Angelica Gibbs is another new-to-me author brought to light (once again) by the wonderful collection of The Persephone Book of Short Stories. Let's see. How many is that now? I've given up counting as it seems as though with each new story I discover, I want to read more by each and every author. So, might as well add Angelica Gibbs to the list.
Born in New York Gibbs went to Vassar and then wrote for McCall's and other magazines. She was on the staff of the New Yorker from 1931 onwards, and knowing just this little fact about her career (I seem to have a thing for New Yorker writers particularly from the first half of the twentieth century), it's a given that I'll be seeking her out now. Actually having a subscription to the magazine means I have access to their online archives and a cursory glance yields five pages worth of writings (mostly short stories) by Gibbs.
Not only did she write short stories, but also theatre reviews, poetry, profiles and essays. I see lots of fiction, and "The Test" anthologized in this collection, first appeared in the June 15, 1940 edition of the New Yorker. It's especially at moments like this that I want an iPad, so I can read through those archives from the comfort of a nice overstuffed chair.
"The Test" is an impressive story as Gibbs manages to convey in a mere five pages (yes, this is a very short story) the attitudes and prejudices of not just two men, but surely an entire community, maybe even an entire swathe of the broader society and how it effects one young woman. It's a maddening and disturbing story and one I would hope couldn't be written today, but I suspect that maybe it could--but simply couched in different language?
This is such a short story I'm afraid I'm going to give away details, so if you think you'd rather not know too much about what happens, you might want to skip the next paragraph or two.
The test in the title refers to a driving test, which twenty-seven year old Marian is taking for the second time. She's in the employ of Mrs. Ericson who wants her to have her license in order to drive her children to school. Her first attempt resulted in a failure with four mistakes--enough for the inspector to flunk her. It's not as though she can't drive as she had a license when she lived in Pennsylvania. Although not mentioned in the story, I'm guessing Marion is living somewhere in the South.
Mrs. Ericson notes that Marion drives beautifully and and tells her that anyone might slip on a steep hill on a rainy day, though Marion is skeptical that she made all the mistakes marked down last time by the inspector. As she doesn't want to make marion nervous, she leaves the car when the inspector arrives (thankfully not the same one as previously) for the test. And of course it's disastrous. The problem isn't how Marion drives, despite being faced with the most difficult conditions given by the inspector, rather it's the belittling attitude and prejudicial manner in which he treats Marion, a woman of color.
I won't give it all away, but Gibbs's story is very effective. The reader cringes at the things that are said and done and shocked that anyone would be treated in such a way. This is sort of a cautionary tale of just what came before and a reminder just what we are (sadly) capable of, and hopefully a reminder, too, of just how far we've come (and maybe thinking of how far we might still need to go) in terms of equality and simple respect for others.
With this story, which are organized by publication year, I am now up to 1940. I am official at the halfway mark (yes, this is a chunkster of a book really). There are thirty stories included and next week's instalment: a story by Helen Hull will be number fifteen. If I didn't already have so many other good books in progress I think I could contentedly sit and read this straight through. By the way, I think I have the next anthology of stories (also all by women) all lined up. How's that as a teaser? Are you curious what it is?