COMPLETE SHORT STORIESBy Elizabeth Taylor; introduced by Joanna KinghamVirago, $32.99
IT HAS always seemed to me that reading a book of short stories is like having a meal made up entirely of sandwiches. And especially of those genteel little ”points” from which the crusts have been removed: you’ve no sooner had a bite and liked what you’ve tasted than it’s all finished, and there’s nothing left but to grab another – and repeat the frustration.
Maybe we are not meant to read whole books of short stories, let alone one that runs to 626 pages; maybe Elizabeth Taylor’s daughter, Joanna Kingham, has not done her late mother a service by collecting them all in one hefty volume, though it is possible only a conscientious reviewer would dream of reading it straight through.
Taylor as a novelist enjoyed a reputation as a shrewd, subtle chronicler of the middle classes in their aspirations and limitations. She would occasionally embark on something darker and more ambitious (as in Angel, for instance) but, essentially, her work is firmly set in a Thames Valley of the mind when not, indeed, in the reality.
Still, it hasn’t hurt Jane Austen’s reputation that she kept to the field she knew, leaving more serious ambition to, say, George Eliot.
To get the limitations over first, this is the ambience for the most part with Taylor’s short stories. It comes almost as a shock to be on a Greek island in In a Different Light, where the point is made that ”people are different in different surroundings”, as the protagonist finds when she arranges a meeting back in ”the blue-and-green Thames Valley” with a holiday acquaintance.
But it’s not just a matter of setting, real or metaphoric, that can become a bit stifling over so many pages. Perhaps as one of the byproducts of this cast of mind, there is, for this reader at any rate, too much detailed description of flowers and clothes and furniture. She might have benefited by taking a leaf from the austere pages of her friend Ivy Compton-Burnett, who wouldn’t have wasted time on such minutiae.
There is also a recurring, and increasingly predictable, preoccupation with insensitive men (admittedly sharply sketched) who are responsible for the constraints of the lives of their women.
The only attempt at placing a man at the centre of the story that stays in the mind is A Dedicated Man, in which a hotel maitre d’ sets up an elaborate deception that all but unhinges his female co-worker.
In the 60-odd stories of the collection, few men emerge sympathetically: they are usually dashing off to be important at work or in clubs or pubs, and it’s hard to admire the quiet ones who leave things to dominant wives. More commonly, Taylor focuses here on middle-class women (though there is nothing patronising in her rarer dealings with working women) putting up with men who seem to believe they are bestowing favours on them.
The collection opens with one of the longest pieces, Hester Lilly, and in this and others of similar length, such as A Troubled State of Mind and Girl Reading, which all deal with social and other tensions, she allowed herself room to develop and unravel difficult relationships. These are sometimes surprisingly off-centre – a middle-age man daringly bringing a young cousin to live with him and his bitchy wife in Hester Lilly, or the ”troubled” young woman disconcerted when her best friend from school marries her widowed father. The best of the shorter tales can suggest a moment snatched from a longer narrative but others, such as the 2½-page Better Not, are so wispy they leave no trace.
There is often a quiet wit at work in the observation of assorted pushy, gushy, malicious types as they go about unsettling their families and others. In the ironically titled The Benefactress, the woman from the village pub sets about doing largely unwanted ”good” to the old girls in the almshouse. She derives immense gratification from imagining her own funeral where eulogists would intone, ”No one knows what people in this village owe her”. ”’There wasn’t a dry eye’, she told herself.”
And there is comedy of a broader kind in Perhaps a Family Failing, in which a bridegroom gets so drunk on his wedding night that he absent-mindedly leaves his bride in the hotel and staggers back to his family’s home.
As well as the rewards of wit and the shrewdness of insight that creates some memorable characters and situations, there is also a more unexpected sensuality that anchors some of the stories in a world in which more happens than the rattle of teacups.
There’s quite a lot of diversity in the sandwich fillings, and some of them are very tasty.
■ Brian McFarlane’s most recent book, Real and Reel, is published by Sid Harta.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.