life, she feels like she truly belongs: ‘Now she lived. She was inside of things. Now she took part.’ (168) In a sense, her makeover produces a new self, but it is more accurate to say that her makeover simply helps Miss Pettigrew to recognise her ‘true’ self. We have already seen glimpses of this smart, self-assured woman when she wards off Miss LaFosse’s former lovers, but it is the makeover that gives her the confidence to be herself.

Like in Cinderella, then, the post-makeover Miss Pettigrew’s outside finally matches her inside. The new clothes help, but they are simply the catalyst for change. Similarly, in Miss Ranskill, clothes also help our heroine to finally be herself. Following her disastrous encounter in the department store, Miss Ranskill realises that she is ‘quite unselfconscious’ without her shoes, stockings or suspenders on (91). In taking off her shoes, she simultaneously discards everything that is restrictive, stifling and suffocating about England.

Whereas on the island Miss Ranskill – and her feet – could roam free, once back ‘home’ her feet are as ‘cramped by shoes’ (303) as her soul is cramped by convention. When she meets her sister for the first time in four years, the only comment Edith has to make is about Nona’s footwear: ‘“Well – Nona, what have you done with your shoes? You can’t walk about with bare feet”’ (216). Edith’s inability to move beyond the material ‘trappings of civilization’ to what really matters – their separation, Nona’s disappearance, her time as a castaway – seems emblematic of this new society as a whole. It is a petty, hypocritical, selfish culture, too concerned with trivialities to even consider the real horrors of war. It is a society in which looking normal and respectable matters more than simple human kindness:

Now it was shoes that mattered – shoes for crossing the four-year-old bridge that time had set between them. Tread softly because you tread on my dreams! Must the dreams be trampled by shoe-leather? (216)

Ultimately, Nona only finds happiness by withdrawing from this new England and all it represents; a withdrawal symbolised once again by her taking off her shoes. Even when called up to patrol as an ARP Warden, she goes around in bare feet: ‘No orders had been issued about shoes, so, though she wore the official blue overcoat and respirator, she carried her shoes and stuffed her stockings into her pockets’ (274).

Aside from being a wonderful image, Nona’s creative adaptation of her uniform embodies her inner transformation. Although she expects her transformation to take place in the department store, it has already taken place on the island. The way she lived –the way she dressed – has changed her irreparably, even if the change consisted primarily of bringing her existing unconventionality to the fore. She can only survive back in England, this other island, by being true to her altered self: by taking off her shoes even when patrolling in a tin helmet.

For Miss Pettigrew, happiness is also linked to being true to one’s self. At their first cocktail party, she takes delight from the fact there ‘was little to distinguish her from any other woman present’ (106-7). As her confidence grows, however, Miss Pettigrew’s need to imitate or replicate those around her diminishes. She realises that she is valued not for her qualities of sameness but for her own idiosyncrasies; as such, she begins to ‘lose the need’ to look in the mirror for reassurance (173). ‘For the first time in my life,’ she says, smiling at her reflection, ‘I am enjoying being with myself’ (166).

It is this self, this unconventional, no-nonsense, level-headedness, that ignites a possible romance with her suitor, the corset magnate Joe. In a taxi on the way home, they bond over the ‘vital subject’ of woollen underwear (204-5). Together, they bemoan the state of ‘modern evening wear’, and the ‘young girls’ who will ‘all die of pneumonia’ by wearing silk in winter. It is a true meeting of minds: one in which Miss Pettigrew feels comfortable enough to castigate Joe for his stupidity:

You should remember your age. No. I will not flatter you. You are not a young man. You will undoubtedly get rheumatism. You go straight home to-night and to-morrow insist on pure woollen underwear. (205)

Evidently, her makeover notwithstanding, Miss Pettigrew remains as sensible as ever (and thus all the more charming for it). It seems only right that romance springs not from compliments and platitudes but from a conversation about the benefits of woollens. There is something wonderfully reassuring – if not even feminist – about this insistence that Miss Pettigrew does not need to change to be accepted.

Both heroines, then, find happiness when they embrace and celebrate their own unconventionality. As with ‘Cinderella’, in both novels dress serves to give these women the confidence to reach their inner potential; in short, to help each heroine’s outside match her inside. Unlike in ‘Cinderella’, though, there is no need for a Fairy Godmother or a Prince Charming: with a little help from their wardrobe, these modern women are ready to perform their transformations on their own.

 


1 Barbara Euphan Todd, Miss Ranskill Comes Home (London: Persephone Books, 2008), 40. All further references are to this edition and are included in the text parenthetically.

2 Muriel Spark, The Girls of Slender Means (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963), 150-4.

3 The other two ‘Miss’ Persephone novels are D. E. Stevenson’s Miss Buncle’s Book (1934) and the sequel, Miss Buncle Married (1936).

4 Winifred Watson, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (London: Persephone Books, 2011), 2. All further references are to this edition and are included in the text parenthetically.

5 Ann Hollander, Seeing Through Clothes (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 443.

 

Works Cited

 

Hollander, Ann, Seeing Through Clothes (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993)

Spark, Muriel, The Girls of Slender Means (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963)

Todd, Barbara Euphan, Miss Ranskill Comes Home (London: Persephone Books, 2008)

Watson, Winifred, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (London: Persephone Books, 2011)

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