TagThe Oxford Library of Classic English Short Stories

The Oxford Library of Classic English Short Stories, Vol. I: 1900-1956 – Conclusion

So, I’ve reached the end of my journey through that anthology of stories from (roughly) the first half of the twentieth century. My principal motivation for taking on the project was that I don’t read much in the way of ‘classic’ fiction; I think I have now come to the conclusion that, though I will occasionally be a visitor to the world of the classics, my true interest lies with more recent fiction.

The term ‘classic’ in the book’s title may perhaps be a red herring, as this volume was an omnibus of two earlier ones, so the stories would have been much more contemporary when originally selected. So perhaps it’s not surprising that I found this anthology as much of a mixed bag as I’d expect one of new fiction to be. If I never came across anything that truly blew me away, there are some writers that I’m keen to investigate further. I’ve read more of Frank O’Connor and Saki already; top of my list now are Dylan Thomas, Evelyn Waugh, and Naomi Mitchison. (I’d add Leonard Merrick and William Sansom to that list, but it seems their work is not easily available these days.)

Yet, for all that I enjoyed individual stories, I never took to them in the way I do more contemporary work — I never crossed the gap of the years. That’s why I think I’m going to be a visitor, rather than a denizen, when it comes to older fiction. I’m glad to have read this book, but I feel it’s time to move back towards my own reading heartland for a while.

V.S. Pritchett, ‘The Scapegoat’ (1956)

The end of the volume, and the second consecutive Pritchett story, this time focusing on the residents of Terence Street, who are determined to raise more money for the Jubilee than their rivals on Earl Street. My feelings about ‘The Scapegoat’ are as mixed as they were about ‘The Aristocrat’ — it’s interesting to read, and I particularly appreciate the irony of the ending; yet still I’m left with a sense that something is lacking.

Rating: ***½

V.S. Pritchett, ‘The Aristocrat’ (1956)

An old man entertains the regulars at a pub with magic tricks, but is not all he seems. This was a very enjoyable story to read; I particularly liked some of Pritchett’s imagery at the beginning (such as this, describing one pub-goer: ‘A pair of yellow gloves drooped in one hand like the most elegant banana-skins’). So it’s a little frustrating that there doesn’t seem to be much more to the piece besides a sting-in-the-tale ending.

Rating: ***½

Joyce Cary, ‘A Good Investment’ (1954)

Tom Catto, a forty-eight-year-old widower, decides to find a new wife; taking a utilitarian view, he looks for someone who can be a good housekeeper and look after his daughter. During his search, tom is reunited with members of the Bill family whom he knew as a youngster; he marries the youngest Bill sister, Francie, who is put upon horrendously by her mother and sister. As time goes by, Tom realises that his feelings for Francie may be more genuine than he had thought.

This is the second of Cary’s stories in the anthology, and my opinion has not much changed from when I read the first. ‘A Good Investment’ does its job adequately, and there’s a certain energy to its telling; but it left no great impression on me and did not inspire me to seek out any more of the author’s work.

Rating: ***

L.P. Hartley, ‘The Killing Bottle’ (1951)

Jimmy Rintoul is invited by a recent acquaintance to visit Verdew Castle, with the prospect of being able to add a few new butterflies to his collection — but much more is afoot than Jimmy knows. I enjoyed this: in the beginning, there’s an effectively sinister undercurrent to the depiction of Verdew Castle; and by the time one twigs where the story is heading, the narrative momentum and sense of anticipation just build and build. Hartley goes on to my list of authors to read further.

Rating: ****

William Sansom, ‘The Girl On the Bus’ (1950)

Oh, I really like this. On a skiing trip in Sweden, Harry walks past an extraordinarily beautiful girl. A few seconds, and she’s gone; Harry cannot stop thinking about her, but resigns himself to never seeing her again. Then, days later on a ship, there she is — will Harry now get his chance? There’s a wonderful energy to the telling of this story, perfectly matching the heightened state of Harry’s emotions.

I’ve discovered that, as with Leonard Merrick, much of Sansom’s work is not readily available these days; which is unfortunate, because I would love to read more by this writer.

Rating: ****

Joyce Cary, ‘Umaru’ (1950)

The white Britsih officer commanding a detachment of black soldiers in Cameroon finds more in common with his sergeant than he had imagined. I quite liked the telling of this story, but didn’t, to be honest, find it particularly affecting. At five pages, I think ‘Umaru’ is too short for me to gain a proper impression of Cary’s work; but he has another, longer, piece later in the anthology, which may facilitate that.

Rating: ***

Angus Wilson, ‘Realpolitik’ (1949)

The bureaucratic new curator of a gallery (brought in from outside after the death of its owner) calls a staff meeting to discuss his plans, and ruffles more than a few feathers in doing so. I want to like this story more than I do; in conception, it feels remarkably modern — it could be set in the present day with few alterations. And yet, there doesn’t seem to be all that much to it: it’s a portrait of old and new ways clashing, and a stubborn man who doesn’t realise what effect he has on others; but I found nothing  — no particularly sharp insight, no turn of phrase, and not the sting in the tail — to lift it above run-of-the-mill.

Rating: **½

Evelyn Waugh, ‘Mr Loveday’s Little Outing’ (1949)

Angela goes to visit her father, Lord Moping, in the asylum, to find another of the inmates, a Mr Loveday, acting as his ‘secretary’. Observing his apparent sanity, Angela contrives to have Loveday released — and then…

The dark humour of this tale reminded me of Dylan Thomas’s story in the anthology, though I don’t think it has quite the same range and depth of effect as that other piece. This was my first encounter with Waugh’s work, and I am certainly interested in reading more by him.

Rating: ***½

W. Somerset Maugham, ‘Episode’ (1947)

A young student falls in love with a postman, much to the consternation of her class-concious parents. Just as they are warming to him, however, he is imprisoned for theft — and the girl resolves to stand by him, whatever the consequence. ‘Episode’ has an effectively abrupt ending; but, on the w’hole, I don’t find it nearly as satisfying as Maugham’s previous entry in the anthology.

Rating: ***

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