An easy story for a lazy Sunday. There's nothing for it but to ease back into my Persephone Book of Short Stories. Where did I leave off? Oh yes, all the way back in early June with Mollie Panter-Downes's Minnie's Room. Has it really been that long ago? Time certainly flies by, doesn't it? After my little hiatus filled with mystery reads, I am very much back in the mood for a little "domestic" fiction. It's one of those reading phases I think I mentioned recently.
This weekend's reading included a very short story by Margaret Bonham (1913-1991) called "The English Lesson", which was published in 1947. She is another new to me author. There is just the barest of information about her--she married three times and had three children. She wrote short stories for magazines which were eventually collected in a book called The Casino (I had it in my hands for a short while but it had to go back to the library--will be looking for it again later, however). She also wrote a mystery called (if I am matching the right author to the right book) The House Across the River. I can't find a description of it, but I am tempted to try and track it down through interlibrary loan as the title has me intrigued.
"The English Lesson" is a quiet sort of story, something of a character study. It has one of those moments where the protagonists, young schoolgirls, have an epiphany that sheds light on their previous bad behavior and rude assumptions. It is perhaps a small step in the direction of learning something about life and the mysteries of adulthood. A small slice of life maybe, this story is.
It takes a special person to be a teacher, and I know I lack those qualities (and more, the desires) that would make me good teacher material. So I can sympathize only too well with Miss Maurer when she has a feeling of dread ("she was cold with apprehension") at the idea of taking on form IVa for their English lesson. Imagine a classroom of young, spirited girls who like "ragging" their teacher.
"Miss Maurer thought in desolation, if I smile they get worse than ever, and if I am stern they laugh behind the desks."
I'm convinced that young people, young students particularly, can smell the fear and weaknesses in their teachers. And the seventeen of IVa can sense and see it in Miss Maurer. There's always at least one girl who is leader of the pack. She sets the tone and draws the line of what is acceptable and allowed of her cohorts. In this case it's Prue Leigh who happens to be celebrating a birthday. Prue is precocious and gets her way more often than not. She also likes to stir up trouble.
For her birthday her mother comes to take Prue for a special tea with chocolate cakes to celebrate. Who do you think they spot in the restaurant? For Miss Maurer this time alone is a much desired respite from the stress and frustrations of school. Prue tells her mother about giving their teacher a hard time.
"She's one of those hags - well, she's quite kind and all that, I suppose, but people simply shouldn't let themselves, should they? I wouldn't, would you?"
Prue's mother spots a dark beauty in the restaurant, a woman of mystery and exotic good looks. When she points her out to Prue, Prue is shocked and surprised that it is none other than her teacher Miss Maurer that her mother has commented on so favorably. The woman she takes such delight in ragging, a woman she imagines to be ever so dull. This is the woman her mother finds so beautiful. She can't quite believe it. Her mother tells her she's too young to understand.
It's all perception, isn't it? One woman can see it, this exotic and unusual beauty, in another. Someone, young and inexperienced can only imagine beauty as something that might be reflected back from her own limited worldview--the norm and expected. And the woman herself? Unaware of the power she has, aware only of her limitations maybe and shortcomings. That's Miss Maurer.
A simple story, told well. One with more to think about if you look below the surface, just as the girls in form IVa must do.
Next week, Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery". A reread and a story I am very much looking forward to revisiting. Only eight stories left in this collection by the way. I should finish it just in time for this year's RIP and will be able to move on to some good ghost stories, I hope.