The Girl in the Black Raincoat, edited by George Garrett (1966)

Cover of 'The Girl in the Black Raincoat'

Once upon a time, a student in one of George Garrett’s writing classes at the University of Virginia turned in a story about a girl in a black raincoat that was about a real girl in a black raincoat in the class. “It’s a good short story,” Garrett writes in the introduction to The Girl in the Black Raincoat, “but a lot of the class reacted unfavorably. It didn’t seem right to them to make fiction out of something so close and near.” In Garrett’s view, such a choice was neither right nor wrong but exemplary of the kind of choices creative artists always have to make.

So he set the whole class the assignment of writing a story or poem about girls in black raincoats. Soon after that, talk of the assignment went around the English department and spread out to a variety of Garrett’s friends and former students, and he started to get other stories about girls in black raincoats. It was kind of a game, “innocent and scoreless as Frisbee.” The rules were simple: there just had to be a girl in a black raincoat in the story or poem. Eventually, he had so much material that he decided to collect them into this anthology. “What little editing there was to do was in choices,” he writes in the introduction, “for there was far too much in the end to be in one book.” As for sequencing, Garrett took the arbitrary option of placing the stories in reverse alphabetical order by the author’s last name.

In this case, the arbitrariness of the whole exercise also proves serendipitous. As in many short story collections, a really good story may be followed by a forgettable one, but quality spikes up more often than down and there are no extended dull patches in the whole book. Also, Garrett’s contributors are a mix of recognized, unrecognized, and later-to-be-recognized names. Later Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Mary Lee Settle contributed a sketch, “Paragraph,” only lightly adapted from her memoir, All the Brave Promises (1966). The journalist and historian William Manchester contributed a rare piece of fiction, “Out in the Crazy, All Alone,” a monologue by a sad, lonely, and slightly drunk young wife contemplating adultery. Novelist and Civil War historian Shelby Foote contributed what is basically an old dirty joke in a flimsy wrapper of fiction. Leslie Fiedler wrote Garrett saying he was too busy to contribute a story and then proceeded to write the first of the “Four Academic Parables” included here. William Jay Smith, later a Poet Laureate, offerded two poems and his soon-to-be ex-wife, the poet Barbara Howes, contributed “Roselma,” a far better fable than any of Fiedler’s:

Her name was Roselma Pantry, from Tiffin, Ohio, a slender girl of medium height, presumably pretty, but as she was never without her long black mackintosh, topped by a sort of snood or hood, one could not be sure. The textile industry might have despaired had they known of her, for she never sported a tweed or jaeger coat, or even silk or gabardine; she out-minked, or out-foxed, no one; winter and summer, night and day, she trotted up and down those gravel paths in the same black fabric–composed more likely in a test tube than on a loom. Nights, it gave off a faint phosphorescent sheen; once at a college dance she floated by in the arms of the French professor, but still in her black apparel, now unbelted, which under the bright chaperoning lights was near diaphanous.

UVA faculty and former students understandably predominate, including Annie Dillard (a poem, “The Affluent Beatnik”) and her first husband, R. H. W. Dillard (a story, “The Little Man with the Long Red Hair”), and later Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Henry S. Taylor (one of the best stories of the bunch, “And Bid a Fond Farewell to Tennessee”), as well as lesser-known alumni such as John Rodenbeck, later a translator and expert on Egyptian literature (a wonderful story of unsuccessful college romance, “Keep Your Eye on the Feet”).

“The raincoat girl in all her guises and disguises” is, as Garrett writes, “erratic, inconsistent, contradictory, sad, whimsical, mostly irrational and often marvelous. And so is The Girl in the Black Raincoat. I’ll take this arbitary anthology over any deliberate one any day of the week.


The Girl in the Black Raincoat, edited by George Garrett
New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1966

The Empress’s Ring, by Nancy Hale (1955)

Nancy Hale was one of The New Yorker’s most prolific short story writers and author of a numerous well-received novels, including the 1942 best-seller, The Prodigal Women — and yet today, she’s virtually forgotten. She didn’t have a Wikipedia article until I just wrote one and her only work in print is a small sample of stories, along with several appreciative essays on her work, in the obscure university press book, Nancy Hale: On the Life & Work of a Lost American Master, published in 2012.

The only child of two artists, Philip Leslie Hale and Lilian Westcott Hale, granddaughter of the Rev. Edward Everett Hale, and great grand-niece of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Hale’s Boston Brahmin stock was of blue-plate quality. But she also came to maturity during the Roaring Twenties and soon after finishing school, she moved to New York City, where she quickly got a job working for Vogue magazine and, not long after that, snagged herself a handsome and well-to-do husband named Taylor Scott Hardin. She played the part of a Smart Set-er to the full, even parading down Fifth Avenue smoking a “torch of freedom” for PR pioneer Edward Bernays.

Hale went through husbands like shoes until she found the right fit with University of Virginia English professor Fredson Bowers and stayed with him for over 45 years, until her death in 1988. Hale settled easily into the life of a faculty wife in Charlottesville, and a fair number of her later short stories are set in and around the town.

If there is any unifying theme to her third collection of short stories, The Empress’s Ring (1955), it’s memory. But Hale has spent too much time in Manhattan to allow much room for the sentimental in her writing. In the story “The Place and the Time,” for example, the narrator decides to pull off the main highway while driving from Washington to Charlottesville and drive around Starkeyville, a quiet little Virginia town where his first wife had lived.

Parking across from the home of his former mother-in-law, he muses about walking up and knocking, unannounced, on the front door. He imagines several possible receptions, starting with a warm and gracious Southern welcome: “I’d say, ‘Hullo, Miss Grace. Do you remember me?’ And she’d say, ‘I reckon I remember my own son-in-law.’ I’d mention Elizabeth and she’d simply put her hand on mine.” But as he thinks a bit more, the cold truth cuts through his nostalgia:

What else could she say? Could she say, “You killed my daughter, with your neglect and your scoffin’, and your stayin’ out all night when the baby was comin’. That poor little baby, that never saw the light of day.” Could she say, “My daughter loved you, Mr. Peters, she was a lovely girl, a simple, singlehearted girl, and she gave you all her heart. And you repaid her with jeerin’, and belittlin’, and all your grand intellectual friends that she wasn’t good enough for.”

It had been a bad match from the start, and that fact is still too apparent to let him think otherwise. Guiltily, he heads back to the highway. “What the hell do I want, anyway, he asked himself. Do I imagine I want to live in Starkeyville?”

Many of the stories in The Empress’s Ring deal with adults coming into connection with memories of their childhood. Hale would go on to write two collections of her own memories of childhood–A New England Girlhood (1958) and The Life in the Studio (1969)–and it’s hard, despite the disclaimer at the start, not to believe that there is a strong autobiographical element running through this book as well.

In “Charlotte Russe,” for example, the fancy dessert–too sophisticated to serve to children–symbolizes the brilliant, unreachable world of adults that so tantalized the narrator. Any child who’s had to lie in bed and listen to a dinner party going on downstairs can relate to Hale’s recollection:

When I was in bed, I would lie still with the window open to the dark, snowy winter night, and let my feelings soar. I could faintly hear the hum of conversation in the dining room underneath me; when the door between the dining room and the kitchen was opened, a burst of laughter would float up the back stairs. The people at the dinner party were Olympian, seated around a Parnassan table loaded with the fare of gods. I could hear the footsteps of the maids, hurrying over the wooden floor of the kitchen to wait upon them. They drank from crystal goblets, their napkins were vast, satiny; they jokes were, surely, magnificent and immortal.

The connection of memories runs in both directions–putting the adult back in the child’s world and enabling the child’s perspective to illuminate the adult’s current experience, as in the case of “The Year I Had Colds”:

As I lie here, trying to get over this idiotic cold before the Hanson’s party, my mind becomes restless and inattentive if I try to read; I set up a game of patience on a tray and even then it is as though my mind’s eye were focussed on some other scene; until sometimes I give up altogether trying to distract myself and simply lie here, resting, and letting my thoughts wander about as they will in my childhood, in the time when I was kept out of school so much by colds.

The empress’s ring of the title story–a tiny gold ring given to the narrator as a girl that she was told had belonged to the Empress of Austria–represents just the kind of object that can create such a connection: “I worry about it still, even today, thirty odd years later. I close my eyes to go to sleep at night, sometimes, and I am back at the old, disintegrated sand pile where I lost it, digging in the dirt-mixed sand with my fingernails to find my little ring.” Her mother’s scoldings over the ring’s loss are echoed in her self-admonishments as an adult for various shortcomings–not having enough matching drinking glasses, not being able to sew clothes that quite fit. But there is also still the possibility that one day another little girl will find it–a bare bit of hope to offset the sense of loss and inadequacy.

In all, The Empress’s Ring is an elegant, cool, and moving set of reflections on life, memory, connections, and disconnections that rings clear and true even over a distance of sixty years.


The Empress’s Ring, by Nancy Hale
New York City: Charles Scribners’ Sons, 1955

The Stories of James Stern (1968)

When James Stern died in 1993 at the age of 88, most of his obituaries acknowledged him as a writer but noted that he was better known as a friend to the famous. An early acquaintance of W. H. Auden, he went on to break bread and knock back whiskies with a fair share of the good writers of the Anglo-American world of the mid-twentieth century. Malcolm Cowley once remarked to Stern, “My God, you’ve known everybody, his wife, his boyfriend, and his natural issue!”

The Stories of James Stern actually represents four fifths of his output, since it collects the best stories from his earlier collections (The Heartless Land (1932); Something Wrong (1938); and The Man Who Was Loved (1952)), along with a few new ones. By the time it was published, Stern had pretty much given up writing, aside from letters to his friends.

Those letters were somewhat legendary. He wrote as many as eight a day, in fine, precise handwriting. His correspondents included Djuna Barnes, Kay Boyle, David Garnett, Brian Howard, Arthur Miller, Lewis Mumford, Sonia Orwell, William Plomer, Katherine Anne Porter, V. S. Pritchett, and Patrick White. His one and only biographer, Miles Huddleston, was able to draw heavily upon them in his 2002 book, James Stern: A Life in Letters.

And he was a very well-traveled man. Born in County Meath, Ireland, to a Anglo-Irish banking family with an estate, servants, horses, and annual fox hunting parties, Stern attended Eton and Oxford, tried his hand at farming in Rhodesia, worked in the family bank in London and Frankfurt, then quit and went to Paris to try his hand at writing. “That I ever published a page of prose,” he once wrote, “was due primarily to the dread prospect of spending the rest of my days in a bank.” His first book, The Heartless Land, was touted by Auden and Christopher Isherwood as one of the great works of fiction of the Thirties.

In Paris, he met and married the German physical therapist and writer, Tania Kurella, and they moved to New York City just before the start of World War Two. Stern worked as a journalist in New York, and in late 1944, he was approached with an offer to join the U.S. Air Force’s Strategic Bombing Survey, which studied the effects of Allied bombing on Germany. This experience led him to write his only book to be republished, The Hidden Damage (1947). Although some critics felt the book demonstrated remarkable sympathy for the plight of the Germans but was, overall, shapeless and unclear in its ultimate message.

This capacity for empathy is evident throughout The Stories of James Stern. With settings ranging from the Rhodesian bush to Welsh mines, Irish estates, Manhattan apartments, and a graveyard in Germany, these stories demonstrate a confident grasp of setting and a fine ear for the words of his characters.

“You bin down t’pit?”

I nod.

“Which one’s that’ bin down?”

“Number Five.”

Five! he shouts. “Why, tha’s seen best conditions in t’colliery. Who sent thee down, lad?”

“The Manager.”

“Ah!,” and his eyes narrow and he clenches his fists. “Down ‘ere, lad,” he suddenly bursts out, “in Pit One–four hundred yards under where ah’m standin’, is men an’ boys workin’ on theer stomachs, on theer backs, in two-an’-‘alf-foot seams. They can’t kneel, lad–t’ain’t ‘igh ‘nough. Seven-an-‘alf-hour shifts–roof may fall in an’ kill ’em tomorrow–fifty shillin’s a wik w’en lucky….”

This comes from “A Stranger Among Miners,” which Stern notes is actually a piece of non-fiction drawn from his visit to Welsh and English coal mining communities in the early 1930s. Also non-fiction are the last two pieces in the book, which are taken from The Hidden Damage. In “A Peaceful Place,” Stern recalls a graveyard he would often visit while stationed near Kempten in Bavaria:

Reading the fringe of the cemetery, I stood still and found myself admiring the good sense and taste of the man who had chosen such a spot to bury the dead. In a large, protected circle cut out of the pines, hundreds upon hundreds of crosses–all identical except for an occasional, surprising Star of David–gleamed white against a background of beautifully mown, very green grass. It was the first clean, orderly, peaceful place I had encountered in bomb-battered Bavaria. I stood for several minutes in the intense evening silence and though: If I should die tomorrow, I suppose this is where my bones, if not my dog-tags, would lie for ever….

Although the remainder of the pieces in the book are fiction, it’s clearly fiction that never stretches too far from Stern’s own experiences. In “The Broken Leg,” for example, he seems to be working through long-standing conflicts with his parents, who were avid fox-hunters and, apparently, quite intolerant of anyone who wasn’t–especially their son. Max, the younger son riding off with great trepidation to his first hunt, soon embarrasses himself and his parents by falling clumsily from his horse:

He felt that nothing he did in the future could ever atone for the humiliating performance his mother, father, and brother had just witnessed. He knew, moreover, that he had committed a great sin, two sins: he had shown fear while on a horse, and he had ‘cried before he was hurt.’ In the great hollow abyss of misery that only a child can know, he felt utterly, terribly alone; the whole of his tiny world was against him; there was none to whom he could turn; he was doomed.

It’s no wonder that one of his later friends, the novelist David Hughes, described Stern’s stories as “reports on his traumas lightly disguised as fiction.”

Yet Stern’s thin skin also made him extraordinarily sensitive to the hurts of others. In “The Woman Who Was Loved,” an ever-so-sophisticated socialite, struggles when she has to perform in the one role in which she can gain no notice in the columns: “The periods between governesses–the family averaged two a year–were not easy days for Mrs. Turnbull, for then she had to take charge of her children, a task for which she knew herself to be unfit and which embarrassed both her and them.” Stern himself provided perhaps the most accurate assessment of his work in an obituary he drafted in the early 1960s: “He is to be judged by the highest standards; but his art remains a probing of wounds and somehow, lacking as it is in power of invention and ultimate detachment, fails to achieve its own release from pain.”

Whether it was the growing rawness of his nerves after too many years of laying them bare to the sufferings of the people and characters he observed or struggles with drink or simply a decision to pursue translation (from German, of works by Mann, Kafka, and others) instead, Stern decided to give up writing for publication about the time he penned his own obituary. One assumes it was a decision he was content with. Stern’s literary executor, John Byrne, said that he “was not reticent about his friendships with writers better known that himself. In a way it was a compensation for not writing other things.” As Alan Ross wrote in Stern’s obituary in The Independent, “… if the gift for friendship is one of the most precious gifts of all, then Jimmy Stern was more blessed than as if he had written 15 books instead of five.”

The Stories of James Stern is also available online at the Open Library (Link).


The Stories of James Stern
New York City: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968

“The Copley-Plaza,” from The Empress’s Ring, by Nancy Hale (1955)

The next set of memories I bear of the Copley-Plaza are very different from these in mood. I must have been fourteen. I had been going to Miss Winsor’s School, out in Longwood, and I found it hard to make friends; as far as I could figure at that age, my total inability to play basketball or field hockey was the cause of my unpopularity. Some sort of instinct, right or wrong, caused me to begin stopping in at the Copley-Plaza on my way home from school, in search of a kind of comfort, in search of a kind of distraction.

For here I would sit, in the main lobby, opposite to the huge marble desk, dressed in my thick, untidy school clothes, my galoshes, with my plaid schoolbag huddled into the thronelike chair with me, and watch what seemed to me the worldly and wealthy conducting their fascinating lives at the Copley-Plaza. In from the Dartmouth Street entrance would hurry a bellboy, or two bellboys, laden down with expensive luggage, followed by a blond woman in a fur coat, or a close-shaven man in a check waistcoat, or a dark, romantic-looking lady all in black and attended by what seemed to be a governess with two or three rich, well-dressed children–important children, children with lives.

Occasionally I would get up and go down the corridor to the ladies’ room, not so much because I needed to as that there I found myself not two feet away from beautiful, expensively dressed women who talked to each other busily about their approaching engagements. I would wash my hands, taking a long time about it, and listen to some lovely girl saying, “We’re going to Paris Friday, on the Ile….” Then I would go back to my throne in the lobby to watch some more people make their entrances. All the time, the stringed orchestra would be playing waltzes, behind in the palm court–fast and sweet and queerly nostalgic. It was almost as if this were the only life I had.

From The Empress’s Ring, by Nancy Hale
New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1955

Stories, Fables and Other Diversions, by Howard Nemerov (1971)

I was skeptical when I started reading the poet Howard Nemerov‘s 1971 collection, Stories, Fables and Other Diversions. It gave all the appearances of being a minor work–a writer working outside his primary form; an early volume from a small (if well-respected) press; short (barely 121 pages); a title suggesting nothing more than a hastily-applied label for a miscellany. And the first few stories are more fables than stories and more jokes than fables.

But I hung in, and with the fourth story, entered a new class of writing. Almost like a specimen brought into focus under a microscope, a wholly unfamiliar perspective came into view, minute in detail, with wildly exaggerated features. In “Bon Bons,” a lonely widow, Mrs. Melisma, decides one day to undertake an odd and original study:

Inspired, she purchased a pack offiling cards and began, as she ate away, to note down a Descriptive Catalogue of Chocolates, measuring the dimensions and identifying the surface characteristics of each chocolate, and correlating with these both the objective qualities and the subjective sensations communicated to her by the inside. A series of rather odd thoughts began to form itself and emerge from the darkness.

Her dedicated and meticulously-observed research quickly reaches an inevitable obstacle: she realizes that she does not like chocolate. And yet she carries on, driving herself to penetrate her sensations ever more deeply, opening her imagination to new associations, venturing into new realms of philosophy, and eventually, into nihilism:

She perceived, in effect, that what she ate was not chocolate at all, but only anticipation, suspense; she was eating, as much as anything, not the chocolates themselves, but only the moment between one and the next; now, what did that moment taste of?

Nothing. It tasted of nothing at all. Mrs Melisma wept.

And finally, she is overtaken by a vision of wondrous breadth and tenderness, in a passage that reminded me of that amazing scene in Gravity’s Rainbow that begins, “Near her battery one night, driving Somewhere in Kent …”:

In which she saw the jungles, and, beside the jungles, the sugar cane in fields, the plantations of nougat and almond, the herds of cows giving their milk to be turned into fondant; she saw the black men and the brown men, naked to the waist, going among the trees and through the fields where lonely white men stood with rifles; she saw the great white ships riding, she saw the mumbling stainless steel factories from whose monotonous and automated ruminations a myriad moments of chocolate filled with mysterious sweetness came forth—endless they seemed—; and she saw the candy shops, with their cloying smells and their attendants dressed like nurses in starched uniforms; and she saw by miracle in a million rooms the lonely hunger that existed for the sweetness of life, that sweat and starvation and cold-eyed greed equally and helplessly competed for; and somewhere in all this a child sat, a monstrously chubby child with open mouth, who stretched out pudgy hands before him while he blubbered for the agonizing beauty of this world.

From this point on, Stories, Fables and Other Diversions rolls through a series of imaginative and philosophical whirlwinds, each carrying off in their force other wonderful fragments of prose. “The Native in the World,” for example, opens with this stunning sentence:

The climb from sleep was difficult, a struggle up a staircase of soft pillows into which he sank again and again, drowsily defeated, from which he clumsily climbed again to a sight of the room that, seen in the equivocal wisdom of sleep, seemed to him any room, or all the rooms, in which he had ever slept, or ever been at home.

In “The Nature of the Task,” Nemerov focuses his microscope on the smallest of subjects–literally nothing more than a man in an empty room–and demonstrates how quickly close observation can verge into madness: “But where—this problem proposed itself inevitably and at once—where did simply looking divide itself from looking and thinking at once?” It’s a powerful illustration of a comment Wallace Shawn makes in “My Dinner with Andre”: “I mean, you see, I think if you could become fully aware … of what existed in the cigar store next door to this restaurant … I think it would just blow your brains out.”

Not every story in this little book has such mind-expanding power, but a good half-dozen do, and those are certainly worth rediscovery. This was Nemerov’s second collection of short stories. His first, A Commodity of Dreams , was published in 1959 and I have ordered a copy in hopes of finding more.

Stories, Fables and Other Diversions is available online at OpenLibrary.org (link).


Stories, Fables and Other Diversions, by Howard Nemerov
Boston: David R. Godine, 1971

Habeas Corpus, by Peter Green (1962)

I’ve probably looked past a copy of the Signet paperback edition of Peter Green’s Habeas Corpus fifty times or more while browsing through used bookstores over the decades and looked right past it. But on the look-out for short story collections now and having the good fortune to spend an hour in one of Seattle’s last great used bookstores, Magus Books, a while ago, I finally saw it for the first time.

Habeas Corpus provided an excellent counterpoint to Hugh Walpole’s The Thirteen Travellers, which I’d read just before. Most of Peter Green’s stories are set 30-40 years after Walpole’s, but Green’s England is a very different world. It’s been through a second world war and a long grey time of rationing. The upper class is in retreat, the working class is getting into university, and everyone is drinking and smoking–hard. The veneer of English gentility is wearing through to the wood in spots.

Jack Newhouse, the … well, one can hardly say protagonist, once you’ve read what he does … of Green’s title story, for example, is quite the contrast to Walpole’s dandy, Absalom Jay:

… somehow an ineffectual figure despite the carefully calculated raffishness–bottlegreen corduroys, the old tweed jacket patched like a prep school master’s at elbows and cuffs, blond hair not so thick as it had been, too fine anyway to be worn quite so long by a man in his over-late thirties, blown now every which way by the tangling wind…. A fair if fashionable judge of College wine; slightly suspect politically, and apt to appear on television programmes rather more often than the unspoken norm allowed….

Newhouse proves to be just the sort of heel you might suspect from this description, but his sort of misdeed is less one of great evil than of the petty, cowardly kind–not doing wrong, just simply failing to do right. Many of Green’s characters are compromisers and prevaricators. Ideals are just bubbles waiting to be popped, as in “The Tea Party,” in which a naive but ambitious young student comes to realize the truth about an idolized professor: “And Grandison, his old world in shreds, saw from the heart of his confusion that the Professor was as naked as himself. Do not reject me, cried the stony mask beneath its stone.”

Illustration from the cover of the Signet paperback edition of “Habeas Corpus”

You might think from this that Habeas Corpus is a drab, depressing book, but in all but perhaps one of Green’s eight stories, there is a strong narrative, a sense of a revelation yet to come, that makes for irresistible reading. His characterizations are often enhanced through just the simplest details, and in each story, there is a vivid sense of place. Thumbing back through the book as I write this, I find myself recalling the settings as if I’d actually seen them. I tend to skip around stories in a collection, particularly if there is, as in this case, no evident pattern or sequence intended, but I read straight through Habeas Corpus and was only tempted to look elsewhere during “Proof of Identity,” which was a throw-away compared to the other stories in the book. It’s a shame that this is Green’s one and only collection of stories.

Although Green attended Charterhouse, one of the poshest public schools, his time at Cambridge was interrupted by the war, during which he spent five years in the R.A.F. in the heat and dirt of India and Burma, where everyone’s finer points eventually got blunted. After finishing with a degree in classics at Trinity, he scrabbled along for some years as a journalist until moving to Greece, where he wrote several works of fiction. By the time that Habeas Corpus was published in the U.S., however, he had moved into teaching and writing classical history, which has remained his focus ever since (he is still on the faculty of the University of Iowa as an adjunct professor at 92). Habeas Corpus was his last work of fiction.


Habeas Corpus, by Peter Green
London: Hamish Hamilton, 1962

The Thirteen Travellers, by Hugh Walpole (1920)

I put off my plan to devote a year’s worth of posts to neglected short story writers and collections for a year when I realized that I wasn’t ready to leave my year of the neglected woman writer quite yet. So I stretched that year into two and have made a pretty poor start of things by putting off this year’s project until–Jeepers, the middle of March. Yes, life is what happens while you’re making other plans.

In any case and not to procrastinate further, let me start things off with a lovely package of ripping yarns: Hugh Walpole’s 1920 collection, The Thirteen Travellers. I’ve wanted to cover this book ever since reading its first story, “Absalom Jay,” which manages to be both satirical and heart-tugging in its portrait of an aging and forgotten fop.

At the height of the Yellow Book era of the late 1890s, Absalom Jay was the perfect embodiment of the London dandy, caricatured in Punch and other magazines:

Everyone always noticed his clothes. But here again one must be fair. It may not have been altogether his clothes that one noticed. From very early years his hair was snow-white, and he wore it brushed straight back from his pink forehead in wavy locks. He wore also a little white tufted Imperial. He had an eyeglass that hung on a thick black cord. His favourite colour was a dark blue, and with this he wore spats (in summer of a truly terrific whiteness), a white slip, black tie, and pearl pin. He wore wonderful boots and shoes and was said to have more of these than any man in London. It was also said that his feet were the smallest (masculine) in the British Isles.

But when Walpole finds Absalom, a year or so after the Armistice, society as he had known it–which had been Society with a capital S–had been left behind, one of the war’s many victims, and good manners and light conversation no longer gained one reliable invitations to dinner parties and dances. He is now an old man, whose living has become increasingly tenuous due to a bit of imprudent speculation just before the war, and whose elbows and welcomes have worn exceedingly thin.

Absalom is one of Walpole’s thirteen travellers–all residents of Horton’s, a respectable residential hotel somewhere between Picadilly and St. James’ Square. Some of them, like Absalom, are moving down, some are moving up, and others are just passing through. For each, Walpole constructs an efficient, well-balanced, and soundly-built story as dependable as Mr. Nix, the manager of Horton’s. He even tosses in a jolly good ghost story.

One could see in The Thirteen Travellers a predecessor to Vicki Baum’s best-seller of a decade later, Grand Hotel, but this is format that’s been around since at least the time of The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales: the linked story collection. In Walpole’s case, the link is Horton’s Hotel and the transitional time just after the Great War and before the Twenties started to roar. His cast ranges from young to old, rich to poor, nobility to working class, but they share a common set of English values and prejudices. Not that Walpole is so obtuse that he can’t see that some of these values got banged out of shape in the war and are rapidly being replaced by harsher facts.

Hugh Walpole was one of the most successful English writers of his time, but his reputation took a serious hit after W. Somerset Maugham mocked him in fictional form as the sycophantic social climber, Alton Kear, in his novel Cakes and Ale. By the time he died in 1941, he was considered such a joke that his Time obituary dismissed his work with remarks such as, “He could tell a workmanlike story in good workmanlike English.” Since then, however, some of his works, particularly the six novels of the Herries Chronicle, have remained in print and held a small but loyal following. In recent years, his standing has been restored somewhat, but an honest critic would have to acknowledge that he is better remembered as a story-teller than as an artist. And his ghost stories in particular are well worth seeking out and now easily available in the collection, All Souls’ Night, released last year from Valancourt Books.


The Thirteen Travellers, by Hugh Walpole
London: Hutchinson & Company, 1920