Introduction by Simon Thomas
Reviewed by Harriet Devine
When I saw the title and the snowflakey cover of this winter offering from the British Library Women Writers series, I thought I’d be in for some cosy reading for the long cold nights. Not so. There are some truly great stories in here, some by authors you probably haven’t heard of, others by names you’ll know well: Edith Wharton, Elizabeth Bowen, Katherine Mansfield, Shirley Jackson, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Elizabeth Taylor and Angela Carter. Some are funny, some are sad, some are moving, all are thought-provoking, but cosy they are not. As Simon Thomas – one of our founders – writes in his introduction:
These stories focus on the particular experiences of women throughout the twentieth century – reflecting the changing roles and rights of women over the period, and the way their public and private lives were influenced by this flux. You’ll find women judged by their appearance, experiencing unequal power dynamics in marriage, battling against restrictions and exploring new freedoms – as well as rejoicing in sisterly relationships.
The stories appear in chrolological order, beginning with Edith Wharton in 1902 and ending with Carter in 1974. Having a mania for dates, I’d like to have seen them attached to the stories themselves, but it’s necessary to refer to the introduction for publication details, and the introduction discusses the stories by theme rather than chronology. This sounds like I’m complaining but it’s just a tiny quibble and made no difference to my enjoyment of the contents, which are hugely pleasurable.
There are too many stories here to be able to say something about each of them, so here are a few favourites. The first has to be the first in the book, Edith Wharton’s ‘The Reckoning’ (1902). Simon says in the introduction that it ‘may feel its from another era in its controversies about a “modern marriage”’, but I thought it dealt with issues which are equally relevant today. Julia and Clement Westall have agreed to stay married only as long as both partners are equally in love. It was Julia’s idea, following a previous unhappy marriage, but perhaps needless to say she is devastated when Clement takes her up on her suggestion. I’m sure there are still couples today who enter relationships with the same high ideals, for one partner to be dreadfully disillusioned when they realise what it’s like in reality.
Elizabeth Bowen’s ‘Ann Lee’s’ (1926) starts in fashionable Chelsea, where two women meet to go in search of hats. The shop run by Ann Lee is rather off the beaten track ‘in one of the dimmer and more silent streets of south west London’, but worth seeking out for it’s supremely beautiful, though expensive hats. Ann herself is a quiet, almost self-effacing young woman who Mrs Logan is ‘predisposed to like… for her supreme indifference to custom’. While the two friends are dithering over an eight guinea hat, a large man suddenly barges in from the street and refuses to leave despite Ann saying she is busy. Who is he and what does he want? The end of the story has a clue, but the reader has to guess for themselves.
The story that follows, ‘The Snowstorm’ (1935) is by one Violet MacDonald, about whom apparently nothing is known. It’s a fascinating, intriguing story about two strangers who embark on a dangerous journey in the snowstorm of the title, a journey that ends at a beautiful empty house, where the two form an unlikely but fulfilling relationship which will almost certainly end as quickly as it began.
The great Sylvia Townsend Warner’s story, ‘The Cold’, was published in 1945. It’s an annoying winter cold which affects everyone in Mrs Ryder’s household: ‘From the old Ryders the Cold descended to the third and fourth generation, to Geraldine and her two boys’, and most of them take to their beds. And of course it also gets hold of Stella, the cook and maid and nanny. Stella is a treasure, and Mrs Ryder feels lucky to have her.
Naturally one took care of such a treasure. Stella’s cold was given quite as much consideration as any other family cold and dosed out of the same bottle. In the worst of the epidemic Mrs Ryder said that if Stella did not feel better by midday, she really must be sent to bed. For several evenings Mrs Ryder and Geraldine washed up the supper dishes so that Stella might sit quietly by the stove mending the surplices intead of shivering in the back kitchen; and when Stella’s cough persisted after other coughs had died away Geraldine went in specially by bus to look for blackcurrent lozenges and came back with some wonderful pastille flavoured with horehound.
How long will Stella put up with it?
Readers of the British Library Women Writers series will know of Elizabeth Berridge, whose 1967 novel Sing Me Who You Are was published by them earlier this year. Her story ‘The Prisoner’ dates from 1947 and tells of Miss Everton, a lonely middle-aged woman whose quiet life is disturbed when a group of German prisoners of war are recruited to work on a field at the end of her garden. But some quiet, friendly visits from Erich lead to some thoughful conversations and a developing friendship which makes a surprising change to Miss Everton’s life.
And finally I can’t end without a mention of Elizabeth Taylor’s ‘The Thames Spread Out’ (1959) in which aging beauty Rose realises that her long term married lover Gilbert won’t be able to come for his weekly visit because the whole area is flooded. Disappointment gives way to acceptance and finally to some self-questioning which will have gratifying, if uncertain, results.
It’s not too late to buy this book as a Christmas present for anyone you think would enjoy it – I’m certainly giving it myself. But even if you’ve bought all your presents already (I certainly haven’t) you can buy it for yourself. You won’t regret it.
Harriet is a co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny New Books
Stories for Winter and Nights by the Fire, introduced by Simon Thomas (British Library, 2023). 978-0712368766, 208pp., paperback original.
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