Edited and introduced by novelist and journalist Philip Hensher, The Penguin Book of the British Short Story celebrates the diversity and energy of British writers. Here, Hensher introduces the collection.
What do Britain’s short story writers do most characteristically? In some ways, I came to think of the exemplary British short story as Arthur Conan Doyle’s masterpiece ‘Silver Blaze’. It is extraordinarily playful with the conventions of its own genre, beginning with an indication of the murderer that could hardly be more explicit or blatant. It is concerned with a huge range of significant and interesting physical objects, including the elaborate dress that is never seen and its owner never identified. It is about the actions of the overlooked and misunderstood. It is about social class, of course. Like many great short stories from Britain, it revolves around a general social gathering with its own rituals – William Sansom’s wonderful ‘A Contest of Ladies’ is a good comparison. It appears to be telling a thrilling story while in fact being entirely contemplative and thoughtful about events in the past – the action of the story is mostly confined to two train journeys and a long walk. It is macabre, and draws some ingenious amusement from its most macabre and grotesque elements – the cleverest and most enchanting surely the detail of the lame sheep that Sherlock so brilliantly intuits. (He tells us how brilliant he is, too.) It gives the appearance of being richly exact, while in fact being an utter fantastic fabrication – as Doyle himself noted, if the events had happened in real life, half the characters would have been in jail and the others banned from racing for life. And it shows no terror of literary genre, while doing with the conventions of that genre whatever it feels like.
Playfulness is never far from the British short story. This playfulness encourages the form in unexpected directions at different times; the brilliant outbreak of experimental short fiction in the 1960s, including Christine Brooke-Rose and J. G.Ballard – I should also like to have included Anna Kavan – started to influence quite unexpected people including Kingsley Amis. But long before that, the quality of playfulness never prevents the British short story from attaining real seriousness and emotional depth. Arnold Bennett’s simply magnificent ‘The Matador of the Five Towns’ finds space for engaged amusement in its fabulous social panorama, closing down on meanness and tragedy in a little room. Kipling’s ‘The Village That Voted The Earth Was Flat’, surely the howling artificial pinnacle of Kipling’s genius, was written and published a couple of months before the outbreak of the Great War; as a consideration of hysteria and wildness in the public mind, it has never been matched. Unexpectedly, it is both painfully cruel, and fascinated by comedy in the most detailed way. More recently, the brilliant flippancy of tone of Georgina Hammick’s masterly ‘Grist’ shading by degrees into real, wailing grief sustains a long-established tone in British writing. That interest in the overlooked, the apparently insignificant, finds a parallel not just in Dickens’s great ‘Mrs Lirriper’s Lodgings’ but in a flurry of superb and often richly orchestrated writing on proletarian subjects from the 1890s onwards – the Yellow Book stories and, here, Jack Common’s beautiful story are followed by the magical G. F. Green and Alan Sillitoe, one of the greatest of the writers here. In recent years, I very much admired David Rose, and would have liked to have included a story by him about roadmenders. Above all, the great British short story is outward-facing, analysing the world. Chambers’ Journal promised, on its foundation in 1832, ‘lots of nice little stories about travellers in Asia and Africa’. As it moved into its heyday, the fascination with the outwardly exotic was supplemented by a much richer vein, finding considerable exotic interest in territories closer to hand.
There are sumptuous riches in the British short story, and the raucously exuberant piece of playfulness is only part of it. There is, too, an exquisitely withdrawn and precise vein, often claimed by women writers: these were among my most precious discoveries while reading, and I came to see the tradition that runs through Malachi Whitaker, Dorothy Edwards, Viola Meynell and Elizabeth Taylor to Shena Mackay and Jackie Kay – Jane Gardam should also be mentioned here – as a sublime, vulnerable one. Withdrawn exactitudes are an important part of the tradition, but only part. It often needs to be stressed that the British short story can be most itself when rumbustious, violent, extravagant, fantastical; above all, when it yields to a national taste for the theatrical.
So often, the great British short story seems to be fascinated by performance. A recurrent form is the narrator after dinner, who shares the best story he ever heard: as time goes on, and leisurely dinners become less universal in the real world, the story starts to turn towards the tale told in a railway carriage, like Graham Greene’s thrillingly preposterous ‘The Hint of An Explanation’, or – surprisingly common – the tale told by a barber to his client, of which the greatest must surely be V. S. Pritchett’s ‘You Make Your Own Life’ with its final brutal slash of the razorblade. Pritchett was the greatest of British short-story writers, and embedded in the art of performance, whether in the sardonic explanation of a stage trick in ‘The Fall’ that opens up a man’s relationship with his absent brother, or the performance that has no idea that it’s going on until its last line, as in ‘When My Girl Comes Home’, or the stage monologue which ‘The Camberwell Beauty’ initially seems to be. The monologue, as of a stage character, is a very common form in the British short story; I regretted not being able to include more after Dickens’s Mrs Lirriper set an unmatchable standard that only Pritchett began to reach. Too many others were ultimately rather limp interwar matinée offerings, but the indirect relationship with the stage, and with performance generally, animated many of the best short stories here.
The quality of performance animates two recurrent qualities of the British short story: its dependence on comedy in any and all circumstances, and its love of Grand Guignol. Wild and impossible violence often emerges from physical specificity, as in the Aickman or the great T. H. White story. The physically specific is often the source of comedy, too, and often these two very British modes combine. Adam Marek’s eye-popping story ‘The Forty-Litre Monkey’ has plenty of precedents. Even a writer as unfailingly sympathetic as Tessa Hadley can give a story of considerable suffering the detached and borderline flippant title ‘Buckets of Blood’. Readers may be surprised at the things they are asked to laugh at by Somerset Maugham, Wilkie Collins or Max Beerbohm. The violence in the splendid Wodehouse story is always, it seems, waiting to break out. Sometimes the territory that seems to interest the writer is the exact moment when the laughter freezes on the lips, not just in the sublime and terrifying Kipling story, but, in a minor key, in the A. E. Coppard and Rhys Davies. Both Coppard and Davies were masters of what A. S. Byatt very accurately calls ‘mixed tones’, and in their very best stories, as represented here, the reader is often moved to laughter before wondering whether laughter is quite the thing. The uncertainty, exactly pinpointed, is at the heart of their achievement.
It’s common, in compilations of this sort, for the anthologizer to make a case for his general subject by playing down the comic element. Comedy is so much at the centre of the British short story that, by contrast, I’ve sometimes included a short story by a writer not primarily known for his or her humour. Elizabeth Taylor’s virtuoso late ‘In and Out the Houses’ has all her social precision of detail (the ravioli!) but cast as a broad farce where only one character ever goes anywhere – the technical command is stunning, like a Mozart rondo. I wanted, too, to highlight Elizabeth Bowen’s gift for comedy with a savage edge with a relatively unfamiliar early piece rather than the acknowledged greatness of ‘Mysterious Kor’. That gift for comedy in surprising places continues: it beautifully lightens Zadie Smith’s wonderful ‘The Embassy of Cambodia’ with some unexpectedly broad, Dickensian characters. I don’t think it will ever go away, however superficially serious the subject of the short story.
From that valuing of comedy comes, I think, a characteristic of the British short story to entwine, reverse, overturn itself and take directions that nobody could foresee; this emerges most consistently in tone and flavour. The great British short story is often a ferocious ride with hidden traps and unpredictable bogs, explosions and patches of tranquility or exhaustion. Surprise is a quality often prized; even the surprise offered by a story that never changes its tone, like Dorothy Edwards’s or Mary Lamb’s stories. In an extraordinary story by Penelope Gilliatt I came close to including, a well-planted fictional robot called FRANK does exactly nothing, but deserves the story’s title. The surprise may be in the point of view, as in the surprising shifts of direction in the Jean Rhys short story, or realizing that the person who places himself at the centre of the story has no significance whatsoever, as in Pritchett’s ‘The Camberwell Beauty’. Comedy, the tripping-up of expectations, the overturning of an established world: these things have a tendency to shape the form even when laughter is not contemplated.
Some of these distinctive qualities are more or less permanently present in the British short story. Some, however, ebb and flow with fashion, and I have tried to suggest in my selection how the short story has a predominant flavour and urgent themes at different moments in its history. The feeling of growing hysteria with a diabolic edge before the Great War is striking – the feeling, perhaps, as Richard Strauss’s Salomé puts it, that ‘es sind noch nicht genug Tote’, there aren’t enough dead yet. There is speculation about what women are to do with their lives in the 1920s that emerges in a spate of brilliant feminine two-handers. New subjects emerge; new themes interest the best talent at work.
A confident relationship with genre has never limited the British short story, though some genres have proved more fruitful to the form than others. The love story and the detective story were evidently very popular forms in magazine fiction: they did not seem to me to be natural candidates for short fiction, often requiring as they do a slow expansion on the significance of details and a warm growth of feeling over time. Perhaps for the same reason, there was no shortage of historical short stories, but, apart from Jean Rhys and the unique genius of Penelope Fitzgerald, very few I could much admire. Other forms, however, that could rest on suggestion and airy implication were natural. I sometimes felt, reading through the collected stories of classic authors, that an anthology of this sort could be made up of nothing other than the occasional ghost story that almost every British writer produced; there is at least one first-rate example from the works of many writers, including Saki, Elizabeth Bowen and Penelope Fitzgerald, as well as specialists like E. F. Benson and M. R. James. Ghost stories are British in the most conventional way; the great practitioners, like M. R. James and Robert Aickman, rely on a background of propriety and high respectability. When those moments of propriety are broken, sometimes with screaming terror, sometimes merely with the narrator being physically touched for the first time in the story, or by gatecrashing a party, a different, less orderly side of the British is revealed. Science fiction, too, which can rest on the suggestion of vast unknowable changes, was as natural to short fiction from the start as horror. Fine as G. K. Chesterton’s ‘Israel Gow’ is, it would be perfect if it ended before the solution started being put together, at the point of maximum bafflement, with all the horror and grotesquery in full untethered flight. Another point of genre possibility comes with the curious, dreamlike fantasy that sometimes overtakes the short story: the burst of allegorical mysticism in late-1940s short stories, including T. F. Powys and Sylvia Townsend Warner, is a very striking one – one should perhaps add Tolkien’s long and beautiful ‘Leaf By Niggle’, a story it proved impractical to include.
Was there a regional aspect? Perhaps. The Scottish short story has aspects of folklore and a consistent interest in experiments with voice that is their own – I was sorry not to find space for Eric Linklater, and to have included some more early compilers of folklore would have taken the anthology in a direction too rich to be merely sampled. The Welsh short story produces profound mastery, and its fascination with the unexpected direction and the superficially relaxed, conversational purpose emerges in Rhys Davies, Dylan Thomas and the breathtaking Alun Lewis story – a hearty, skirling, raucous quality, too.
It may be that the British short story offers the longest and richest national tradition in the world, and with its own particular qualities of genre, extroversion, confidence and improvisation escapes any kind of predictability. This anthology could very easily have been twice as long as it is. I was determined that I would not include famous writers on the basis of achievement that, in reality, lay elsewhere – neither Firbank nor Virginia Woolf would command our interest on the basis of their stories if they had never written novels. E. M. Forster was a difficult case. The stories I most admired were published posthumously, ruling them out of consideration, and the ones he published in his lifetime suffered from the whimsy that his novels, at greater length, command and subdue. Nor was it right to include stories that were merely historically interesting; Scott’s short stories are important, but I couldn’t admire any of them as much as the best of Galt. I also thought that Walter de la Mare was in the unusual position of requiring lengthy submersion in his peculiar tone. It was impossible to imagine any of his stories making sense in an anthology of this sort, and I could not make up my mind whether he was a writer of genius or a writer of essentially entranced badness.
I thought it was my duty to shut my ears against the noise of fashionable approbation. Particularly in the case of contemporary writers, it would have been easy to have gone along with some lazily acclaimed writers. Of course, there are some writers at work now whom I omitted at the last with immense regret, such as Jane Gardam, David Rose, Gerard Woodward or Helen Dunmore. There were other highly acclaimed practitioners, however, who never came near a final selection. Reading through an author’s successive collections of stories was a salutary lesson in discovering that a large reputation really had no idea how to put a story together, or had only one idea, much repeated over the course of decades. Other restrictions made themselves felt. It was agony to confine myself to a single story by a very varied and fecund writer. Worst of all, it sometimes had to be accepted that an author who had done something rather brilliant with a short story couldn’t quite justify his or her space at the expense of a greater master. While not feeling much guilt about the omission of a fashionable name or a Woolf – they will survive my neglect – I do feel guilty about these unfamiliar names who had made something strong and beautiful and striking, and yet, at the last, I found that a J. E. Buckrose, a Margery Sharp, an Elizabeth Goudge, an H. A. Manhood or an R. Murray Gilchrist (much admired by Arnold Bennett) had to drop back into oblivion. With all that, the task of systematically reading thousands of short stories by hundreds of writers in journals, collections and magazines must count as the most rewarding and surprising of my professional life.
Philip Hensher, 2015
The Penguin Book of the British Short Story Volume One, and Volume Two edited by Philip Hensher are out on the 5th November 2015.