Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Stories by English Authors: Italy by James Payn, et al.

Manages to make Rome, Venice, and Florence seem dull
Laurence Oliphant
This book of short stories is one of ten volumes in the Stories by English Authors series that was published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1896. The five stories included here all take place in Italy, hence the subtitle of this particular volume. In Western civilizations, Italy was traditionally viewed as the world’s wellspring of art, literature, and culture, at least until the late 19th century when it may have been supplanted or at least matched by Paris. Anyone with money or artistic talent was expected to make a pilgrimage to Rome, Florence, and Venice at some point in their lives, and the characters of these stories are no exception. These five works of short fiction are all tales of Brits in Italy. If you’re a lover of Italy yourself you’re unlikely to find much satisfaction here. These stories give very little insight into Italy’s ambience or culture, and are for the most part rather annoying in their concentration on rich people’s petty problems. The characters show little affinity for the country in which they happen to be traveling. Through their eyes it is merely a box on their bucket lists that needs to be checked off.

The book opens with “A Faithful Retainer” by James Payn, in which a rich young Englishman is sent to Italy to get over his gambling vice. This is a boring and predictable piece, with a very thin plot dressed up with weak humor. “Bianca” by W. E. Norris is about a Brit in Venice who’s friendship with an Austrian officer obligates him to assist in the fellow’s elopement with an Italian mistress. In A. Mary F. Robinson’s “Goneril” we find a young woman with the unfortunate name of Gonerilla enjoying an extended sojourn in Florence, where she makes the acquaintance of an older gentleman who takes an interest in her. These first three offerings are all rather formulaic and dull. Italy merely serves as a backdrop for stories that could just as well have been told in England, and in fact have been told many times before by other and better authors.

The best entry in the book, and that’s not saying much, is “The Brigand’s Bride” by Laurence Oliphant. It’s about an English adventurer who goes to Italy seeking excitement and gets involved in the country’s ongoing civil war. He winds up falling in love with the wife of the leader of one of the bandit gangs he’s been commissioned to suppress. This is an amusing romantic tale, but a little slow in pace and longer than it needs to be.

Even Anthony Trollope can’t save this collection. His “Mrs. General Talboys” concerns an Englishwoman who travels to Rome with her daughter, leaving her husband behind. Though she is faithful to her spouse, to others she is vocal in her advocacy of freedom from the conventions of matrimony, an attitude that inadvertently wins her a suitor. The piece is well drawn by Trollope, but he treats his own heroine with such mean-spiritedness you never really care about the characters, and the overall effect is unpleasant.

This is the ninth volume I have read in the Stories by English Authors series, and this book on Italy can rightfully vie with the one on Ireland for worst volume in the series. The only story worth reading is Oliphant’s, and I can only give that one a halfhearted endorsement. In general the series has been a rather lackluster showcase of late 19th-century British fiction, but two volumes, one on Africa and the other on Germany and Northern Europe, are pretty good and worth a look.

Stories in this collection
A Faithful Retainer by James Payn 
Bianca by W. E. Norris 
Goneril by A. Mary F. Robinson 
The Brigand’s Bride: A Tale of Southern Italy by Laurence Oliphant 
Mrs. General Talboys by Anthony Trollope

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