Sunday, October 19, 2014

Short story oddities by Anthony Trollope and Charlotte Mew - it made a claim to something like supremacy of charm

The logical step following The Father and Miss Julie is The Dance of Death, but right now I am going to take a one-post break from Strindberg while another subject is fresh in my mind.  I have returned, briefly, to A. S. Byatt’s Oxford Book of English Short Stories (1998), and I am worried that if I wait I will not have as much fun mocking the stories I read today.

To be clear, Byatt’s anthology has been a treat to paw through, and now I hope someday to read ‘em all.  But one admirable feature of the book is Byatt’s complete lack of interest in compiling the best English short stories.  She went for the oddest, or the oddest given the need for a certain number of famous names.

Story 1: “Relics of General Chassé: A Tale of Antwerp” by Anthony Trollope (1860), the only Trollope short story I have ever read.  It is an elaborate joke based around two related points, the fun to be had with a fat clergyman who has lost his pants, and the impropriety, within the world of the story and in the text itself, of uttering a specific word:

‘He has lost his things,’ and I took hold of my own garments.  ‘It’s a long story, or I’d tell you how; but he has not a pair in the world till he gets back to Brussels, – unless you can lend him one.’

‘Lost his br–?’ and he opened his eyes wide, and looked at me with astonishment.

‘Yes, yes, exactly so,’ said I, interrupting him.  (54)

How do the ladies address the problem?

‘We just found a pair of black –.’  The whole truth was told in the plainest possible language.

‘Oh, Aunt Sally!’  ‘Aunt Sally, how can you?’  ‘Hold your tongue, Aunt Sally!’  (59)

Trollope was quite inventive in the many ways he dodges the word “breeches.”  The story also has some reasonable satirical points to make about celebrity and about dignity carried to far, not that any reader will learn anything he didn’t know.  Byatt picked the story for the writer’s trick, the telling of a story based on a forbidden word.

Story 2: “A White Night” by Charlotte Mew (1903).  Mew is worth knowing about for her own sake.  Virginia Woolf called her “the greatest living poetess” based on her 1916 collection The Farmer’s Bride, which is why I try not to make such generalizations without a hundred years hindsight, since the greatest living “poetess” at the time was either Anna Akhmatova or Marina Tsvetaeva.

In the story, English tourists have accidentally gotten themselves locked in a remote Andalusian church, where they witness the Spanish monks commit a terrible ritual murder.  I know, a return to The Monk in 1903!

It’s the style, though, that had me laughing here.  The tourists have reached the isolated Spanish village:

In its neglect and singularity, it made a claim to something like supremacy of charm.  There was a quality of diffidence belonging to unrecognised abandoned personalities in that appeal.

That’s how I docketed it in memory – a city with a claim, which, as it happened, I was not to weigh.  (141)

I don’t know, maybe you like it.  I know what the last bit means – they leave the town without exploiting it – but “unrecognised abandoned personalities,” if you say so.

Whenever Mew turns to abstraction she uses this Jamesian mode.  It sound like James to me.  The story begins with a frame, an imitation of the beginning of the Turn of the Screw (1898):

‘The incident,’ said Cameron, ‘is spoiled inevitably in the telling, by its merely accidental quality of melodrama, its sensational machinery, which, to the view of anyone who didn’t witness it, is apt to blue the finer outlines of the scene.  The subtlety, or call it the significance, is missed, and unavoidably, as one attempts to put the thing before you, in a certain casual crudity, and inessential violence of fact.’  (139)

Not “inevitably,” pal – it’s just the way you tell it.  And the curious thing is the mismatch between voice and subject does not spoil the central horror of the tale at all.  Accentuates it, if anything.


  1. I was going to argue with your choices for "the greatest living female poet" circa 1920, but then I realized that it greatly depends on the year, since Edith Sodergran died on 1923. So, as long as the year in question comes after 1924, you are right as usual. A little sample of Edith's poetry:

    The Bolsheviks' victory was indeed very fast,
    but ours will be even faster; it will be the last one.
    The reins we will loosen from life,
    the muzzle we will remove from humankind.
    Magnificent beast, you have become old.

  2. Sodergran is a fine answer, and a fine extension of the joke. I assume Woolf's quote is from around the 1916 release of Mew's first book of poems, but there are things not worth looking up. How sad, Sodergran's early death.

    Another good answer, a bold one, would be H.D.

  3. You don't say whether you've read it, but Mew's poetry is very good, actually- heavily influenced by Hardy, but good Hardy. It looks like her prose would have benefitted from that influence if what you quote is typical.

  4. I have only read the three poems at the Poetry link above. I thought they were a lot better than her prose, although when she gets to the heart of the story, the witnessing of the hideous crime, Mew is all right. The mode and matter fit better. Or maybe it is just that the mismatch becomes interesting.

    Anyway, Roger, I will keep an eye out for her poetry, along with Sodergran.

  5. The Farmer's Bride is a concentrated short story, like some of her other poems. Penelope Fitzgerald- a very good "little" novelist- wrote a biography, but I haven't read it: Mew's life seems to have been a series of disasters.

  6. I love Penelope Fitzgerald. Her book on Mew, which I have not read, has always made me curious.

    I found three more Mew poems right here in my own home in The Penguin Book of English Verse. One, "The Quiet House," I like quite a lot, which is a good start. I would never guess that its author had written that story. I wonder if the style is parodic?

    1. When I called Fitzgerald a "little" novelist I was referring to the size of her books, not the size of her talent.

    2. Oh, that is exactly how I understood you. She worked on a small scale.

    3. it's intersting how critical psychology works- James's remark about "the good little Thomas Hardy" sprang into my mind and the thought of finding myself in his company there alarmed me.

  7. Trollope is always way underestimated. He's not shiny, but he's deep.

  8. I wouldn't want to use this story as part of the case for depth!