A Careless Widow and Other Stories was published in the United States almost precisely on Sir Victor Pritchett’s eighty- ninth birthday. Pritchett’s first published story, “Rain in the Sierra,” appeared in 1926, meaning that he has been practicing this most difficult of genres for a period longer than many writers live. Graham Greene, four years Pritchett’s junior, is perhaps the only one of his contemporaries still actively writing. The fact that an author of Pritchett’s age is still producing stories is amazing enough; that the stories are lively, fresh, and genuinely contemporary seems miraculous.
Short story writers, it is often said, do not show the range of maturing and development that characterizes novelists. This generalization, whatever its validity for other writers, is essentially true for Pritchett, whose approach to the story form has changed little since the 1930’s. It was during this decade that Pritchett experimented most actively with various kinds of stories and finally hit upon both his matter and manner in “Sense of Humour,” an intense, tightly written tale of two young people whose affection for each other seems to be based on opportunism and callousness. In it one finds the sharp character delineation, ironic detachment, and paradoxical sympathy toward unsavory characters that have since become the hallmarks of Pritchett’s fiction. Since that time, Pritchett has deviated only occasionally and slightly from his method, but it is a method so flexible and adaptable that it has never degenerated into mannerism or formula. No one has ever parodied a Pritchett short story, and it seems unlikely that anyone ever will. The method is too subtle and elusive.
Pritchett, like H. G. Wells, sprang from the lower middle classes, and his fiction most often deals with people drawn from that social stratum. Perhaps for this reason, he is an author not of ideas or social criticism but of character revelation. In particular, he is fond of depicting people whose lives seem settled, incapable of disruption, and subjecting them to stresses that force the protagonists, in spite of themselves, to discover or reveal some hitherto unknown and unsuspected trait. This is seldom accomplished in the dramatic way of James Joyce’s epiphanies; rather, the revelation is slow and quiet, at times so subtle as to be almost imperceptible.
The title story illustrates this principle admirably. Lionel Frazier is a ladies’ hairdresser of late middle age. A confirmed bachelor of impeccable taste and precise habits, he is horrified to find his annual vacation interrupted by a chance encounter with the careless widow who lives in the flat below his in London. After all, he has chosen this hotel because of its proximity to solitary walks along the rocky coastline of southwestern England; the last thing he wants is the hectic, messy life of Mrs. Morris interfering with his annual escape to solitary tranquillity. Lionel’s fragmentary, detached view of his relations with others is suggested most vividly by his habit of seeing his customers as heads unconnected to trunk or limbs. Like his attachment to things and order, it is a view calculated to exclude ordinary life as far as possible, for “ordinary life always went too far.” Mrs. Morris is particularly upsetting, because her life is disordered and because she is “deep in the belief in the plural quality of the first person singular.”
There is perhaps no more telling sentence in all of Pritchett than this last remark. It is the essence of his view and his method. As he stated in a recent interview, he is fascinated by ordinary, boring talk, because through it he perceives what is barely below the surface—some unsuspected complexity. In Lionel Frazier’s case, the complexity is linked on the one hand to his late mother, whose long hair he would help comb as a boy, and on the other hand to the terrors he encounters on his solitary walks. Significantly, one of these is a formation known locally as “the coffin.” By this subtle juxtaposition, Pritchett shows that Lionel’s retreat into order is an attempt to deny both life and death, as if the process of living could be arrested by an impeccably neat apartment and a life of strict habits and emotional isolation.
The following story, “Cocky Oily,” develops much the same theme, only in this case the attempt to deny life’s messiness is forced on an adolescent girl by her father, a near-caricature of the British retired military man. Pritchett’s skill and decorum prevent the caricature from undermining the father’s credibility as a character, so that although the story progressively illustrates the silliness of his views, one never feels that the father has been set up as a straw man to be easily knocked down. Rather, the protagonist and narrator, having uncritically accepted these views, outgrows them in a fortuitous and revealing encounter with the Short family, the very neighbors whom her father most fears.
At one level, “Cocky Olly” concerns innocence and experience. The adolescent girl at the center of the story experiences in the Shorts’ free and open home an alternative to the excessively ordered and confined life of her father. This discovery, made during an indoor game of Cocky Olly (similar to hide-and-seek), changes her life radically, making her open to new people, experiences, and ideas. At the same time, the dangers of such openness are...
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