How is it that a writer who has been dubbed "the Bradford Chekhov" and who was regarded in the Twenties and Thirties as one of the period's finest writers has gone so long unknown to me? I know I can depend on Persephone Books, of course, to bring these forgotten writers back into the light. Vita Sackville-West compared her to Katherine Mansfield, so there are two references now to writers whose work I admire that makes me think I need to seek out more stories by Marjorie Whitaker. She was born in 1895 but wrote under the name Malachi Whitaker. She was quite prolific with a burst of writing that included nearly 100 short stories that were collected in four books as well as an autobiography. After her memoir was published in 1939 she decided to give up writing.
Three of her stories were broadcast on the BBC's Radio 4 in 2011 (am guessing that's their more literary channel and as it's possible to stream them via the computer I really should pay more attention to their programs). I read that she "chronicled the lives of ordinary folk in the North of England with her compassionate pen, sympathetically observing the ins and outs of the minutiae of their lives". (You can read the article here).
The mother and son that Whitaker writes about in "The Music Box" certainly exemplify that statement. Whitaker writes with an economy of style in this very short story about the pair who want only to bring a little beauty, in the form of music, into their lives but are prevented by a miserly and angry husband.
"His wife had never been able to call him by his Christian name, Theakstone. It seemed to her silly, so she called him 'the father'. In the early days of her marriage she had referred to him as 'he', or, when driven into a corner, as 'the master', but she did not like to say this often, as it was too true."
Whatever the circumstances that brought husband and wife together, and little of their relationship is alluded to, other than Theakstone is a much older husband, the relationship of mother and son is one of obvious companionship and affection.
"He could not bear to be far away from his mother; she was the only real part of his world. There were other children of the same age living near, but he did not feel the want of a playmate."
It's on one of their Sunday visits to the chapel, about which everything is delightful, that they are beguiled by the music played on the harmonium. Henry discovers that it's rolled into a cloak room when not in use and presses the keys and peddles, the whooshing of air and the notes that spill out frighten and please him. Music! He pulls his mother to the cloak room to show her, overjoyed with the sound he creates.
The family is poor, but Henry is promised that every penny will be saved so they can, too, purchase a harmonium. But their stash of pennies, so painstakingly saved, must be hidden from the father. Twice he nearly found their hiding place. When they take their savings to the music store in the hopes of finally buying a harmonium, they discover they will never be able to afford such a treasure as the price is too dear. But the shopkeeper shows them something better.
"As he spoke, he lifted the box onto an old packing case pushed into a roll of perforated paper, and began to turn a handle. The boy and the woman stood stiff as statues, but entranced. Beside this, a harmonium was nothing!"
But a music box is not practical, and Theakstone is nothing if not practical.
Maybe every short story is, in its way, a little slice of life. "The Music Box" is very melancholic. It's a glimpse into a life of mean existence where the gift of music and the promise of a little happiness and joy is not easily afforded.
Next week a story by the inimitable Dorothy Parker!