My rating: 6.5/10
Fifteen short stories by the prolific Hugh Walpole, originally published in various periodicals between 1922 and 1928. An eclectic mix, including several quietly creepy horror stories: The Tiger, The Tarn, Major Wilbraham, and, in my opinion, for its Kafkaesque atmosphere, The Dove.
A more than readable collection, though I didn’t feel that most of these were “top rank” for the short story genre of their era. They share something of a common theme, of yearning for various things, and of regret for decisions made in the past, and of the inexorability of fate and the urges – with varying degrees of success – to go against it.
A gentle yet pervasively melancholy mood hovers over these stories, though they have a certain degree of humour and occasional happy resolutions, though always with an ironic twist. Shadows of the recent Great War and its effect on the collective psyche are very apparent in this collection; an interesting example of English literature between the 20th Century’s two world wars.
- The Little Donkeys with the Crimson Saddles – Two lady-friends keep shop together (fancy work and antiquities) in Silverton-on-Sea, but their happy establishment appears to be about to dissolve when the younger receives a proposal of marriage from a very eligible man.
- The Tiger – Londoner Homer Brown dreams of being hunted by a tiger in the jungle; the dream accompanies him to New York, where it comes inexorably to a shocking climax.
- No Unkindness Intended – Elderly, slovenly, ineffectual Mr. Hannaway, vicar of a city parish, is offhandedly dismissed from parlour after parlour, and things look dreary indeed until his path crosses that of a similarly situated small dog.
- Ecstasy – A modestly successful poet who has been musing about his life and his twenty-year-old marriage and wondering where the ecstasy of the younger years has vanished to spends an afternoon with a tramp and regains hold of the key to contentment.
- A Picture – Two lovers discover their essential differences over opinions of a small oil painting.
- Old Elizabeth – A Portrait – An unemotional family, habitually unsentimental, are brought to their figurative knees by an elderly servant.
- The Etching – Bullying Mrs. Gabriel goes too far when her otherwise meek husband discovers and indulges a passion for collecting old etchings.
- Chinese Horses – This is one of the star stories of the collection, to my mind, elaborating on the theme of the first story, The Little Donkeys. Middle-aged Miss Henrietta Maxwell has nothing in the world but her beloved house, which she is forced to let due to financial difficulties after the war. An opportunity arises to bring her standard of living back to a higher level, but is it worth the compromises required?
- The Tarn – The second horror story of the collection, and a very effective one at that. Author Fenwick’s life has always been shadowed by the more successful Foster; now the two are together as Foster seeks conciliation for the bitterness Fenwick feels. Fenwick isn’t really interested in making friends with his rival…
- Major Wilbraham – An unusual story about a retired army major and his personal religious epiphany and its tragic – or is it truly tragic? – result. I am undecided as to whether this is a supernatural tale, or merely an attempt by the author at a religious allegory of sorts.
- A Silly Old Fool – A chance remark by a patronizing wealthy parishioner changes Canon Morphew’s life, as he becomes aware of the possibility of seeking and attaining romantic love. But striving is not always rewarded with success…
- The Enemy – Bookseller Harding is annoyed by the insistence of chatty neighbour Tonks to act as though they are close friends. He really just wants to be left alone to go his solitary way. Or does he?
- The Enemy in Ambush – Stiff and very proper Captain John Ford boards out in Moscow with a family of emotional Russians, with a view to improving his Russian language skills. Cultures clash, with the stiff upper lip taking precedence, until Mrs. Ford shows up to accompany her husband home.
- The Dove – In the years after the Great War, society seeks to understand the root causes of the recent conflict. One Percy Alderness-Slumber is inspired to go to Germany to investigate the feelings and emotions of the common people, hoping to gain some insight to bring back to England and share. His meekness and well-meaning lead to his ultimate undoing, as he becomes embroiled in a Kafkaesque scenario with his German landlady. A horror story not involving the supernatural realm, and one I know I will remember with a quiet shudder. Looking over the stories in this collection, I’m wondering if The Dove doesn’t rather stand out, along with Chinese Horses, as my most personally memorable.
- Bachelors – Harry and his ten-tears-older brother Robin live in single happiness in the cathedral town of Polchester, and are well established as local “characters”. But one day Harry proposes to and is accepted to fluffily vivacious Miss Pinsent, and everything goes sideways for Robin. But is it a quiet personal tragedy, or a chance to live his own life at last?