I spent such a long time refusing to read short stories! I would always say I needed something to get my teeth into, and only a novel would fit the bill. But then I was converted, by the wonderful Virago edition of Elizabeth Taylor's stories, and hot on the heels of that, what should pop through the door (or rather land in the mailbox outside the door) but Persephone's new collection of stories by lots and lots of writers, some well known others completely unheard of, by me at least.
Being a frightful stickler for chronology, I was very happy to find that the stories here are arranged in order of writing or publication. In case you're wondering why this is such a good thing -- well, for one thing it lets you see how -- or if -- women's lives and expectations have changed over the past hundred or so years. Because yes, all the stories are by, and about, women. And of course, though lives and opportunities have changed, feelings, needs and desires remain constant. So, in Susan Glaspell's 1909 story, little Edna Willard, fresh out of college and working at a disappointingly menial job in a publishing company, experiences love and loss quite as intensely as Penelope Fitzgerald's 1983 Hester, a single mother drawn in spite of herself to the silent Polish lodger who has been 'got' through Hester'spart-time job at the Red Cross.
There are some big names in here -- as well as Fitzgerald there's Katherine Mansfield, Dorothy Parker, Edith Wharton, Irene Nemirovsky, and those perennial Persephone favourites Mollie Panter Downes and Dorothy Whipple, to name but a few. Several of the reviews I've read have singled out Wharton's 'Roman Fever' (1934) which is indeed a beautifully handled story about two middle-aged friends, revisting Rome together after more than twenty years. The subtle shifts in the reader's perception of their relationship, and the gradual revelations of the past, leading to a wonderfully shocking and understated ending, all done in less than twenty pages, are really superb. But I was almost equally intrigued by 'Nine Years is a Long Time' (1938) by the much less well known (to me, anyway) Irish writer Norah Hoult. Here's how it starts:
It wasn't until October was well under way that she began to wonder that she had had no word from him. Even then she didn't actually worry. He had probably gone on some business trip. Men in a good position, like he certainly was, often went away on business looking after their affairs. He might have gone to London: he was a member of some swell club there. That she did know, for he'd let out one day something about an important call being put through to his club in town, and he had had to return to Rotherfield sooner than he had expected.
That is such an excellent first paragraph! The first couple of sentences could really take you anywhere, but by the end you have some sense of what kind of relationship this must have been. But just as you think you've got the hang of it, in the third paragraph there's a sudden surprise: Her husband thought it was funny too. And gradually, over the space of eighteen pages, you get a picture of this marriage, of Mrs Scott who worries she is getting old and fat, of Mr Scott, equally concerned at his wife's anxiety about the continued absence and silence of the man who has been in her life for nine years, of their daughter Irene who thinks her mother wears too much lipstick and who hates men: Once she had told her straight: Well, if it hadn't been for my men friends, you'd have had a thin time when you were a kid, I can tell you. Unusual, understated -- I loved this one.
I could go on -- there's a gothic-ish tale by Shirley Jackson, the story of a disastrous new marriage by Dorothy Parker, an account of a teenager's coming-of-age by Diana Athill, Betty Miller's story about the effect on a conventionally dull marriage of the appearance of an exotic foreign domestic.... Well, why not buy this yourself and make your own discoveries?