Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Stories by English Authors: London by J. M. Barrie, et al.

Rom-coms and pathetic paupers
Beatrice Harraden
This collection of short stories is one of the ten volumes in the Stories by English Authors series, published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1896. Each volume in the series focuses on a different setting. In this book, subtitled London, all the stories take place in the capital city. I have previously red and reviewed Scribner’s series Stories by American Authors and Stories by Foreign Authors. What I liked about those series was that you never really knew what you were going to get in each grab-bag volume. Every once in a while you might stumble upon a bit of science fiction, horror, or mystery. In this English series, however (this being the second volume that I’ve read so far), it’s been almost all romantic comedies, with an occasional nod to the woes of the poor.

The opening selection of the London volume covers both bases. “The Inconsiderate Waiter” by J. M. Barrie (of Peter Pan fame) is told from the point of view of a wealthy gentleman who resents being inadvertently involved in the personal problems of a favorite waiter at his club. Through his narrator, the author pokes fun at the snobbery of the rich by adopting an insulting attitude toward the working class and poor. While Barrie’s wit is admirably sharp, at times his satire is so successful that his disparaging remarks become unpleasant and uncomfortable.

Next come three comedies of courtship and marriage. F. Anstey’s “The Black Poodle” is a typical I-love-her-but-I-hate-her-dog story. It has a satisfyingly dark sense of humor about it, but it’s rather predictable. “That Brute Simmons” by Arthur Morrison is a tired joke about a browbeaten husband looking to get out from under his wife’s domineering yoke. In “A Rose of the Ghetto” by Israel Zangwill, a man hires a matchmaker to help him find a bride. The fact that the author is Jewish might excuse the facetious attitude toward traditional Jewish marriage customs, but doesn’t do much to ameliorate the fact that the women in the story are treated like cattle.

The best selection in the book is “An Idyl of London” by Beatrice Harraden, a touching story of two art students, an old man and a young woman, who form an unlikely friendship while copying paintings in the National Gallery of Art. It’s really quite engaging until the ending, which is forgiveably inevitable but clumsily handled. Rounding out the collection are “The Omnibus” by Arthur Quiller-Couch, a vignette so brief it doesn’t really amount to much, and “The Hired Baby” by Marie Corelli, a poignant tale of a woman who begs for change in the street. Not a bad piece of propaganda for social reform, the latter piece gets a bit cloying at times but earns points for its squalid, unsweetened portrayal of poverty.

Overall, the London volume of the Stories by English Authors series is a little better than the England volume, but I was hoping for a little more variety. Perhaps confining each volume to one location eliminates the opportunity for surprise. Additional books in the series include Scotland, Ireland, France, Germany, Italy, Africa, The Orient, and The Sea. There’s nothing in the London volume that qualifies as a must-read, but there’s nothing terrible here either. If you like 19th-century British lit, these stories might constitute a moderately pleasant way to spend your reading time.

Stories in this collection
The Inconsiderate Waiter by J. M. Barrie 
The Black Poodle by F. Antsey
That Brute Simmons by Arthur Morrison 
A Rose of the Ghetto by Israel Zangwill 
An Idyl of London by Beatrice Harraden 
The Omnibus by Quiller-Couch 
The Hired Baby by Marie Corelli

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