I'm sure I have said this before, but a book of short stories is like a box of chocolates. It's hard to tell until you bite into one to know just what you're getting. I've been lucky so far as I seem to only pull out dark chocolate truffles or lavender buttercreams. It's a good sign that I've yet to take a bite out of one and put it back. And be warned if you pick up this Persephone collection--you might, like me, find yourself with each new story deciding that you need to read more of the author's work.
I've got a Virago edition of Betty Miller's On the Side of the Angels somewhere amongst my book piles that I will have to dig out. Persephone Books has also published her novel Farewell, Leicester Square, which sounds quite intriguing. A story of antisemitism between the world wars. When I began reading Miller's 1935 short story "The Exile" I was expecting a frivolous sort of story about a Russian emigré who becomes a domestic servant in middle-class British household, but it turned out to be much weightier and serious in tone. So much so that I think I might need to reread it a little slower.
Aristocrats fleeing the Revolution in Russia often left the country with not much to their name than the clothes on their backs and ended up having to take jobs as doormen or waitresses in order to survive. For Lois Moore it seems having such a servant brings with it a certain cachet. Her husband Edmund, however, foresees the possibility of an upheaval.
"His old conservative desire to retain the present unaltered was alarmed at the prospect of change, of having to assimilate an entirely new person. He dreaded the adjustments, physical and practical that had to accommodate her."
Irina would not be an ordinary type of servant. No mere maid's quarters would do for a Russian emigré. With Irina comes bragging rights for Lois. "A real treasure" she calls her new maid. Not only an exquisite cook, but Irina was a proficient and hard worker, and she wasted no time phoning her friends to them just that. Irina, with her calm exterior and cool reserve, however, is more than simply a curiosity. When Lois begins probing Irina for bits of personal information, Irina offers her tale "without hesitation and without emotion, as though relating some event read in a book."
Irina recounts her tragic story of a love that was doomed and then lost and now she carries with her the weight of it all. When she left Russia she departed not only as a widow but as a woman who has also lost her true love. Although Lois and Edmund are childless, Edmund's younger brother Arthur lives with them. Irina will ruffle their well-ordered lives. A woman with a tragic past she must build around her a "spiritual shelter" that by story's end has been shattered. And in the process she causes Arthur to examine more closely the lives they lead.
"'What sort of life are we living," Arthur began, passionately, 'what meaning, what spiritual value--?' He broke off, ashamed of these large words. For a moment he looked very young, sheepish. But his brow darkened again. 'Just suffocating in day-to-day material things--doping ourselves comfortably, pretending we'll never die. Doping ourselves as not to realise--and thinking the dope is all that matters'."
Recognizing the limitations of their world, though not everyone in the house does so, is one thing but what they choose to do with the knowledge is another matter entirely.
A first read and the story felt a little ambiguous, but skimming through it a second time it seems as though Miller offers up little titbits of experience yet leaving it up to the reader to decide how to 'read' the story. Arthur, unlike Lois and Edmund, is open to the knowledge, but can he chance or accept it?
I'm exactly a third of the way into the book and making steady progress. Next week a story by Dorothy Canfield Fisher. It's about time that I read something by her!