My reading this weekend has been quite varied. I've spent time with my Persephone Book of Short Stories (and a few other books, too) as well as with the rather massive September issue of Vogue Magazine. It's interesting to think how both in very different ways reflect women's lives. My own falls somewhere between the two. Single with no children I can only be sympathetic towards the women in this week's short stories, yet flipping through the pages of Vogue I find little there either that is representative of my life. Had things turned out differently I might have had more in common with the wives and mothers in the stories, but the images in Vogue are more fantasy than anything else. A way to stretch the imagination or try and find some sort of inspiration. Of course both are instructive in their own way.
You might call this week's stories moments of domesticity--slice of life stories that likely ring true with many, or certainly at the time they were written. First up is "The Woman Novelist" by Diana Gardner published in 1950. Perhaps because it is a 'just after the war' story, where the way of life has begun to fade and change in England that it reminds me so much of Mollie Panter-Downes's One Fine Day.
How many women through the centuries have had to take pen in hand to provide for their families. How often has it been less a desire to fulfill some creative aspect of her life than a way to put food on the table and keep a roof over her family's heads?
"To keep the seven of them going--herself and Wykham, the three children, and the two old ladies, Wykham's mother and her mother, whose contributions barely covered the rent--allowed no chance for anyone to slip up on their job. If anyone did that, she could not then carry on with hers, and it was by her work that they lived. Including Wykham."
Wykham, after leaving the Army, has accepted a grant in order for him to live on London during the week as he prepares to take the Bar exam. Though Madeleine keeps the family going financially, she still has to organize the household, cook and clean on top of writing, which is her one respite from the rest of the drudgeries. Wykham is spending the week, vacation from his studies, supposedly prepping but it's all on a leisurely schedule. Madeleine, wishful that they could spend time alone together knows she must not mind too much, that he must be allowed to do as he please--she can do nothing to prevent him from one day getting to the Bar. As a nearly middle age woman she feels her youth and beauty fading while he seems to be getting more distinguished looking--more akin to someone who should be part of the gentry than in his present situation.
It's such a fine line even in the best of marriages. How to please the other while still being able to please yourself. What would the family do if their one household help, Beryl, were to leave? Young and pretty she is a breath of fresh air. For Wykham she is a temptation. A stolen kiss. But is it worth it? If she leaves the fine balance will be lost. How would Madeleine react towards her husband if she knew? And she does suspect Beryl is a temptation, but she trusts Beryl not to invite indiscretions. And how would Madeleine be able to write? So each potentially has something to lose. A fine balance indeed.
The second story, "What a Lovely Surprise", by Penelope Mortimer (herself a wife and mother of many children by the way) must surely have been titled with 'tongue-in-cheek' in mind. The domestic situation in this story is somewhat precarious. This is a traditional family trying to lead a nice, middle class life but perhaps barely hanging on financially. Something as simple as sending away laundry to be washed (if the husband would only wear drip-dry shirts like everyone else...or if the wife had a washing machine...) is enough to cause marital strife (sometimes it's the smallest problems that cause the biggest rows, isn't it?).
Jill is celebrating her 39th birthday and her family, as they do every year, is determined to make it 'her' day--a day to rest and relax and not worry about the household and its proper running. But you know how high expectations mean mostly stress and frustration and the inability for either the givers or the receiver to actually enjoy the celebrations.
For Jill there is the knowledge that chores need to be done in any case, and a day off today means more work tomorrow. For Paul, who has left work early to oversee the festivities no doubt there is the feeling of having left the real work to worry about the domestic side of life he rarely must attend to. It's only the children with their desire to please, and who unexpectedly make Jill really feel her age (handmade card inside reads: "Thirty-nine is not such a very great age to be/Think how you'd feel if today you were ninety-three"!), actually enjoy the day.
The pressures of happiness--in trying to give it and receive it! Inevitably high expectations are impossible to be met and usually just end in animosity and bad feelings. And a day meant to give pleasure ends with the two mad and sleeping in separate rooms! Luckily birthdays only come around once a year.
Next week, stories by Diana Athill and Elizabeth Spencer. I'll be finished with this collection by the end of this month and hope to start out September with some good ghost stories. I plan on digging through my bookshelves this week in search of potential RIP reads, but if anyone knows of any good ghost stories, either novels and novellas or short stories, please do share!