Saturday, 1 January 2011

Penguin no. 1191: Selected Short Stories
by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch

I was so seduced by the characters and the prose of The Astonishing History of Troy Town, that I chose to read another Penguin by Q this week, a selection of 16 of his short stories. But it was not at all what I expected: some of these I enjoyed, some I disliked, some were very grim; there was nothing here that captured me as last week's book had. I had the impression that these stories had been written by someone older and wiser, and much of the freshness and affection for his characters was no longer there.

As I look back over the stories, I can see that there were three themes touched on again and again: life lived on or by the sea, the influence of religion and its partisan nature, and the battles of the Napoleonic wars. Many of the tales were quite dark, looking at the less attractive side of man's behaviour. They provided glimpses of the past, but I found many of these glimpses disheartening; I was never sure if it was a past I wanted to see. It is inevitable that knowledge about the past comes to us severely filtered, limited by what we have been told or what we have read, and contaminated by what we have imagined. I wanted to abandon the book part way through, but I recognised it as a type of self-censorship, a desire to preserve a different image in my mind, of a kind of Jane Austen-inspired Arcadia. Instead I read about the looting of ship-wrecked boats and dead bodies, a mob of villagers exacting revenge on an unfaithful wife, a murderous highwayman and soldiers leaving a small child to die.

There were three stories that stood out: The Roll-call of the Reef, The Laird's Luck, and Frenchman's Creek.  The first two of these are ghost stories, with a number of these tales in this book having a supernatural element. The latter is a story about Admiral Bligh and it is merciless in painting him as evil-tempered and unpopular, deserving of the two mutinies he suffered. It is set just before he travels to Australia to take up the Governorship of New South Wales, when Bligh is sent out to Cornwall to give the Admiralty some peace. There are some lovely characterisations of the villagers, and of village life, and this same sense, evident in the Troy Town book, of affection for the lower classes while mocking those amongst the upper classes who take themselves too seriously.

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