(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“The Camberwell Beauty” is told by a narrator looking back on his years in the antique trade and those years just following, when he was intimate with all the dealers in southern England. He first became involved with August, Pliny, and the other figures in this tale when he began searching for a rare piece of Staffordshire porcelain for one of his customers. In the process, he met Mrs. Price and her niece Isabel. Some time later, shortly after the death of Pliny’s aged mother, he accidentally meets August, Mrs. Price, and other dealers in a Salisbury pub. They repeat the rumors that Pliny used to lock his mother in her room to prevent her giving away his merchandise and that one night a month he visits his mistress in Brixton. This precipitates an outburst by Mrs. Price against August, during which she accuses him of trying to seduce Isabel.

On a visit to Pliny’s shop, the narrator again runs into August, Mrs. Price, and Isabel. He is fascinated to see the girl write her name, or rather part of it, ISAB, in the dust on an antique table. Later, he reflects that it is sad to see a young girl grow up in the eccentric world of antique dealers. During the following year, the narrator’s business fails, and he is forced to quit and take a job as a real estate agent. He remains sufficiently in touch, however, to hear that August has been sentenced to two years in prison for receiving stolen goods and that Isabel has run away. Passing Pliny’s shop one...

(The entire section is 600 words.)


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

“The Camberwell Beauty,” the title piece of a collection, is one of Pritchett’s mature, haunting tales. The setting is London’s antiques world and becomes a metaphor of the world at large. The antique dealers would give almost anything to possess their own particular object of art; they brood on these acquisitions for their entire lives. Isabel is the Camberwell beauty who yokes together August, her uncle and an ivory collector, with Pliny, an elder bachelor who lusts for, among other artifacts, Dresden figures. The narrator, a former antiques dealer, intrudes into this world and presents the reader with a host of men who, although specialists in their own antiques, are ordinary people.

Isabel is eventually discovered by the narrator to be Pliny’s wife, although she is simply another art acquisition by Pliny, who uses other women to satisfy his lust. The narrator, with unwitting humor, attempts to seduce this young woman. She is often left alone in an empty shop, with only the sound of drumbeats to indicate that something is amiss. Isabel, unaware of her manipulation, is made to dress like a soldier and to bang a drum to keep burglars away. When the narrator discovers Pliny’s ruse, he begins to attempt his seduction. Pritchett’s bizarre details provide irony. Throughout many attempts to lure Isabel, the narrator fails. When the narrator taunts Isabel with Pliny’s being a husband in name only, Isabel replies that he is indeed a good lover...

(The entire section is 506 words.)