First a little orientation here this week. I have a particular image in mind when I think of the sort of story Persephone Books publishes. Midcentury (or earlier usually) domestic fiction normally set in England, though sometimes in the US or possibly elsewhere. This week's story, "The Pain", felt a little different. Both the tone and setting were unexpected. With Dutch names--Juriaan van Royen and his wife Deltje living in the Aangenaam Valley--I was envisioning a story set in Holland, but this story by writer Pauline Smith is set in South Africa. Little Karoo to be exact. I'm not entirely sure when the story takes place but it was first published in 1923.
Flipping to the back of the book and the author description I have now 'met' a new author. Pauline Smith was born and grew up in rural South Africa. Apparently she's known as one of South Africa's greatest writers (which again just goes to show you how much I still have to learn and read!). It was Arnold Bennett, who became a close friend, who encouraged her to write. She only published one collection of stories and the novel The Beadle.
"The Pain" is quite melancholic in tone. Juriaan and Deltje, a childless couple, have been married for more than half a century. They are wholly devoted to each other and live simple lives. They are poor in material goods, the poorest in their valley, but rich in their love for one another. Nearing the age of seventy Deltje is stricken with a pain in her side that she cannot explain.
"And to them both, because all their lives they had been healthy, Deltje's pain was like a thing apart: a mysterious and powerful third person, who, for incomprehensible reasons, clutched at Deltje's side and forced her to lie helpless for hours on the low wooden bedstead in the little bedroom."
When Juriaan travels to a nearby village to buy medicine he meets a man who tells him of a new hospital in one of the Dutch settlements where Deltje can be treated. It's three days journey to travel there, which he happily does. He prepares a nest, a featherbed and pillows, for Deltje and then sets off not realizing that she will have to remain there, perhaps for many days, until she's cured. When Juriaan looks in on the women's ward he thinks to himself how like little babies the women look in their white gowns and caps. Unable to leave her there alone and return to his plot of land, he's allowed to camp outside the hospital.
For the first time in all their married lives they must sleep apart. And the ache in Deltje's side lessens in proportion to the ache she feels in her heart. When Deltje tries to tell the doctor and nurse she's better, they dismiss her feeble attempts convince them she has no more pain in her side. Matron tells her, it's she who will tell her when she is better. Juriaan feels that God has left them. Withdrawn.
"In this new and bewildering world the kindness of the English doctor, of the matron, and of the nurse reached them only as the kindness of human beings reaches the suffering of dumb animals. On neither side was there, nor could there be, complete understanding."
It's up to Juriaan to take matters in his own hands and restore her to her dignity.
There's an obvious respect by Smith of the people of the Little Karoo. She eloquently and in great detail describes their world, poor as it may be. It's obvious, too, that religion and politics play a part in life there. It feels as though God is someone to be reckoned with, and neither the English nor the Dutch look very warmly upon each other. An interesting and well told story about a place and time I've had little encounter with. (Why I love short story anthologies so much).
Next week a favorite of mine: E.M. Delafield.