I have avoided, up to now, A. S. Byatt’s stories pulled from the Thomas Hardy-like pile, stories that might be called “social realism” even when, like the selected Hardy story, “A Mere Interlude” (1885), they are unrealistic. Besides Hardy, there is Arthur Morrison’s “Behind the Shade” and Mary Mann’s “Little Brother,” publication dates unknown to me. I think it is fair to call them a couple of neglected authors.
Morrison’s story is an argument against basing class hatred on assumptions. The poor neighbors assume that a spinster and her mother are well to do because they have a nice ornament, “a cone of waxen grapes and apples under a nice cover” (105), in their window. But they ain’t. The art of this story is in the fluid “social” point of view, which is most often a vague observation by a random passerby, or gossip, making a series of misinterpretations that Morrison and his reader gently form into the true, sad story.
Mann, the Hardy of Norfolk, is more brutal. A mother has delivered her thirteenth child, stillborn. Her husband and oldest son, both literally “attired for the most part in a sack,” are outside slicing turnips in some kind of machine. The poor baby – hey, where is the baby?
‘Ain’t he theer?’ the woman asked, her eyes upon the chair.
‘Nothing’s there, Mrs Hodd.’ (93)
Thank goodness there is only a page left. The poor dead baby does not end up in the turnip slicer, if that’s what you fear (I did), but Mann nevertheless has no problem violating good taste to emphasize her characters’ misery. Be sure to put a toy in that donation box this Christmas.
Those two were just a few pages each. “A Mere Interlude” is thirty, giving Hardy plenty of room to swerve around. A young woman, unhappy with school teaching, agrees to go back home and marry a well-to-do merchant, much older than her. She misses a ferry, though, and in the interval meets an old flame. Wouldn’t she prefer to marry him? Right now? She would; they do. Now, they are waiting for the ferry again, the one she missed, but this time the plan is to introduce her new husband to her family and that disappointed merchant who thinks he will marry her tomorrow.
The heat of the morning was by this time intense. They clambered up on some cliffs, and while sitting there, looking around at St Michael’s Mount and other objects, Charles said to her that he thought he would run down to the beach at their feet, and take just one plunge into the sea. (72)
We’re not quite at the halfway point. I way well have laughed aloud here. So that’s where the story is going, that’s the “mere interlude.” Poor Charles.
This leads to the only truly tin-eared sentence that I noticed. I mean the second, although the first is no prize either:
By this time she was alarmed, and her alarm intensified when she perceived a little beyond the scene of her husband’s bathing a small area of water, the quality of whose surface differed from that of the surrounding expanse as the coarse vegetation of some foul patch in a mead differs from the fine green of the remainder. Elsewhere it looked flexuous, here it looked vermiculated and lumpy, and her marine experiences suggested to her in a moment that two currents met and caused a turmoil at this place. (73)
Don’t let “flexuous” and “vermiculated” distract you from the wonderful oddness of “her marine experiences.”
People say Hardy is depressing. Well listen to this:
… her mother remaining below to complete the disposition of the supper, and attend to the preparation of tomorrow’s meal, altogether composing such an array of pies, from pies of fish to pies of turnips, as was never heard outside of the Western Duchy. (77)
This is for a wedding, a party! Turnip pie! It’s the most depressing thing I have ever read in all of literature.
Other than this stuff, the Hardy story is pretty good. All of the stories in the Byatt book have been at least pretty good. But now I think I’ll put it away for a while.