I've always wondered just how old a "woman of a certain age" is? This is the sort of woman who as I recall seems to populate the novels of writers like Anita Brookner, and it's just the sort of woman I imagine Miss Timperley to be in Phyllis Bentley's short story "The Photograph". I've been curious about Phyllis Bentley's work for some time now as my library owns a number of her books and I have often flipped through them but haven't yet brought any of them home.
She sounds like an interesting woman. She worked as a "teacher, as a munitions clerk and as a librarian; during World War II she worked for the Ministry of Information." She began her career as a writer in the 1920s and published more than fifteen novels, and her most popular were a series of books set in Yorkshire about one family beginning with Inheritance in 1932.
"The Photograph" is yet another story I liked very much, making this Persephone collection a favorite short story anthology I've yet come across. It's a simple story, wryly told and yet another look at a woman's life. This time circa 1935, which is when it was first published. A story that's really as relevant today as it was when it was first written. What happens "of a certain age" begins to be passed over for jobs by those more youthful?
"'I shall say I'm twenty-nine,' said Miss Timperley recklessly, 'And I shall have my photograph specially taken'."
Miss Timperley is a governess, who at present has no ward. She's not just any sort of governess. She won't work in a nursery for example who require "jolly young things to nurse the baby and play with the children to keep them quiet". Miss Timperley's references are flawless and she speaks French fluently, but she's no longer young (despite her willingness to try and pass herself off for twenty-nine).
" . . . but there were some children, unluckier then the rest, who, by reason of some illness perhaps, some misfortune, some accident of heredity or environment, were not suited to the hearty rough and tumble of school life, some children, said Miss Timperley proudly, to whom she could be useful."
Miss Timperley always had a string of clients. One family would recommend her to another, so she was rarely without a position. Until now, and the family the agency believes she might be qualified to work for has asked for a photograph. As they are living on the Continent they're unable to meet directly with prospective governesses, so what is Miss Timperley to do. Everyone seems to want only the "jolly young things" who are as attractive as they are youthful. And Miss Timperley, sadly, is no longer either. To make matters worse, times are changing and families no longer require governesses but send the children to schools, so it's the children who require the extra attention that are Miss Timperley's specialty.
Her plan, then, is to hire a flashy and expensive West End photographer who can show her off to her best advantage. Even choosing the smallest size photo will put a pinch on her pocket book, but needs must. "She would have a new, modern, young, almost coquettish--Miss Timperley smiled and bridled at the word--photograph taken." Unfortunately things don't turn out as hoped for. Seeing the finished photo is a shock for Miss Timperley. Was she really like that? And her landlady assures her it is quite the correct likeness, as if that's meant to be a good thing.
Miss Timperley puts me in mind of poor Miss Milliment in Elizabeth Jane Howard's Cazalet Chronicles, another ageing spinster with little money and less hope of finding a position (save for the Cazalet family). What did these women do, particularly at a time when there were so few avenues open for women of a certain age in the workplace. This was a wonderful story with a wonderful twist.
Next up is a story by Betty Miller. I'll also be reading a few stories from Alice Munro's newest collection, Dear Life, this week. I've been looking forward to getting back to her work.