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 by Sidney’s remark.
“It doesn’t really belong to me, it’s really my sister’s, but she doesn’t like it so I put it there.”
Sidney tried to cover his mistake.
“That is what I meant. Your sister,” he said.
“Oh no,” said Mrs. Bittell, waking up….
After Sidney leaves, Mrs. Bittell goes to the bathroom, where a thought strikes her: “How absurd to say it’s a portrait of Dolly—no resemblance at all.”
For Sidney’s friend Rupert, who is “in antiques,” the valuable objects in the flat represent an opportunity for loot and, in the case of the Psyche, for lewdness:
“See the cupid down there in the corner? See how he’s holding his bow? He’s going to miss. He won’t get her in the heart. He’ll catch her in the—er—leg,” he said. And he indicated the probable course of the arrow. And he gave a short laugh.
Over the years Mrs. Bittell had not particularly noticed that Psyche had a leg. Surely it was quite wrong to believe that the soul had legs.
And she could not understand why Rupert laughed.
But for all her woolly-mindedness, Mrs. Bittell, like an embodiment of Britannia, reacts with the martial resourcefulness of her ancestors when she comes home unexpectedly one day to find Rupert in the process of burglarizing the flat. First she locks him in the bedroom; then, though she has wet herself with terror, she manages, when he breaks out and charges toward her, to trip him by overturning the piano stool. “She became as strong as History; she picked up the brass table lamp and bashed him on the neck, the head, anywhere. Not once, but twice or three times. And then fell back and fainted.” Both survive.
Other social vibrations, less comical, are picked up in “The Wedding,” in which the antagonism between a coarse, prosperous cattle farmer, Tom Fletcher, (a widower of forty) and a tense, rather prim young woman in her thirties, Mrs. Jackson, is intensified by a strong undercurrent of sexual feeling. Mrs. Jackson was a local girl who, in order to escape her lowly background, “invented herself,” went to London, and married a rich society man; now, defeated by scandal and divorce, she has returned to teach French in a local “college,” where her star pupil is Fletcher’s daughter Mary. Mrs. Jackson and the crudely sexist Fletcher quarrel over Mary’s future: is the girl to be groomed for Oxford or (as her father insists) to stay home to help with the running of the big farm? Mrs. Jackson attends the wedding of Mary’s older sister. There at the farm, in a marvelously orchestrated scene, the elegances of a striped marquee and champagne give way to a boisterous country revel in which the farmers, in their black wedding clothes, begin to use their lassoes on some of the women present:
Tom Fletcher winked at Ted Archer, who sent out his rope and caught one of the aunts. She screamed with such pleasure that one of the men rushed at her, picked her up in his arms and carried her to the open trunk of his car and dumped her into it as she kicked up her legs. She climbed out and her hair came down. Three other ladies doubled up with inciting laughter and mocked the men. One by one the men chased and caught them.
Tom Fletcher’s red face swelled like a turkey cock’s: he was shouting. “Give us the cancan, Mrs. Doggett,” he shouted as the old lady’s legs went up in the air.
It is at this juncture that Mrs. Jackson goes up to Fletcher and in her politest manner says, “Goodbye, Mr. Fletcher. I’m afraid I have to go. I have an engagement. It has been a lovely wedding.” To the horror and shame of poor Mary, her father lassoes Mrs. Jackson as she is walking toward her little car.
Fletcher’s rope snaked out, knocked Mrs. Jackson’s hat over her eyes and was over her shoulders, pulling her hair down and biting on her waist. He pulled her stumbling towards him.
“Daddy!” shouted Mary.
Mrs. Jackson’s face hardened as she got her footing and showed her bold teeth at him. The other women had laughed when they were caught, but she did not. She pulled fiercely at the rope and she surprised him by a sharp pull that got it out of his hands….
The story does not end at this point. With a ferocity that recalls D.H. Lawrence, the social and sexual antagonism moves toward a conclusion that is psychologically appropriate—and unexpectedly disturbing.
Pritchett is the least snobbish of English writers, a clear-eyed but amiable democrat who treats his characters with sublime fairness, playing no favorites, settling no scores. They are created substantially, with strong, sometimes eccentric outlines. Often their behavior is droll. But they are by no means “humors” characters in the manner of Dickens and his predecessors, for they have not been allowed to harden into crustacean-like rigidity; instead, they are presented as capable of sudden insights and moral qualms, of sudden reversals of course that suggest complexity and depth. Essentially Pritchett is a psychological realist who permits his characters to keep their options open while sparing them that diffusion or dissolution of ego so common in our psychologizing age. In this respect they seem more distinctively, more “archaically” English than American.
Pritchett’s lovers are seldom beautiful, but they have a firmness of bone and contour that makes the (mostly) off-stage grappling of their bodies entirely credible without the whipped cream and cherries of pornographic detail. Bodies can be funny: “I liked watching her dress,” writes the narrator of “The Accompanist”—“her legs and arms were thin, and as she put up her arms to fasten her bra and leaned forward to pull on her tights she seemed to be playing a game of turning herself into comic triangles.” Bodies can be moving too, subject as they are to the grotesque tricks of time. In the remarkable title story, “On the Edge of the Cliff,” the seventyish writer called Harry violates one of the cardinal rules in the game of love that he plays with his mistress Rowena, who is twenty-five, by allowing her, for the first time, to see him naked. The violation occurs after Harry and Rowena have encountered a woman from his past, Daisy Pyke; filled with rage against time and Daisy, the old man impulsively decides to undress and plunge into Withy Hole, a frigid tidal pool on the Welsh coast where he and Daisy had swum decades before.
He was standing there, his body furred with grey hair, his belly wrinkled, his thighs shrunk. Up went his bony arms.
“You’re not to! It will kill you! Your heart!” she shouted.
He gave a wicked laugh, she saw his yellow teeth, and in he dived and was crawling and shouting in the water as he swam out farther, defying her, threshing the water, and then as she screamed at him, really frightened, he came crawling in like some ugly hairy sea animal, his skin reddened with cold, and stood dripping with his arms wide as if he was going to give a howl.
But Rowena, though frightened, is not repelled by what she has seen. That night, for the first time, she comes unbidden to his bed. “‘I’ve come to see the Ancient Mariner,’ she said.” This is only one of the many ironies upon which the story is hinged, all of them relevant to the dangers inherent in this particular game of love. Daisy, the fiftyish woman from Harry’s past, a woman with “a hard little begging pushing mouth,” turns out to have a lover young enough to be her son—a lover whom she is terrified of losing to Rowena if the couples continue to meet.
Like most of the stories in the collection, “On the Edge of the Cliff” is shrewdly constructed, though not at all, in the accepted sense, “well made.” While full of twistings, the narrative line is sinewy; the surprises—and there are many in a good Pritchett story—never seem arbitrary. The play of language in the stories is also full of odd turnings, with a freshness of imagery that is sometimes startling and nearly always a source of delight. Seen from a great height, “the shallow sea [broke] idly, in changing lines of surf, like lips speaking lines that broke unfinished and could not be heard.” In a small restaurant people “were talking loudly, so that bits of their lives seemed to be flying around us….” The cuckolded husband in “The Fig Tree” is “lazily well-made, a bufferish fellow in his late fifties, his drooping grey moustache is affable—’honorable’ is how I would describe the broad road of sunburned baldness going over his head.”
An abundance of such touches testifies to the flourishing condition of Pritchett’s art. Containing only one story (“The Spanish Bed”) that I would consider a relative failure, On the Edge of the Cliff may well be his strongest collection to date. In both his vision and his craft, Pritchett has currently no equal as a short-story writer in England—and only a few elsewhere in the English-speaking world.
February 7, 1980