TagThe Oxford Library of Classic English Short Stories

Frank O’Connor, ‘Peasants’ (1946)

When a young man steals funds from a club, the committee chairman (who’s also parish priest) is determined that he be punished. The rest of the committee, however, don’t want to visit the stigma on the thief’s family, and try to persuade Father Crowley to change his mind. This story explores the complexities of morality, and has a nicely ironic twist at its close. Another good piece from O’Connor, who is one of the writers I’m most pleased to have discovered through this anthology.

Rating: ***½

Elizabeth Bowen, ‘Ivy Gripped the Steps’ (1945)

In the autumn of 1944, Gavin Doddington returns to the seaside town and the ivy-choked house where he spent many months as a child with his mother’s friend, Lilian Nicholson. Bowen creates an effective contrast between the different states of the house in her story’s past and present; and I particularly like her portrait of the town of Southstone as having had the last of its life squeezed out of it by its use as a military base (the prospect of an Allied victory has ironically been the town’s undoing, as all the soldiers have left, and with them the town’s purpose). However, these are quite small parts of a long story, and I found most of the rest dull to read. It doesn’t inspire me to read more of Bowen’s work.

Rating: **½

Walter de la Mare, ‘Seaton’s Aunt’ (1942)

Reading this anthology is introducing me to the work of many authors whom I’ve not read before, but one of the drawbacks is that I’m getting only isolated snapshots of what each writer’s work is like, which isn’t necessarily the best way to judge whether I’d like to read more in future. After reading ‘Seaton’s Aunt’, I looked up De la Mare’s entry in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, which gave me the impression of an author whose work I’d find interesting. But I found this particular story — chronicling its narrator’s three encounters with his friend’s elderly aunt, said to be ‘in league with the Devil’ — too dry to engage with. I wonder whether, had I read it in the context of a volume of De la Mare stories, I’d have felt differently.

Rating: **½

Dylan Thomas, ‘A Visit to Grandpa’s’ (1940)

I’ve never read Thomas before, and now I can add him to my list of authors from this anthology whose work I need to explore further. This short piece about a boy visiting his mad grandfather is darkly humorous and contains some wonderful description.

Rating: ****

Official Dylan Thomas website

Hugh Walpole, ‘Mr Oddy’ (1933)

In pre-First World War London, young writer Tommy Brown befriends old Alfred Oddy. They find companionship in their shared literary tastes, but Tommy comes to wonder just who Mr Oddy is. I find the beginning of this story good, as Walpole evokes a time and place more optimistic and carefree than the one in which he wrote; but the plot is unsatisfactory, as it hinges on an unlikely coincidence.

Rating: ***

W. Somerset Maugham, ‘Jane’ (1931)

Jane Fowler marries a man half her age; her cousin is convinced it won’t last, but it does — and Jane becomes the toast of London society. But then…

I’ve never read Maugham before, but really enjoyed this: crisp prose, and the sense of a story that is very well constructed, as apparently innocuous details established at the start are shown to be more significant towards the end. Maugham is another author with two stories in the anthology; I shall be pleased to read him again in due course.

Rating: ****

Stella Benson, ‘On the Contrary’ (1931)

Know-all, contrarian and general irritant Leonard Lumley gets into a spot of trouble on a Red Sea cruise. I’m not sure what to make of this — Benson paints a good satiric portrait of Lumley at the beginning, and I think the point of the story is that he gets his comeuppance at the end; but I found the ending quite hard to follow, and so don’t have a true sense of that having happened.

Rating: ***½

Frank O’Connor, ‘The Majesty of the Law’ (1931)

A police sergeant visits old Dan Bride, and what seems at first to be a rather innocuous conversation turns out to be something else. I like the concept of the story, and I find O’Connor’s descriptive passages good, both as pure description and as a way of reflecting Dan’s character in the state of his house. However, the core of the tale is its dialogue, and it seems to me that this meanders in the middle, rather than providing a solid foundation for the ending. Nevertheless, I look forward to reading the second of O’Connor’s stories in the anthology.

Rating: ***½

Naomi Mitchison, ‘The Hostages’ (1930)

The tale of three children held hostage by Romans, this was my first taste of Mitchison’s work, and I’ll be reading more. The plot of this story struck me as overly thin, but I liked the flow of the prose very much; so, though this piece wasn’t really for me, I am keen to see out others by the author.

Rating: ***½

Dorothy L. Sayers, ‘The Dragon’s Head’ (1928)

My first encounter with the tales of Lord Peter Wimsey, here investigating with his nephew why a Mr Wilberforce Pope is so interested in an old book they found in a shop. This is a jolly old Golden Age detective story that passes the time entertainingly, but I found it no more than that.

Rating: ***

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