Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time

by Peter Taylor
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Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 679

In his short story, Peter Taylor sets the stage by describing the unusual sartorial habits of the elderly siblings Alfred and Louisa Dorset. The "foolish old couple" worry their neighbors with their eccentricities (such as "wearing their bedroom slippers" while shopping in a department store):

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Such slovenliness in one's neighbors is so unpleasant that even husbands and wives in West Vesey Place, which was the street where the Dorsets lived, had got so they didn’t like to joke about it with each other. Were the Dorsets, poor old things, losing their minds? If so, what was to be done about it?

The neighbors disapprove of many other behaviors, such as the type of car Mr. Dorset drives, where he parks it, and how he takes care of it. Not only are they concerned about where and how he washes his car, but they also perceive his manner of approaching the car to be a cause for concern:

Mr. Dorset washed his own car! He washed it not back in the alley or in his driveway but out there in the street of West Vesey Place. . . . There was an element of brutality in the way he did it and yet an element of tenderness too. An old lady visiting in the neighborhood once said that it was like the cleansing of a sacrificial animal.

However, what the neighbors find truly scandalous is Louisa Dorset’s manner of dress—or undress—while cleaning house. The fact that she did housework herself, even though they could certainly afford servants, was deemed offensive. The paperboy reported, however, that he saw her through the window, totally naked while running the carpet sweeper.

The couple is tolerated in their neighborhood only because they throw an annual party, which has developed the reputation of a "must" for all the families who wish to uphold their social status. Only children are allowed to attend.

The title is drawn from a small item of décor in the Dorsets’ home, which is a reproduction from some publication of a famous painting:

It was a tiny color print of Bronzino’s Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time. This picture was not even framed. It was simply tacked on the wall, and it had obviously been torn—rather carelessly, perhaps hurriedly—from a book or magazine. The title and the name of the painter were printed in the white margin underneath.

The plot revolves around an incident that three children cause when they attend the Dorsets' party. The Meriwether children, Emily and Ned, decide to smuggle Tom (the paperboy) into the party; Tom lives in a different neighborhood and is therefore not invited.

During the course of the party, Tom, who is disguised as Ned, kisses and touches Emily, making the other children giggle. The children’s mockery of the pair makes it clear that they all believe that the Dorsets have a sexual relationship, and their goal is to humiliate their hosts. Ned, in Tom’s clothes, stands to one side. Once the Dorsets decide that he is the intruder, the story’s mood turns dark. The Dorsets shut Ned in a room upstairs.

The Dorsets have always staunchly upheld the idea that peoples' backgrounds and social status are more important than money. When they speak of remodeling their house to save money, for example, Mr. Dorset laughs scornfully.

“As though money—” he would begin.

“As though money ever took the place,” his sister would come in, “of living with your own kind.”

“Or of being well born,” said Mr. Dorset.

Finally, the Meriwether parents come to retrieve the children, and the Dorsets insist that they could tell that Ned (who they think is Tom) did not belong. Ned and Emily’s father cannot understand.

Mr. Alfred Dorset said: “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."

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Edwin said, exasperated.

After that night, the Dorsets host no more parties.

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