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Pickle Me This

November 24, 2011

Midsummer Night in the Workhouse and My Friend Says It's Bullet-Proof

Midsummer Night in the Workhouse is a collection of Diana Athill’s short stories from the 1950s to the 1970s, published in Britain by the fabulous Persephone Books, and now in Canada by the just as worthy House of Anansi Press. I read it this week, and just happened to follow it with Penelope Mortimer’s My Friend Says It’s Bullet-Proof, first published in 1967 and reissued by Virago Classics in the 1980s. The lone connection between the two, I thought, was that I’d bought another of Penelope Mortimer’s novels Daddy’s Gone a Hunting at the Persephone Shop when we were in England last winter. But then something in the tone of the Mortimer book served to be illuminating the Athill all the way through, and never was this more clear than when I came across the line, “But what? What shall I do? It will all happen. When it’s happened, you’ll know what you did. Not until then.”

Athill’s characters are similarly detached from their own experiences, lately set adrift in narratives beyond their control, and yet they are fascinated by the drifting, by where it’s taking them. They are aware of the growing gap between how they’re perceived by the world and who they actually are, or perhaps by how the former is shaping the latter, and their adriftness allows them to inhabit that liminal space. These are characters all on the threshold of something, and Athill holds them there, poised, right before it really happens and they find out what they’ll do.

In “The Real Thing”, a young girl attends a party and has her first kiss, viewing the entire evening as a rehearsal for something great to come, her faith in herself still wholly unshaken, and her naivete is startling, funny, and heartbreaking. In “No Laughing Matter”, a young woman is rejected by the lover in whom she’d invested so much, and is able to view herself from afar, as had the character in the first story; she begs her future self, “Whatever it may seem to you then, you must remember that now it is like this, that it couldn’t possibly be more terrible. Please, please promise that you will never laugh.”

These are characters who are trying on guises, playing at being the people they will one day become. In other stories, those who are already established in themselves are also playing at something: romances enacted by lovers aware there is no future, characters on vacation daring to become somebody else for a while, what a wife will do when her husband is away, or when she does the unexpected and storms drunkenly after an argument in the dark of night. These are characters toying with the possibilities of narrative, just as much as is the frustrated writer on retreat in the title story. And when she finally finds her inspiration, the story starts flowing, almost just out of her control, and she follows it where it leads her, which is what all these characters are doing anyway.

Some fifty years old, Athill’s stories read like they’re contemporary, as does the work of Penelope Mortimer, though this could be because so many issues that women writers were grappling with in the ’50s and ’60s are still unresolved. Or at least this seems to be the case when one considers Mortimer’s work, the frustrated suburban wife and mother in Daddy’s Gone a Hunting scheming to get her daughter an abortion, or Muriel Rowbridge in My Friend Says It’s Bullet-Proof who has just lost a breast to cancer and is trying come to terms with what has happened to her and her body in relation to her identity as a woman.

My Friend Says It’s Bullet-Proof is The Golden Notebook meets The Edible Woman. Muriel is a columnist for a woman’s magazine in England, sent to Canada with a contingent of journalists for a cultural discovery tour. She’s the only woman in her group, and this is her first foray into the world since her surgery, and also since her breakup with her married lover. She is conscious of her status in the group, but more so of the prosthetic breast tucked inside her bra. She finds herself connecting on various levels with men she encounters on the trip, and finds that her missing breast and her experience with cancer renders no connection staightforward.

As with Athill’s characters, Muriel has been removed enough from her own context that she is free to experiment in looking at herself (which is also to be being seen) in new ways. New sexual experiences and an affair with a man who’s also known tragedy gives her a sense of renewal:

“She had found, after all this time of searching, an image: myself as I am. I prefer myself as I am. The implications came crowding in on her with the impact of light, air and sound after a long imprisonment. Boldness and freedom were both available. She could do anything she wanted to do.”

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