Elspeth Davie Criticism - Essay

Times Literary Supplement (review date 1969)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Brand Loyalties.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 3494 (13 February 1969): 151.

[In the following review of The Spark, the critic praises Davie for her ability to create a sinister, macabre atmosphere in her stories, but criticizes her for failing to produce strongly defined characters.]

Miss Elspeth Davie is expert at picking the sinister out of the ordinary and at heightening normal situations into something obsessive or macabre. One of the best stories in this collection [The Spark], “The Siege”, begins with a new widow sensibly determining that just because her husband has died she isn't going to halve the intake of her household supplies. After all, the bargains come in the big packets. As shopping gradually takes over her life we watch the stores filling her flat till, notwithstanding a brief sally as a glum advertisement lady for a new breakfast biscuit of which she has bought a record number, we leave her, absolutely alone with her eerie hoards of food and polishes.

Where Miss Davie sticks to a single theme like this she is a compelling writer and she is particularly good on lonely people, isolated by their own peculiarities. She is less successful when she has to differentiate between a number of characters. Sometimes this fault is not crucial—as in “Family House”, where there is a unifying force in the house which dominates all its inhabitants. But one feels that the picture of the two young men in the story about the photograph shop ought to be clearer and the girl who is obsessed by maps needs more than a few superficial contours herself.

R. G. G. Price (review date 1969)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Price, R. G. G. “Short Stories.” Punch 256, no. 6705 (12 March 1969): 398.

[In the following review, Price offers high praise for The Spark, calling it a brilliant volume of fiction.]

The Spark is so intelligent, many-sided and, I'm afraid, brilliantly written that my lack of response makes me feel guilty, almost gauche. Somehow its great merits mean only that the kind of thing which people have been doing for a generation or more is done better than ever. Funny, disquieting and showing every sign of hard work, it sparkles but doesn't linger in the mind. What it lacks is what Lawrence had, thirst for life and the courage to keep the vivid phrases to heel.

Paul Bailey (review date 1969)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Bailey, Paul. “‘Stuff’ and Nonsense.” London Magazine 9, no. 14 (May 1969): 108–12.

[In the following review, Bailey faults the stories collected in The Spark for containing poor dialogue and characterization, as well as lack of variety.]

The Spark and Other Stories is very much a bloom from the literary hot-house. Mrs Davie is a gifted writer—she can ‘place’ a landscape, an eerie house, a seaside hotel with enviable accuracy.

It's her people—particularly the way they speak—that worry me. When they open their unidentified mouths, it's usually to utter dialogue of the kind that is only heard in experimental plays when performed in draughty drill-halls: Meaningful Conversations, in short. It really is impossible, from one story to the next, to differentiate between the characters: the very young, the old, the middle-aged are all given the same way of speaking. Otherwise clever effects are ruined because of this lack of substance. There is, in truth, only one story in this book (Mrs Davie appears to be obsessed with the manner in which objects assert themselves in people's lives) and it is told 19 times without much in the way of variation. One ends up admiring the author's use of words, and thinking how much more interesting the stories would have been minus so many of them.

Anne Barnes (review date 1976)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Barnes, Anne. “Exact and Eccentric.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 3889 (24 September 1976): 1198.

[In the following review of The High Tide Talker, Barnes derides Davie for creating weak characters in her stories.]

Elspeth Davie's The High Tide Talker is more concerned with eccentricity. Here the short story form is used, not as a focus on familiar details of personality, but as an excuse for contorting situations and pressing them into strange new shapes. As a result her characters are affected and unlikely but also oddly predictable. Often they are promising as ideas, like the landlady whose lodger is averse to eggs, or the irate mother of a child whose favourite toy has been lost, or the man who goes out looking for reality because his colour television has broken down, but they are all clumsily handled.

The least ambitious stories are the most successful. There is one about a man looking over a flat who assumes that the woman arriving at the door at the same time is a rival prospective buyer to whom he can talk freely. He elaborates his horror of the previous occupant's lifestyle up to the point when he realizes, much too late, that the person to whom he is talking is the owner. It is simple and neat, and the man's self-indulgent harangue is subtly encouraged by, at first, the woman's passivity and then her bewildered fascination. But this, like other stories in the volume, gets out of control at the end because the author is as much attracted by wildness as Edith Reveley is by precision. Both writers get rather stuck in their own styles—there are times when each might have saved a failing story with a touch of the other's technique.

Nicholas Shrimpton (review date 1980)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Shrimpton, Nicholas. “Bourgeois v Bohemian.” New Statesman 99, no. 2558 (28 March 1980): 483.

[In the following review, Shrimpton considers The Night of the Funny Hats a disappointing collection of stories.]

Elspeth Davie won the Katherine Mansfield Prize in 1978 for her story ‘The High Tide Talker’. Seen in that perspective her new collection, The Night of the Funny Hats is, frankly, disappointing. At times her painterly sense of landscape strengthens the character sketches and small parables in which she specialises. Only one story, however, really stands out and that is ‘The Foothold’, an eerie tale set in a shoe shop which cunningly reverses our initial expectations of its imagery.

Frank Rudman (review date 1980)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Rudman, Frank. Review of The Night of the Funny Hats, by Elspeth Davie. Spectator 244, no. 7916 (29 March 1980): 25.

[In the following review of The Night of the Funny Hats, Rudman lauds Davie's stories, which he considers charming, humorous, and beautiful.]

The Night of the Funny Hats is by Elspeth Davie, winner of the Katherine Mansfield Prize. These new stories have cunning, charm, comedy and beauty. Perhaps the best is the title story, which is also the longest and describes the moods and attitudes of a group of passengers on a coach journey from Perth to Adelaide along a route that is one of the longest and loneliest stretches of the Australian continent. The claustrophobic atmosphere and the sudden death of the driver shrivel the nerve ends.

Publishers Weekly (review date 1980)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of The Night of the Funny Hats, by Elspeth Davie. Publishers Weekly 218, no. 7 (15 August 1980): 43.

[In the following review of The Night of the Funny Hats, the critic celebrates Davie for the imaginativeness of her short fiction.]

An air of ominous expectancy permeates these 15 short stories [The Night of the Funny Hats] by Scottish writer Davie, her third collection. Through all of them there is a deep, sometimes desperate sense of loneliness and alienation, a grasping after the mystery of existence. The characters represent abstract forces. Some have the responsibility of guiding or showing the way, some of holding things together. Some represent nemesis, others are angels of truth. Some are passengers in transit on a journey representing life. Some are talkers, others are listeners—and all are questing after an inexpressible assurance about the meaning of things. Like Wordsworth, Davie believes that in childhood one sees life clearly; in later years “some light” leaves the eyes, and though one begins to understand the “appalling complexities” of love and other relationships, it may be impossible to discover “who or what they were in the very core of their being.” Davie is remarkably skilled in elucidating these parables, and it is a pleasure to read her neat but subtly weighted prose and to enter the country of her compelling imagination.

Toby Fitton (review date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Fitton, Toby. “Accomplices to Nothing.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4281 (19 April 1985): 434.

[In the following review of A Traveller's Room, Fitton asserts that most of the stories in the volume are excellent, if judged individually, but that, as a group, they lack variety.]

A Traveller's Room is Elspeth Davie's fourth collection of short stories, gathering together work published mainly in 1982-4. There is an impression of concentration on similar themes, and a similarity of conception and manner, that detract from the overall effect, even when most of the stories, taken individually, are excellent. Just as encountering one or two works...

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B. W. Caless (review date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Caless, B. W. Review of A Traveller's Room, by Elspeth Davie. British Book News (April–May 1985): 361.

[In the following review of A Traveller's Room, Caless regards Davie's stories as excellent works of fiction that are imaginative and intelligent.]

This [A Traveller's Room] is Elspeth Davie's fourth collection of short stories and surpasses her previous work—excellent as that was—in skill and poise. She is a writer who uses traditional narrative methods but extends the range of short fiction with the sheer scale of her imagination. There are nineteen stories here, and each one is a gem. ‘Lines’ is written from a child's perspective and concerns a thoughtless group of teenagers who plan a revenge on an old lady only to have the tables uncomfortably turned on them. ‘The Gift’, ‘In the Train’ and ‘A Field in Space’ are stories that demonstrate succinctly how misleading impressions can be, while ‘A Botanist's Romance’ is a sweet-sour picture of a lonely academic obsessed with Hamlet's Ophelia.

‘Greenhead’ is a bizarre tale about a boy whose head sprouts grass and flowering shrubs, but it is redeemed from the usual fantasy dimension by the very real points about compassion and understanding made by the author. In ‘The Free Fur Coat’, ‘Kiosk Encounter’, ‘Bulbs’ and ‘Out of Order’, Davie writes about human dilemmas of choice, independence, personality and social responsibility but invests each with a metaphorical dimension that lifts the fiction into universal significance. Davie is a fine writer whose humour, insight and intelligence make her well worth reading. The publishers are also to be congratulated for producing a beautiful book, well bound with good paper and a clear typeface. Such things add to the pleasure of reading first-class fiction.

Ronald Frame (review date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Frame, Ronald. “Adventures in Prose.” Books and Bookmen, no. 356 (June 1985): 31.

[In the following review of A Traveller's Room, Frame maintains that Davie's tales address the theme of communication between individuals.]

[The] title story of Edinburgh writer Elspeth Davie's fourth collection, A Traveller's Room, concerns a teenage girl staying with her parents in a guest-house in a Perth of years ago. She is given the room of the absent ‘traveller’. She invents for him a life of drama, adventure and discovery. Then she begins to investigate his belongings: in a narrow drawer she finds two pairs of gloves, one for best and one for wearing....

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Anthony Thwaite (review date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Thwaite, Anthony. “From North of the Border.” Observer, no. 10105 (9 June 1985): 24.

[In the following review of A Traveller's Room, Thwaite considers Davie's fiction as very Scottish and observes that her stories find the extraordinary in ordinary lives.]

Many of Elspeth Davie's settings, in A Traveller's Room, are Scottish, and she shares with Dunn a liking for isolating the extraordinary within the ordinary. But stylistically she tends to be more elaborately formal, indeed ‘poetic.’

This works best in such pieces as the title-story, in which a young girl on holiday with her family in a Perth boarding-house has romantic delusions that the room she is given belongs to an absent voyager of a dashing kind, rather than (as he eventually turns out to be) a timid brush-salesman. And she has a nice line in fantastic and often funny verbal confusion, as in ‘Bulbs’ (another boarding-house setting), in which everything turns on the proprietress's determined misapprehension of what her guest wants—the iris/hyacinth kind, or the 100 watt.

Ms. Davie is a wilder fantasist too. ‘Green Head’ almost matter-of-factly follows through the implications and actions that result from a young man's shaming discovery that his hair has begun to sprout grass and, later, flowers. In some stories, such as ‘In the Train,’ it's deliberately obscure whether what is being related (in this case an aunt's ‘confession’) is fantasy or embroidered fact.

What unifies the stories, apart from their frequent Scottishness, is Elspeth Davie's quizzical, slightly mannered address, as of an Edinburgh lady who is unfooled by anything, knows very well the appropriate proprieties, but is aware too of a world beyond.

Publishers Weekly (review date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of A Traveller's Room, by Elspeth Davie. Publishers Weekly 227, no. 25 (21 June 1985): 96.

[In the following review of A Traveller's Room, the critic describes Davie's stories as brief tales that reveal a profundity beneath the superficies of commonplace lives.]

These brief, laconic tales [in A Traveler's Room] reveal how extraordinary the commonplace can be, what profundities lie beneath the surface. In direct, clean prose, the author, delineating not her characters but the events that shape them, shows us in “A Botanist's Romance” a horticulturist so obsessed with Hamlet's Ophelia that he flees upon mention of a woman with the...

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Sherrie Tuck (review date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Tuck, Sherrie. Review of A Traveller's Room, by Elspeth Davie. Library Journal 110, no. 14 (1 September 1985): 212.

[In the following review of A Traveller's Room, Tuck perceives Davie's fiction as modern parables in which everyday objects symbolize the fragility and uncertainty of existence.]

This collection of 19 short stories [A Traveller's Room] by a British writer is marked by Davie's use of everyday objects—light bulbs, flowers, a postage stamp—as symbols for the fragility and uncertainties of life. At their best, as in the title story or in “Bones and Bouquets,” the symbols reveal an insight into character. At times, however,...

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Gerald Mangan (review date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Mangan, Gerald. “Where the North Wind Blows.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4639 (28 February 1992): 25.

[In the following review of Death of a Doctor, Mangan offers a mixed assessment.]

Elspeth Davie's native Edinburgh has furnished much of the background of her fiction since her first novel, Providings (1965), and there seems to be a sense in which the divided personality of the city has shaped her imagination. In her last novel, Coming to Light (1989), it figured prominently enough to overshadow the less memorable characters; and in her fifth collection of stories, Death of a Doctor, it inspires a telling image for a conflict...

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Valentina Poggi (essay date 1997)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Poggi, Valentina. “Vision and Space in Elspeth Davie's Fiction.” In A History of Scottish Women's Writing, edited and introduced by Douglas Gifford and edited by Dorothy McMillan, pp. 526–36. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Poggi discusses a cardinal theme of Davie's fiction, as defined by Poggi: “the primacy of space and vision in the perception of reality.”]

Reading Elspeth Davie's stories and novels is like visiting a retrospective exhibition of paintings or drawings by the Bolognese artist Giorgio Morandi: in both cases the dominant impression is of sameness combined with variation, familiarity allied to...

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