On the Edge of the Cliff
by V.S. Pritchett
Random House, 179 pp., $8.95
In one of the best stories of this exhilarating collection, a rather dim, elderly, sentimentally religious lady, Mrs. Bittell, “whose family were army people,” befriends an equally dim, sentimentally homosexual young man who works at the tea counter of a famous London shop, Murgatroyd and Foot’s. This “rather quaint person”—as Mrs. Bittell refers to him—comes on Wednesdays (his day off) to have tea at her large flat, where she sits among “the wrongs and relics of her seventy years.” One afternoon, after gazing at her ancestral portraits, the young man, Sidney, is reminded of a television program, “The Battle of Waterloo,” which he had seen the previous night.
…”Do you think the Duke of Wellington was sincere?” he said.
“They say he was very witty,” said Mrs. Bittell.
“But do you think he was sincere?”
“Sincere?” said Mrs. Bittell. She was lost. “I’ve never thought of that,” she said.
The absurdity of this little exchange made me laugh aloud. Its components are perfectly contemporary—Sidney’s question could only have been asked by someone raised on late-twentieth-century baby food—but the situation itself, involving as it does the comic (or painful) juxtaposition of the shop-assistant and the lady, is of a sort that has occurred many times, in varying forms, during the long history of English fiction. Pritchett writes as one who has been nourished rather than inhibited by his literary forebears. Though the tradition to which he belongs has shown signs of enfeeblement in recent years, with its writers too often manifesting a weakened grasp, a contracting range, Pritchett himself is able to confront Mrs. Thatcher’s England with an almost Edwardian assurance of his right to move at ease among its phenomena, to seize upon what he wants, and to do so without apology or self-consciousness. He displays an undiminished faith in the existence of a substantial, knowable world external to himself—a world full of quirky types with whose perplexities his imagination can play.
“Tea with Mrs. Bittell” can almost be read as a tragi-comic allegory of modern Britain. Born into more opulent circumstances, Mrs. Bittell has “known the family pictures all her life as furniture; they represented the boredom of centuries, of now meaningless anger.” Full of grievances and complaints about her lot in this uncaring age, she “saw herself with unassuming pride as the victim of history.” For Sidney, however, the pictures exist as bizarre objects without meaning or resonance. Gaping at a darkened old painting of Psyche—”a sad, naked, wooden-looking nymph…, the skin yellowed by time”—he asks Mrs. Bittell if it is a portrait of her.
Questions took a long time sinking into Mrs. Bittell’s head, which was clouded by kindness and manners and a pride in her relics. She herself had not “seen” the picture for years. It was glazed and was hardly more than a mirror in which she could give a last look at her hat before she went out. She was not surprised …