Penguin Books of British Short Stories

Edited by Philip Hensher

My previous reviews of older or classic fictions:

My review of the Penguin Book of the Contemporary British Short Story:

When I read the stories in the above two books, my thoughts will appear in the comment stream below:

27 thoughts on “Penguin Books of British Short Stories

  1. RUDYARD KIPLING: The Man Who Would be King

    “…so I sat there, while the type ticked and clicked, and the night-jars hooted at the windows, and the all but naked compositors wiped the sweat from their foreheads,…”

    I am not going to waste too much time trying to understand this novelette of gallimaufry and its Intermediacy of colonialism, the making of kings in foreign places some real some not, British men masquerading as journalists, after sending telegrams, if not letters, but later meeting in person instead, and a mixed acceptance of the colonial ethos until we accept this work as a Swifian Modest Proposal. Or until unreal places where they were kings become as real as tomorrow when another mock-journalist, one who likes women with letterbox mouths, is crucified not crowned.

  2. P. G. WODEHOUSE: Unpleasantness at Bludleigh Court

    “I like a man to be a clean, strong, upstanding Englishman who can look his gnu in the face and put an ounce of lead in it.’
    ‘Life,’ said Charlotte coldly, ‘is not all gnus.’”

    A hilarious version of Aickman’s farcical side with shooting at a sunbather on a roof, and a story within a story that becomes the only story one remembers! The story initially enclosing the main story was told and forgotten, including the no doubt boring sonnet someone was about to read aloud to the eventual storyteller before the latter decided to tell his story instead. And the thus endless story he told about Charlotte (an animal lover who hated hunting as a sport) who also wrote Vignettes of Verse and about the man with whom she fell in love who wrote Pastels of Prose, and with some spell of confusion regarding his hunting a rat with her parasol (“Look at that whacking great rat! Loo-loo-loo-loo-loo-loo-loo-loo!”), a spell cast by the Bludleigh Court with his uncle sunbathing on a roof who deserved being shot even more deservedly than a rat.
    She somehow seemed to have written a past poem about shooting a gnu, as if that ‘Bloodly caught’ spell radiated influence of blood sports on her into the past when she first wrote it! This thought of mine pulled away the chair I was about to sit on while reading this story and while, I had assumed, understanding it, too, until I didn’t understand it at all! — because it is still being read by someone else masquerading as me, forever and forever? At least, I had already uniquely understood, before it was too late, that the anagram of gnu is gun.

  3. I read and reviewed the story below HERE in lockdown, as follows…


    THE WITHERED ARM by Thomas Hardy

    “A white bonnet and a silver-coloured gownd. It whewed and whistled so loud when it rubbed against the pews…”

    You must already know this Egdon Heath and Casterbridge story. So, no need to re-rehearse the plot for you. And I have simply read it again and laid myself open to its meaning as evolved subconsciously in my mind throughout the last 12 years of self-training in the art and freewheeling rigour of gestalt real-time reviewing. A story of milking and milkmaids, and of two women, both betrayed by the same man, and of the boy-child that he gave one of them. There emerge “freaks of coincidence”, and a mutually synergistic curse as balanced by alternating dream-streams between the two women, a curse inadvertently aimed by each of them at the other — one woman as an “incubus” upon the other’s body, the latter who then stigmatises or squeezes the former’s arm with a recognisable four-fingered grip… and an identity later revealed by a singularly conjured floating egg-yolk face just as, at the end, we see that boy-child now grown into a man subjected to an undeserved hanging, duly stigmatised or squeezed, this time by a rope — and, eventually, I feel, there evolves a new mutual synergy of the other egg-yolk face precariously balanced or suspended “to the rhythm of alternating milk-streams.”

    • “ Moreover, she fancied that they were imprinted in precisely the relative position of her clutch upon the arm in the trance; the first finger towards Gertrude’s wrist, and the fourth towards her elbow.”

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  5. ‘MALACHI’ WHITAKER: Courage

    “‘So many people are like marshes, slopping sluggishly about.’ She laughed, and tried to whisper ‘slopping sluggishly’ to herself. ‘But I’d rather be a lake,’ she went on thinking, ‘a lake with good, straight edges. A lake mightn’t do much, really, but it is nice to look at, and marshes are such treacherous things. They run into one another, and rot everything that gets in the way.’”

    Isabel leaves her job with Jem making objects from paper and scent with other girls who liked Jem, but she made the courageous wrench by successfully securing — across ‘chasms of thought’ — a new job, despite liking the old job, but moving hopefully to better herself but she keeps thinking back to the old one when she finds the office she is now employed has been made wet – a fire overnight? – that she clears up with dusters, perhaps once dusty as the old bald men she now works for and the formidable office boy, all set in their ways, and she ends up typing out numbers that she makes up, as I don’t think the author told her what to do nor even allowed the other characters in the office to tell her. Perhaps they hadn’t been told neither? Poignant, prose-poised and powerfully pointless.

  6. W. S. GILBERT: An Elixir of Love

    “From Amelia Orange Blossom. ‘I am a very pretty girl of fifteen. For upwards of fourteen years past I have been without a definitely declared admirer.’”

    A presumably light-hearted, if not hilarious, account, involving the deployment in life’s mœurs of highly elaborate algebraic pretension and at the end the deployment of geometry, I infer, to ward off a mother-in-law. Deployments underpinning this story which, despite the quotation from it I chose above, tells of Stanley Gay, a curate who is left to fulfil the duties of a higher paid churchman, and of his theories of Levelling by Love, and of his own loving engagement to Jessie Lightly, and of their visit together to a magic shop where they buy gallons of Love Philtre, and of the apparently difficult repercussions of their scheming that really ended up for the best.
    Not so much a Panglossian outcome, but more the panning out of x and y as z. And a new equation of inevitability that the act of over-selling something always detracts from its final value. So…
    BEWARE SPOILERS —> Not to be taken lightly nor taken into account, therefore, are the wonderful characterisations of Zorah and Jessie’s Dad, nor presumably that Jessie later falls in love with the Bishop instead of Stanley.

  7. JACK COMMON: Nineteen

    “‘Look at that moon. Isn’t it marvellously bright?’
    ‘It is a beauty; you can see the mountains on it. Wouldn’t like to live there, though.’”

    Not that this is blackout, cratered London of Elizabeth Bowen’s Mysterious Kôr (my review here) but it has the same counterintuitive Moon-yearning as if levelled love living there, instead of 19 year old Ella’s loyalty to the shop and its people, just like Jem’s papermaking place above, and Ella’s beau (shall we call him Jack?), I infer is quite older than her, and they talk tantamount to living in an idyllic cottage — equivalent even to eloping to Bowen’ darkest Ridder Haggard Africa? The fact they dashed out to miss the National Anthem at the end of the performance they watched of La Bohème becomes almost endearing, in hindsight.
    Unrequited love made richly Bowenified — or Bowen, in a more linear direction of time, made Common or frost-rimed?

    “Then he wedged an elbow into the corner and brought her close to him. He kissed her and felt full of pity because her lips were so cold.”

    “…between the cobbles tiny wedges of shadow; a piece of paper fluttered but could not get away from the middle of the road, or would it not have sailed upward to the moon like a great white moth?”

    “….one could feel the silent penetration of the moon’s rays. One could imagine them raining down, a silent fall of electric radiance throughout the night, falling on roof-tiles and sheltered sleepers for the most part,…”

    “….first a dream of what they might do together, and he do for her; then a memory of what she had said or how she had looked; then a feeling of shame at his omission to be alert and witty or entertaining, and of reproach for being a fool and an incompetent; then again the happy dream.”

  8. OLIVE SCHREINER: The Buddhist Priest’s Wife

    “Did she never wake up in the night crying for that which she could not have? Were thought and travel enough for her?”

    This is the perfect complement to the Common story that I just read above, a Schreiner story imbued with the essential agonisingly felt and couched lengths of Bowenesque dialogue (or is Bowen’s dialogue Schreineresque?) between two people, and here such dialogue concerns their ever-to-be timeless unrequiting of a once possible love levelled between them by above W.S. Gilbert’s algebra (Schreiner: “I suppose if fifty men and fifty women had to solve a mathematical problem, they would all do it in the same way;”) and also by WSG’s diagrammatic geometry (in Schreiner, plus coloured Venn Diagrams of gender rôle play) — the pair of them hankering, not to reach together an idyllic cottage nor even separately the mountains of the moon or darkest Africa’s Kôr, but she to India as the eponymous woman of the title, and he, she suggests, should go to America.ll
    Did he go?
    And did she return? — we somehow already poignantly know from the very start!

    All of this imbued with ELizabeth BOWen’s (and now as pre-owned by Schreiner) rôle-playing of love as interspersed with separate bouts of what I have often dubbed ‘cigarette dancing’ in Bowen and her elbow syndromes….
    There is far too much perfectly pitched ‘cigarette dancing’ material to quote, but here are the two separately telling elbow references of counterpoising between them….

    “I intend to marry. It’s a curious thing,’ he said, resuming his pose with an elbow on one knee…”

    “‘Yes,’ she said, standing up and leaning with her elbow against the fireplace.”

  9. I read and reviewed the next story (as shown below) during my detailed reviewing of all Elizabeth Bowen’s 108 stories and, chapter by chapter, all her 10 novels here:


    THE DANCING-MISTRESS by Elizabeth Bowen


    “…just let it roll – I do – it finds its own place.”

    …as it has just now, a story somehow forgotten, now remembered as if inevitably melting out of an endless future, again and again one of my favourite stories.

    “The five positions: they performed like compasses. First … second … third … fourth … fifth! For each a chord, a shock of sound tingling out into silence. The dancing-mistress kept them in the fifth position and melted down between the lines to look.”

    Much melting interstitially including a man’s ambition: “Oh well, he won’t melt any glaciers!’ Note the italics. Note later his name and “his dark-ivory forehead”. “Poor Lulu was also distressingly beautiful;”

    The story of another trio of characters as in Mysterious Kôr, two women (the eponymous mistress and her pianist who try to make room for each other’s heads and hands) but this time the man is called Lulu not Arthur. And you may infer what you like from that, this day and age you are reading it. Then, it was late November, with fog or a smoky mist when the light needed it, near unto a cliff, and many little girls come for their lesson, with much tactile dress-stuff, changing into dancing and silkiness for legs, including the rucked top of a woman’s hyacinth dress. 

    The women go home together on the train, so Lulu has to take them both to a meal as he has his eye on the mistress. Sleepiness and other nuances mean it’s an anti-climax for him, but that is no spoiler as nothing can spoil Bowen, because I could be wrong about what happens. The emotions and the girls dancing, one girl as if in a rat trap and, and with the thump  of another girl’s heart that leads to black bubbles in the throat, a girl that one of the women literally  thinks she wants to kill. A clear tantrum and a nuance, together! 


    “You and I, you and she, she and I, we’ll forget each other anyhow – that’s nature.”

    A story that crepitates with the nuance of Autumn light and crepuscular sounds and glinting materials and limbs. And emotions that roll with it. If the head fits, wear it.

    “As Jean Jones had thought, she was not like a person at all.”

    But into whom did this barely noticeable Jean Jones grow up? The captivating mystery of this gorgeous endlessness of an Autumn, nearly Winter, story. Instructed about our physical motions, head fitted over text, but left to our own freewheeling emotions.

    “…she melted into the floor. She flowed down into it.”

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