Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 490
"Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time" is a short story by Peter Taylor about an elderly eccentric couple called Alfred and Louisa Dorset, who hold a dance party every year for the young teenagers of West Vesey.
In the affluent town of West Vesey, the residents view the Dorsets as odd. People are even offended by the brother and sister's strange but harmless habits. For example, Alfred Dorset likes to clean his car in his driveway and not in the garage, and Louisa Dorset like to clean her home in the nude (or so the rumors go). The town tolerates them because they are elderly and place importance on things other than money.
Once a year, Alfred and Louisa Dorset like to hold a dance party for the town's teenagers. It is an event that fills the parents and teenagers with dread. For months afterwards the party is said to give the girls nightmares and drive the boys to secrecy. Yet somehow the parents have come to view the party as some kind of rite of passage or badge of honor, and they don't want their children to have to explain why they didn't go.
On this particular dance party, Ned and Emily Meriwether decide to play a trick on the Dorsets. While waiting for Alfred to pick them up in his car, and with their parents out of view, Ned swaps places with the uninvited Tom Bascomb, the town's paperboy. As Alfred drives Tom and Emily to the party, Ned walks over to the Dorset's house by himself and slips in with the crowd.
At first the party goes as always. The Dorsets give the children a tour of their house and tell them about their upbringing—how they are orphans and don't get on with their other relatives. As the party moves into the drawing room for the dance, Ned sees his sister and Tom kissing. It is more than he can bear, and with everyone looking, he shouts out that Tom and Emily are brother and sister. Everyone laughs except for the Alfred and Louisa Dorset, who presume he is an intruder and lock him in their bathroom. Meanwhile Tom, telling Louisa that he is phoning the police, calls Ned and Emily's parents to tell them what has happened.
The Meriwethers arrive at the party, asking where their son Ned is. The Dorsets think he is with the other children, but of course he is locked up in their bathroom. They have mistaken him for Tom. When the Dorsets realize their mistake, they are horrified. They didn't think for minute that they could ever mistake a West Vesey boy for a paperboy.
Oh, we wouldn't make a mistake of that kind! People are different. It isn't something you can put your finger on, but it isn't the money.
At the end of the story, the reader learns that the Dorsets never gave another one of their parties again.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 885
To the conventional “establishment” community of Chatham’s West Vesey Place, the Dorsets are definitely peculiar. They are seen shopping in public places wearing bedroom slippers or with the cuffs of a nightdress hanging down beneath daytime clothing. Mr. Dorset washes his own car, not in the driveway or in the garage but in the street of West Vesey Place. Miss Dorset not only appears on her front terrace at midday in her bathrobe but also has been seen (through the tiny glass panels surrounding the front door) doing her housecleaning in the nude. Their home was once a mansion, but to reduce their taxes, they ripped off the third floor, tore down the south wing, and disconnected some of the plumbing—not bothering to conceal the resulting scars. Nevertheless, they are the last two of a Chatham “first family,” and in a community that prizes family above fortune, their social standing is not to be questioned.
The Dorsets were orphaned while still in their teens; afterward, they not only refused any opportunity to marry but also deliberately cut themselves off from wealthy relatives who had moved away from the town. They subsist in an odd fashion: Mr. Dorset grows figs, plentiful but juiceless, and Miss Dorset makes paper flowers, plentiful but artless, which they sell to those members of the community whom they count as their peers. Their single social gesture is an annual dancing party for the pubescent children of suitable families, and the parties have become a predebutante ritual, which all the children must undergo but which give some of them nightmares.
Arrangements for the parties are as strange as the Dorsets. Alfred goes around the neighborhood in his old car, collecting the juvenile guests; no adults have been inside the house for twenty years. Alfred and Louisa are always garbed in the latest fashion of tuxedo or ball gown, none of them ever worn twice. The house is festooned with paper flowers (perhaps to be sold later), with reproductions of somewhat lubricious artworks such as Auguste Rodin’s The Kiss and Il Bronzino’s Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time, with lighting designed to emphasize the artworks. The Dorsets are inclined to notice and to nudge each other when they see the children paying particular attention to the prints and statues. The high point of the parties is a tour of the house, during which the Dorsets talk about their past social triumphs and display ancestral evening wear that they keep in glass cases. The only dancing is done by Alfred and Louisa, to Victrola music, while the children watch. When not dancing, they keep up a running dialogue about being wellborn, being young together, believing that “love can make us all young forever.”
There comes a year when Ned and Emily Meriwether are of a proper age to be invited, and the Dorsets arrange a party to end all parties. It starts as a small, adolescent practical joke, merely a plan to smuggle in Tom Bascomb as an extra guest. (Tom does not live in West Vesey Place and is not wellborn; he delivers the morning paper and once saw Miss Louisa doing her nude housecleaning one day when he came to collect.) However, the joke has repercussions that last for the rest of their lives.
Tom takes Ned’s place in Mr. Dorset’s old car; Ned walks to the Dorset house and slips in with a group of guests. As the tour of the house progresses, Tom and Emily put on a great show of affection; he kisses her ears and the tip of her nose, and they embrace and pose among the flowers in front of the Rodin replica. Mr. Dorset and Miss Louisa are delighted by the show, which proves to them that love can “make us all young forever.” However, Ned’s reaction is something he has not foreseen: He cannot bear the sight of his sister cuddling with Tom. Finally, he cries out in pain: “Don’t you know? . . . They’re brother and sister!” The other children, taking this to be the punch line for the joke, laugh aloud.
However, the Dorsets do not turn on the incestuous pair. They turn on Ned, whom they thought to be Tom, saying that they knew all along that he did not belong among the wellborn. Ned flees up the front stairs, pursued by Mr. Dorset, down the back stairs, where he confronts Miss Dorset, up the front stairs again—until he is finally cornered and locked in one of the dismantled bathrooms. Tom, claiming to be Ned, offers to call the police and calls the Meriwether parents instead. Then he slips out the back door.
The aftermath of the joke is much more sad than comic. The hapless Dorsets, unwilling to believe that they cannot tell the wellborn from the paperboy, believe that the Meriwether parents as well as all the children are being mischievous. At last convinced of their error, they simply withdraw to their rooms and leave the bewildered parents to close the house and see the children home.
Ned and Emily are sent off to boarding schools; they never regain their childhood intimacy, and later they become indifferent or even antagonistic to each other. Chatham’s children are free forever from Dorset dancing parties.