Try to link two randomly selected short stories. That’s the task I’ve added to the Deal Me In Short Story Challenge. I’ve been able to pull it off up to now, but this time around George Orwell and Grace Paley have defeated me.
It’s my own fault really, for including a volume of Orwell’s essays in my short story deck.
This time around I drew England, Your England an essay written by George Orwell in 1941 during the early part of World War II. It’s a bit of an odd piece. In it Orwell attempts to define what it is that makes England England. Since he wrote it when he did, it should come as no surprise that the essays comes of a little bit like propaganda, a piece clearly meant to rally the people. George Orwell was strongly anti-fascist, even at a time when much of the intelligentsia was embracing Mussolini. Orwell disparages the upper classes, but he is not blind to the faults of the middle and lower classes either. But over-riding these misgivings is a sense that England is in a unique position at this moment in history, not a Kiplingesque White Man’s Burden but a clear sense that England is better than its neighbors in spite of its faults.
England is not the jewelled isle of Shakespeare’s much-quoted passage, nor is it the inferno depicted by Dr. Goebbels. More than either it resembles a family, a rather stuffy Victorian family, with not many black sheep in it but with all its cupboards bursting with skeletons. it has rich relations who have to be kow-towed to and poor relations who hare horribly sat upon, and there is a deep conspiracy of silence about the source of the family income. It is a family in which the young are generally thwarted and most of the power in the hands of irresponsible uncles and bedridden aunts. Still, it is a family. It has its private language and its common memories, and at the approach of an enemy it closes it ranks. A family with the wrong members in control–that, perhaps, is as near as one can come to describing England in a phrase.
All in all I’d say that’s a pretty clear-eyed assessment for a propaganda piece. There’s more in “England, Your England,” enough to make it worthwhile reading for the historical perspective it can provide, but no enough to make it worthwhile reading for its own sake. This piece is not in the same league as Orwell’s better essays.
Maybe the notion of family sticking together or skeletons in the closet can provide a link to Grace Paley’s short story, “An Interest in Life.”
Paley’s story is written from deep in the heart of Eudora Welty country. Geographically, it’s set far from Eudora Welty’s southern small towns, but spiritually the main character, Virginia, is one of Welty’s women. She could be the narrator of “Why I Live at the P.O.”. Right from the story’s opening lines:
My husband gave me a broom one Christmas. This wasn’t right. No one can tell me it was meant kindly.
“I don’t want you not to have anything for Christmas while I’m away in the army,” he said. “Virginia, please look at it. It comes with this fancy dustpan. It hangs off a stick. Look at it, will you? Are you blind or cross-eyed?”
“Thanks, chum,” I said. I had always wanted a dustpan hooked up that way. It was a good one. My husband doesn’t shop in bargain basements or January sales.
Still and all, in spite of the quality, it was a mean present to give a woman you planned on never seeing again, a person you had children with and got onto all the time, drunk or sober, even when everybody had to get up early in the morning.
This is so perfectly in line with the overall dark sense of humor that pervades Eudora Welty’s short fiction that I wonder how much the two influenced each other over the years. There must be a PhD dissertation out there about this subject; if not there should be.
Paley’s story concerns Virginia’s life after her husbands walks out on her and their children. Virginia ends up something of a scandalous figure, unapologetically on welfare, seeing other men on the side, one of whom she makes a regular visitor. Virginia never feels sorry for herself, never asks for pity. Instead, she plows ahead, living as best she can with no regrets.
The man she takes up with is the married son of her landlady. Her landlady encourages the affair because she does not like her daughter-in-law and because this way her son comes to visit her at least once a week. That he uses these visits as an excuse to spend the evening with Virginia does not bother his mother at all.
It’s a very Eudora Welty solution to a Eudora Welty like problem, and probably not very English at all, at least not in the stuffy Victorian sense George Orwell describes.