I am winding down in the Sylvia Townsend Warner story collection. Only forty pages left to read, but five stories. I am hoping to finish the book in the next few days. I like to spread out my short story reading and not take them in a big gulp, but as much as I have enjoyed her writing, I think I am ready to move on to something different. I have been thinking of returning to Elizabeth Jane Howard or maybe something entirely different. Or perhaps an anthology of stories collected by theme. As much as I am 'into' a book I am currently reading the promise of something new very soon is always a temptation I cannot resist.
I read two STW stories this weekend. The last two Mr. Edom/Abbey Antique Gallery stories were published in the late 1960s/early 1970s. "The Listening Woman", which I will tell you mostly about was written in 1965 but not published until 1972. Apparently the then editor of The New Yorker had wearied of the series. I've enjoyed them and quite like those interlinked sort of stories, but perhaps for a literary magazine it was just too samey? Her stories can be very quiet sorts of stories but sometimes they are quietly sly, if you know what I mean. A little jab at the end a satirical twist.
I think what I like most about these stories set in the world of antiques is the character of Mr. Edom who tends to take a person by surprise. He can come off rather curmudgeonly sometimes, but then a customer comes along and he'll treat her with such deference you wonder what it is about her that softens his heart.
"It is common experience how the possessions of one's childhood vanish . . ."
The narrator is thinking along the lines of a white mug with the letter D on it and whimsical pictures that illustrate it, or a marionette or a high chair. These little trinkets are long forgotten from "your ungrateful memory" until some small thing, like a thimble case in an antique store brings the memories flooding back. Miss Mainwaring, now an old woman, is highly regarded by Mr. Edom (high praise indeed his assistant Mr. Collins thinks). Miss Mainwaring is what we might term low maintenance. She is happy to browse without having to handle all the items and will usually buy something if only for manners' sake.
And then she spots "the candlelit woman"--a painting that was once owned by her parents and hanging on the walls of her childhood home. "So here you are" she says. Her father called it "Lucy's painting" as Miss Mainwaring liked to look at it as she grew up. The more she looked the more it seemed there was to see and think about. Her father died, the books went to her great aunt along withe books and she lost track of it. And here it is hanging in an antique shop, sadly in need of a good cleaning. And worse, a married couple are looking at it, too, contemplating purchasing it if only for the frame. They can always remove the painting since it is so dirty . . . Miss Mainwaring stands patiently waiting yet her desire for it is almost palpable. When she mentioned to the shop assistant that it was once her family's painting, you can tell he is thinking "poor mad woman".
I am very much enjoying the Alice Hoffman collection of interlinked stories, The Red Garden. I'm up to 1848 in "Owl and Mouse". There are common themes, aside from the stories' setting of Blackwell, Massachusetts over the centuries. Hoffman tends to write about women, women who tend towards the unconventional, often solitary and independent and always smart. There is a nod towards nature and the natural world. Blackwell is still so new as to be rugged yet the same families carry on and have established themselves. Some of the original homes are there and recognized.
Emily is one of my favorite characters so far. A student at Mount Holyoke Seminary, she is being removed by her family as she's not been happy there. "Her views were her own, and educators did not always appreciate free thought." On her last day before returning home she decides to go for a walk as she "often would go rambling as a child", and she had been known to collect flowers. Over time she had as many as six hundred different species.
"She liked to disappear, even when she was in the same room as other people. It was a talent, as it was a curse. There was something that came between Emily and other people, a white linen curtain, hazy. It made the world quieter and farther away, although occasionally she could see through to the other side."
I understand her restless feeling. She fears if she goes home she will never get away again. "There was something inside her, beating against her ribs, urging her to do things she might not otherwise attempt." And consider this is 1848! Her ramble is a serious ramble that lasts more than ten hours before she stops--just outside the town of Blackwell. I won't give away all the best bits of this story, which I think is a really lovely read and perhaps my favorite so far, but it involves a man who is blind, yet sees and understands her (a man who is also drawn towards to the horizon and discovering new worlds) and it involves the making of a fragrant garden.
Next week hopefully will see the end of the Sylvia Townsend Warner collection and I am now up to 1863 with "The River at Home" in the Alice Hoffman collection.