It seems ages since dear Virago kindly sent me this wonderful book, but it was probably actually a couple of months ago. Now you may or may not know (no reason why you should, really) that I rarely if ever read short stories. That's not because I have anything against them, far from it, and indeed not only have I read, taught and admired many of them over the years, I actually edited a whole volume of them some years ago. But these days I just prefer to immerse myself in something that goes on and on -- aka a novel.
However -- and what a useful word that is in this context -- having this great volume by my bed over the past weeks has been a huge delight. It's been like having a box of the most expensive and delicious chocolates of which you only allow yourself one every now and then as a special treat (except that's not a great comparison for me as if they were chocolates I'd scoff the lot but you get the idea).
There are sixty-five stories in this volume, some of which have never before seen the light of day. And, as you'd expect if you have read anything by Taylor, there's quite a range of subject matter and tone. As I dipped and read, knowing that I'd be writing this review, I was thinking how useful it would be if I could say, at the end of it all, THIS is what Taylor is interested in, or THIS is what preoccupies her, or THIS is what she returns to again and again (for THIS, obviously, substitute some brilliant insight). But now, having read the whole volume, I'm not really sure if I can.
Taylor is what I think is called a domestic realist and of course, like her novels, most of the stories have women at the centre. And naturally many of them have lives that are less than satisfactory. It's rare, perhaps almost unheard of, for anyone in Taylor's writing to be able to fully communicate with, or understand, anyone else. People conceal their feelings, hide their pain, suppress their passion. Hypocrisy is rife, and so is jealousy. Loneliness afflicts many, some of whom "try to pretend that Christmas wasn't happening", or entice little children into their dreadfully dirty and disorganised homes, or make friends with the builders. Marriages are rarely happy, even when undertaken with love and optimism, and hidden infidelity is not uncommon. In at least two stories, a wife meets again a man who has been her lover many years before, and though the feelings are evidently still there, life has taken over and there's no chance of reviving old happiness. In one particularly painful story, Miss A and Miss M, a child is befriended by a couple of spinster ladies, the charismatic Miss Alliot and the retiring Miss Martin. It's obvious to the reader, though not to the child, that they are indeed a couple, but the child is oblivious to the cruelty inflicted by Miss A on Miss M, as she is to Miss M's adoration of Miss A.
Children are wonderfully understood and portrayed by Taylor. In one brilliant story, The Devastating Boys, a middle-class couple take in a pair of boys as part of a scheme to give London children a chance to experience life in the country. Harold, who "knew very little about children", has imposed this on Laura, who is terrified of failing, especially when Harold stipulates that "they must be coloured". The two six-year-olds who arrive could not be more dissimilar, or more scathing about the countryside ("the countryside stinks", said Benny), or more difficult to entertain, and Laura's panic mounts as she sees the fortnight stretching endlessly in front of her. But she learns an astonishing amount from the experience, not least to use the word "toilet", much to Harold's horror.
"They ticked me off for saying lavatory", she said placidly. "Benny said it was a bad word."
It's nice to learn, from the introduction by Taylor's daughter Joanna Kingham, that like many of the stories this one was based on a real experience, and that the boys kept in touch with the family throughout their lives.
Marriages are dissected with the greatest possible subtlety. I thought this was particularly well done in a story called In the Sun, which takes place in a hotel in Morocco. Already ensconsed in the hotel are two English couples, the Troughtons and the Crouches, who have "struck up a desultory holiday friendship", and, though they don't really like each other much, are united in their fascination with, and disapproval of, the newly arrived Bunny and Deirdre Wallace. They soon conclude that Deirdre is altogether too devoted to Bunny to be really married to him, and decide that Bunny probably "travels in lingerie" or owns a launderette. And besides, "his accent isn't quite right. A bit too much of a good thing". Their consternation when they discover, too late, who he really is, and that the marriage is several decades old, is very funny -- but the quiet perceptiveness with which Taylor shows what really lies behind Deirdre's devotion is astonishingly well done.
One of the most impressive stories in the volume is the first, Hester Lilly, which is probably long enough to be called a novella. "Deception enveloped them", writes Taylor, of the first meeting between jealous, unhappy Muriel and Hester, the young orphaned cousin who her husband Robert has decided to invite into their home. Although Muriel's fears about their relationship prove more or less groundless, the marriage, never secure, suffers badly from her misery and its results.
Perhaps I've made this sound as if the stories are depressing. But if you know Taylor's writing you won't be surprised to hear that they are also really funny at times. Not, of course, with uproarious jokes, but with quiet asides that managed to be wonderfully observant and witty -- remarks like
"'I'm afraid I don't care for cats,' said the Mayor, in the voice of simple pride in which this remark is always made"
or the attitude to virginity displayed in one story: "It seemed a privilege to have it under the same roof. They were always kindly enquiring after it, as if it were a sick relative."
Writing this, and dipping back into the volume to remind myself of things I'd liked, has made me want to start at the beginning again and read the stories all the way through for the second time. I can't recommend this highly enough. Wonderful stuff.