My previous post, about Jane Austen, got a comment, which I greatly appreciate, from Matt Kaul.
The collection of thirteen short stories now titled A Stranger with a Bag was originally published as Swans on an Autumn River in (as far as I can tell: the information available online is confusing) 1961, then rereleased under its present title five years later. I suspect that the change of title was meant to emphasize the importance of the stranger in these stories. The story “Swans on an Autumn River” features a man in his late sixties visiting Ireland for the first time, though he had had a vague idea of coming here for romantic reasons when he was much younger. He had even tried to enlist in the Black and Tans, which would have been an extraordinarily aggressive way of visiting a country that he apparently felt an affinity for!
The “autumn river” is the Liffey, and the title of the story may evoke both W B Yeats and his brother Jack. The visitor, Norman Repton, who is a sanitary engineer attending a conference, had learned “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” by heart as a child. The swans suggest another of Yeats’s best known poems, “The Wild Swans at Coole”, while the river features in Jack Yeats’s painting, “The Liffey Swim”. Repton’s hotel, which he says is on Inns Quay — though in fact Inns Quay is wholly taken up by the Four Courts building — seems to be in roughly the same position as the viewer in Jack Yeats’s painting. (I suspect that Repton’s hotel is the Ormond, on Ormond Quay, where in Ulysses Leopold Bloom hears Ben Dollard singing. It’s also where my parents had their wedding reception. Repton’s visit would have occurred roughly halfway between these events.)
Repton finds Dublin confusing, not particularly welcoming and not at all what he was expecting. Tired of walking, he goes into a Catholic church.
Here at least he could sit down. Sit down he did. But it made him feel conspicuous, for the other people scattered about the building — and though nothing was happening there was quite a number of them — were on their knees. Roman Catholics, of course. He had nothing against them, but they made him feel awkward and a stranger. (p. 128)
Repton’s stay in Dublin ends in farcical disaster, when he falls backwards, banging his head on the ground, while attempting to feed the swans with bread he has taken from the hotel breakfast table, and finds that aggressive seagulls are more interested than the swans in what he has to offer. A policeman who has been directing traffic examines him and asks someone to phone for an ambulance.
The new title story has a stranger too. Clive Peters is a travelling salesman who crosses the familiar East Anglian landscape by train, attempting to sell household wax, furniture polish and similar products. The firm’s owner is traditional and cautious; he discourages initiative and enterprise and is the uncle of Ella, Clive Peters’s wife. One day, Clive notices an unfamiliar house as the train passes. When the train makes an unscheduled stop, Clive gets out and goes looking for the house. He meets a young boy with a blocked nose, the result of a cold, who quickly hands him a carving knife and solicits him to “burder” the boy’s father. It emerges that the boy’s mother has recently run away with a mechanic and the father has declared that he won’t take her back, even if she comes on bended knees. Clive momentarily makes a mental correction to “mended knees”.
The boy’s father turns out to be a prickly, awkward individual, but Clive eventually gets away without anyone having suffered serious injury. (The father has hit his nose against a chair and is coming to sound just like his son.) It is now dark, Clive is in the middle of nowhere and he has no idea how to get home. Having climbed a signpost to read it by the light of his cigarette lighter, he opts to walk five miles to a town he knows. He still has to think of a story that will satisfy his employer and won’t be contradicted by his wife, the employer’s niece. He finds it’s not at all easy to make up a story that won’t be open to various logical and/or common sense objections.
Clive’s predicament in finding himself lost in unfamiliar countryside is similar to that of Belinda, the protagonist of “Heathy Landscape with Dormouse”. Following the death of her father, Belinda has been “one of those sacrificial daughters” (p. 65), kept at home to take care of her mother. Desperate to escape, she accepted a marriage proposal from Leo Cooper, a wealthy Londoner who has not been “born into the tradition of English country life” (p. 63) as Belinda and her mother have. Though not long married, Belinda and Leo are not getting on well, and Belinda recognizes that she has made a series of mistakes:
But to get away from Mother she had married Leo, who was so much in love with her and whom she immediately didn’t love; and then to get away from Leo, and with nowhere else to run to, she had run home. Somehow it had not occurred to her that Leo would come too. For the first few days he had stalked about being intolerably uncivil to his hostess. (p. 70)
But Belinda’s mother, perceiving the discord between the newlyweds, had set about welcoming her son-in-law into the family, to the point where he reflects “… if ever I get away, she will have sewn labels of ‘Leo Leslie’ on all my underclothes” (p. 66).
When the three go on a picnic, to which Mrs Leslie insists on bringing an old family picnic basket, “the size of a cabin trunk, built for eternity out of red wicker, equipped with massy cutlery and crockery” (pp. 63–4), Belinda abandons the others, with picnic basket, on the heath and drives off. She intends to leave them alone together for part of the afternoon, as a form of punishment. However, first she gets lost, then finding herself somewhere she recognizes: an ancient church now serving as a barn beside the sea, she decides to rest a bit and wakes to find it’s eight in the evening. The car has run out of petrol, so she sets out to walk to a village four or five miles away, like Clive in the earlier story.
Earlier, as Belinda was leaving the others behind, we were told:
Belinda was one of those fortunate people who fly into a rage as though into a refrigerator. Walking across the heath in the glaring post-meridian sun, she had felt a film of ice encasing her, armouring her from head to foot in sleekness and invulnerability. (p. 68)
As she goes in search of petrol for the car, though, her mood has changed. The village she arrives at doesn’t have a petrol filling station and nowhere is open. She manages to make a reverse charge phone call and finds (as she expected) that her mother is at home. She had sent Leo to find “a man” who would drive them and their picnic basket home. He had found an Archdeacon who was happy to do so. Belinda slams down the phone, cutting her mother off midsentence.
She had never lost her temper with so little satisfaction. She could not even enjoy her usual sensation of turning cold, for she was cold already. (p. 78)
The collection’s longest and best known (or notorious, if you prefer) story is “A Love Match” and it concerns incest between a brother and sister. It starts during the First World War, when the brother, Justin Tizard, has been promoted to Captain for, as he puts it, “Practical reasons … My habit of not getting killed. They were bound to notice it sooner or later” (p. 100). The same habit later leads to his further promotion to Major.
It’s a habit that was unfortunately not shared by his sister’s fiancé, Tim, a legacy from whom left her rich and able to afford a flat in London, while her mother’s remarriage and emigration “to get away from England and the war” (p. 102) made it necessary for her to set up her own home.
Warner treats the incest with a matter-of-fact coolness that does nothing to make it less disturbing. Clearly the war, with its ever-present risk (and fact) of death, and the consequent weakening of inhibitions, has something to do with it. There’s also the fact that Justin’s sleep is disturbed by post-traumatic stress disorder (though that term was not used at the time), something that Celia can’t help overhearing:
Three Justins competed, thrusting each other aside: a cold, attentive observer, a debased child, a devil bragging in hell. (p. 103)
It’s when Celia goes to try to calm or comfort the unquietly sleeping Justin that they have sex for the first time. That they continue to do so is at least partly because they have ceased to recognize each other as siblings. Celia is now a bereaved woman, independent and living in her own home; Justin a wartime military officer.
Dressed in black, possessing these new surroundings, she seemed mature and dignified beyond her actual three years’s seniority. For the first time in his life he saw her not as a sister but as an individual … In the sitting room was Celia, still a stranger, though now a stranger without a hat. (p. 101)
At first they do not expect the sexual relationship to continue: he thinks he will be killed, she that she would have his child, “to which she would devote the remainder of her existence” (p. 105). But she is not pregnant and he is not killed, but sustains a shrapnel wound in his leg, which leaves him with a limp. While he’s recovering, Celia visits him in hospital, wearing a green dress.
For a moment the leaf-green Celia was almost as much of a stranger as the Celia all in black had been. (p. 106)
After the war, the pair go to live in Carnac, in Brittany, but are persuaded to return to live discreetly in a quiet English village near the sea, where Justin will take on the role of curator of a small local museum. After several years, Celia becomes dissatisfied with life in the village of Hallowby, feeling that they are “eating its wholesome lotus like cabbage” (p. 112). When the depression of the 1930s puts some of the local shops and enterprises out of business, she begins to act with a degree of eccentricity that draws attention to herself.
Celia’s uneasy goodwill and smouldering resentment found their outlet. As impetuously as she had flung herself into Justin’s bed, she flung herself into relief work at Hallowby juxta Mare. Being totally inexperienced in relief work, she exploded there like a nova. Her schemes were so outrageous that people in authority didn’t think them worth contesting even … (p. 114)
She finds herself campaigning with unemployed workers and “not so deeply impressed by their goodness as she had been by the idealized goodness” of the doomed small shopkeepers and business people, “she was impressed by their arguments; she became political, and by 1936 she was marching in Communist demonstrations …” (pp. 114–5).
She begins to receive poison-pen letters from someone who seems to know, or have guessed, about her sexual relationship with her brother. She doesn’t show these letters to Justin immediately but, when she does, he at once recognizes the sender as Mary Semple, the daughter of the school chaplain, recently returned from finishing school.
“Justin! Have you been carrying on with Mary Semple?”
No, I wouldn’t say that. She’s got white eyelashes. But ever since she came home, Mary Semple has been doing all she could to carry on with me … (p. 117)
“I wouldn’t say that” is hardly an unequivocal denial, but Celia reflects that “It was Justin’s constancy that mattered, not his fidelity — which was his own business” (p. 119).
Justin and Celia are killed during the Second World War when a German bomber, prevented from reaching the nearby ironworks, jettisons its bombs. The Tizards’ house is not directly hit but the blast brings down their roof and a chimney stack, so that they are crushed in their bed. Finding them, the rescue workers decide that the official story should be that “He must have come in to comfort her …” (pp. 121–2), a hypothesis accepted by the coroner.
Does this suggest that, if the villagers had long ago suspected the true nature of the secret relationship between the Tizards, they would have ignored their suspicions and kept their own counsel, so that events would have unfolded exactly as they did in fact? Perhaps that’s exactly what happened.
The final story, “A Long Night”, features two people who are strangers to each other — strangers on a train, in fact, though they don’t have homicidal schemes to exchange. Henry Sparrow, evidently well off and self-indulgent, is not impressed by the young man who shares his table in the dining car on the train from Rome to Calais.
A weedy specimen: long, thin neck, high, spotty forehead, callow chin beard — everything about him was weedy. With his shabby-jaunty air, and his pale eyes flinching in their dark circles of sleeplessness, he was at once pathetic and unprepossessing. (p. 203)
The young man is boastful, as well as being disdainful of the family who share his compartment: a Sardinian fisherman and his wife, taking their son to London where they’ve been told he can receive treatment that may save his life. He says he has not slept for four nights.
Seeing that his unwanted dining companion is likely to collapse unless he rests, Henry insists on giving up his sleeper compartment, though he is furious with the young man for his attitude towards the Sardinian family, no less than for his very existence:
He really did not know what he would do, except that nothing on earth should prevent him from doing a thing he would do with the utmost ill-willingness. (p. 208)
Henry takes the now vacant seat in the Sardinians’ compartment, where he hears their story. Later, he summarizes the events of the long night:
Since entering Switzerland, he had thrust a young man into his sleeper because he loathed him, prepared himself to fight a wagon-lit attendant, compelled a motor saleman out of his corner seat, and fallen in love with a fisherman’s wife — who had addressed exactly one remark to him, and that on a false assumption. (p. 218)
The attendant tells him that the young man left the train at Paris (though his final destination had been Liverpool, it was raining in Paris and he had no overcoat) and that Henry can have the sleeper back. Henry sees that the young man must have “felt a reciprocal dislike” as strong as his own, and therefore avoided having “to put up some show of thanks to the odious old fellow who at any moment would reappear with his chilblained civility” (p. 222).
Something like Henry’s aggressively offensive generosity is evident in another story, “An Act of Reparation”, in which the first Mrs Fenton Hardcastle, Lois, happens to run into her successor, Valerie, in the bank. Valerie isn’t a versatile cook and Fenton has intimated that he’s fed up of eating roast chicken every weekend and would like something different.
Lois has been feeling guilty about taking advantage of Fenton’s affair with Valerie (née Fry) as her opportunity to escape from the marriage, leaving behind her a vacancy into which Valerie almost inevitably slipped.
So, Lois volunteers to help Valerie to shop for a suitable meal — she settles on an oxtail — and goes home with her to cook it, her act of reparation for having landed Valerie with Lois’s former husband. Of course the act of reparation didn’t really leave Valerie any better off, except in the very short term. She would not find it easy to repeat the feat of preparing an appetizing weekend meal — and now Fenton’s expectations have been raised.
Of the stories I haven’t mentioned, some are more serious than others but all have a strong element of often ironic humour, and all worth reading. The theme of the stranger is continued in “Johnnie Brewer” (in which a young man who has been brought up in Australia revisits his grandmother and great-aunt, who live fractiously together, after a gap of nine years during which he has grown up) and “Fenella” (in which English art-lovers comeing back from the Venice Biennale, visit the remote village where an eminent art critic and connoiseur had taken refuge years earlier). In “Total Loss”, the parents of a 10-year-old, Charlotte, send her to stay for the day with friends while the vet humanely ends the life of the aged cat who has been a fixture throughout the girl’s life. The friends suffer a series of catastrophes, including a lightning strike that set fire to their roof and terrified their horses:
“No, nothing’s insured except the portraits and the horses. Giles won’t, on principle. Yes, calamitous — but it could have been worse. No, no, not at all, it’s been a pleasure having her.” (p. 197)
Charlotte, who has found the burning roof and the frightened horses “marvellous” and “thrilling” and has had a great time carrying water to put out the fire, is crushed by the discovery that the cat is dead and that there isn’t even a body to bury as the vet took it away.
Two rather more lighthearted stories that I particularly like are “The View of Rome”, in which an engraver who has been released from hospital after an ulcer almost killed him, is told by the vicar’s wife as she drives him home:
“I wonder how you know all these things. You life a totally selfish life, you never go beyond your own gate and yet you know about occupational risks …” (p. 145)
The engraver accepts this judgment uncomplainingly. (The occupational risk in question, a bee sting at the harvest festival, had killed Canon Urchfont who wasn’t as lucky as our protagonist.)
In “Happiness”, a magazine feature writer who has the task of selling her cousin Esther’s house to set up a trust for the education of Esther’s twin great-great-nieces (now aged 3), briefly fantasizes about buying the house for herself and restrains herself from having a fling with the estate agent who comes up with the idea of making the property more saleable by getting planning permission to build two bungalows in the ample frontage.
Edition: Faber Finds paperback, Faber and Faber, 2011; ellipses added.