Rebecca West's "The Salt of the Earth" was just a little bit shocking. Quite a story to end this collection with. It's not what I would have expected from West, though I have not read nearly enough of her work to judge. But in thinking about it and it's decided overtones of class and convention (as mentioned in the introduction, and more about that in a minute), why not really. Have I caught your attention? Are you curious about what I am going on about? She plays with the reader a little bit, it seemed. And I thought it quite effective.
My first impression of Alice Pemberton when I initially met her was, oh dear, poor Alice. And indeed poor Alice is a refrain throughout the story. She's middle aged and it seemed that as much as she loves her mother, her mother hasn't much time for her. You see, she had "received a bitter hurt" from her mother. She had been visiting and decides to cut her visit short when an attractive young man offers her a ride home. What forty-year-old woman wouldn't mind the attentions of an attentive and admiring young man? Just such a gratification a woman of her years appreciates from time to time. And she does try and cushion the blow when she tells her mother. But . . .
". . . before she could well get the sentence out of her mouth there had flashed into her mother's eyes a look which nobody in the world could mistake for anything but an expression of intense, almost hilarious relief."
How awful. What a response to get from your own mother. She seems to want her out of the house. A fine country house. You see Alice is of a certain class and wealth and has married accordingly.
But don't be mislead. I was and it took me a while to truly get Alice's number. But there are clues along the way. Like:
"Anyway, even if her mother had not valued her properly then, she ought to have learned to do so, in the last few years of her age and mellowness. Hadn't she noticed what her daughter had done for her during her visit?"
-Put out of doors the horrible gypsyish old dressing-downy tea-gowns her mother had loved to shuffle about in for the evening
-Gone over the housekeeping books looking for ways to save money
-Put an end to the custom where Cook brought the menu book each night in preparation for the next day's meals and then embarked on a gossip fest (must never gossip with or in front of the servants)
If that isn't enough have about this (what she says to her sister):
"Yes, you are, most earthy and unwholesome. And it's all because you don't take enough exercise. Look at me! I'm out in all weathers. Really, dear, you must be careful. You know you're five years younger than me, and you look at least five years older."
Oh, my! The gall. If anyone, relative or not, said something like that to me . . . I think we have all met people like that before. And the less time spent with them the better.
Poor Alice? The more I read the more I had to reassess my initial impression of her. And all along the way West drops hints. These are pretty big hints, but there are a few subtle ones along the way, too, which lead up to that shocking and dramatic ending. This could almost be one of my summer suspense reads, but there is a little something more that I hinted at and that is noted in the introduction.
"The worst embodiment of middle-class leisure, [Alice Pemberton] has sharpened self-righteous interference to the point of tyranny . . . "
There is a comparison between the Rebecca West story and that by Edith Wharton, "Souls Belated". However, while in the Wharton divorce was an option--however difficult and unattractive--in England it was "simply unthinkable". Keeping in mind that the story was written in the 1930s. I realize this is a bit cryptic, but I don't want to give anything away. A perfect story to end the collection with. And a story to go and search for, or better yet, treat yourself to a copy of Infinite Riches--it is definitely a book worth owning.