On the Edge of the Cliff

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

What V. S. Pritchett does, perhaps better than any contemporary writer of short fiction, is to show us how the minds of people work and why. Although the characters in On the Edge of the Cliff are, for the most part, drawn from the English middle class, they represent a remarkable range of intelligence, experience, and moral sensibility. Pritchett’s knowledge of human nature is nothing less than extraordinary, and the psychological subtlety with which his characters are delineated is reminiscent of Henry James. He also has the capacity to dramatize the comically absurd side of human experience in a manner which rivals that of P. G. Wodehouse.

Of the nine stories in this collection, the two most impressive are the titular story and “Tea with Mrs. Bittell.” Both of these stories deal with old age, and they tell us a great deal about the dimensions of the human spirit and the unpredictable nature of human experience. In “On the Edge of the Cliff,” Pritchett presents the potentiality of the human spirit for attrition through a character almost Learlike in the charm of his powerful yet somehow childlike intellect and the brute vigor of his aging body. And in “Tea for Mrs. Bittell,” he suggests its potentiality for magnificence through the limited sensibility and intelligence of a lumpy, thoroughly unprepossessing dowager.

The central character in “On the Edge of the Cliff” is a retired professor who has carried on a succession of affairs with very young women, none of whom has had any significant hold on him. Now in his seventies, Harry shares his home with the latest in the line of “flowers with voices,” a twenty-five-year-old girl who is attracted to him by the power of his personality and mind. Though outwardly withered and shrunken by time, he has retained his strength of body, will, and character. He takes pride in his ability to swim in icy, turbulent waters; to charm his Rowena with eloquence and erudition; and, most of all, to maintain his sense of independence and integrity. An encounter with one of the women from his past, however, leads him to compromise his passion for truth and puts him in the same position with someone he has despised for years. The lie is occasioned by his fear of losing Rowena; and a casual affectionate gesture of hers at the end of the story indicates symbolically that his inner being has been mastered and marked by time.

Mrs. Bittell, whose name, we learn, may be derived from “Battaile,” lives in the midst of the relics of her past, struggling with the memories of how she has been wronged by her husband, her neighbors, and others. She is tormented by a sense of loss, an overwhelming sense that life and time have passed her by before she has had an opportunity to become herself. As a result of an interest which she takes in a lower-class young man who is being exploited by his homosexual lover in somewhat the same way her husband used her, she runs head-on into a startling situation that allows her to strike back at what she regards as the central wrongs of her life in an extraordinary series of actions that are at once comic, pathetic, and glorious.

In “The Spanish Bed,” we are also introduced to a central character of limited sensibility and intelligence. Dr. Billiter, a retired engineer and mineralogist, seeks to bring meaning into an otherwise empty life by becoming the biographer of a long and well-forgotten mystery writer whose former home he has bought. His restoration of his idol’s home, which includes the renovation of a hideous Spanish bed, is as wrongheaded as the engineering training that he brings to his biographical and critical work. His pursuit of information takes him to the slightly deranged former wife of his subject; and, in the course of a wildly comic afternoon with her, he comes to a conclusion about her account of her relationship with her former husband that clearly applies to his own imposingly...

(The entire section is 1608 words.)