The stories in Dorothy Edwards’ collection Rhapsody (1927) are short and slight, and had been completely forgotten twice over. This acclaimed but lamentably not very prolific author was enthusiastically adopted by Bloomsbury who recognised an affinity with Katherine Mansfield in her faux-naif narrative style, but then edged her out when she didn’t obey their rules and started to behave as if she were as good as them. She killed herself in 1934, at the age of 31, and her works disappeared from public memory until the 1980s, when a collection of her stories, Rhapsody, became Virago Modern Classic no. 204. And promptly disappeared again from the public’s awareness.
Elaine Morgan’s introduction to the Virago edition describes the hilarious situation of Edwards, a classicist, daring to challenge T E Lawrence on things he had said about the ancient Greeks. She was anxiously hushed by her nervous hosts, who hadn’t counted on this ingénue forgetting herself so much as to assume that she knew as much as such an eminent man. Virginia Woolf also objected to Edwards talking too much about herself, who was nobody after all, and David Garnett got bored of this charming little Welsh girl living in his house as an ‘adopted’ sister. Poor Dorothy had been brought up consider herself as good an intellectual as any other educated person, and found no room for her in a world that had closed her out. There was also no glorious Utopian future in sight, as her Welsh father had promised her in what seems to have been an uncompromisingly unrealistic upbringing, so she threw herself under a train.
Her stories are unforgettable, because they take a social awkwardness as far as it can go before actual bloodshed can occur (which, for the English and Welsh, can be quite a long time). Her narrative voices give themselves away as if they think they are talking to a mirror which turns out to be two-way. These voices are malignant, self-righteous, plaintive, hopeful, and slyly meek. The stories reveal the weakness of the characters in devastating moments.
A middle-aged man at a tennis party fancies himself just a little bit in love with the teenage girl of the house, and finds, rather too late, that he is supposed to have been courting her aunt, who has been watching him with amused, unforgiving eyes. Mr Everett engages a music teacher to tutor his small son, because he needs a piano player for a musical holiday. He waits for his wife to die so he can marry the teacher and have the music he likes, rather than the singing his wife was famous for, and he lets his son go off to boarding school alone.
A German music teacher, newly arrived in the town, is courted relentlessly by the president of the music club, and can see no way out of his attentions. ‘At seven o’clock he looked at her questioningly. It was clear that she had forgotten all about the club. He reminded her of it delicately, and again begged her to let him escort her there. She looked at him in rather a tired way, but probably recollecting the necessity for meeting people and getting pupils, she agreed to come and went upstairs to dress.’
The owner of a small country house that needs an electric generator is appalled by his wife entertaining the visiting engineer to some music after dinner. ‘Now I could watch girls dancing to Chopin’s music all day, but to play Chopin to a stranger that you meet for the first time! What must he think of you!’ He applies social torture, suspecting that his wife may wish to talk more to this visitor. ‘We spent dinner very pleasantly. Nobody spoke a word. Richardson was not fully aware that we were in the room. He looked at the tablecloth. I did not go away to write letters after dinner. I never left the drawing-room. I suppose no-one could expect me to do that. After the music we sat around the empty grate and said nothing, and we went very late to bed.’
These are partly macabre, partly puzzling fragments of 1930s leisured living in the middling classes. Their tone will enthrall lovers of Ivy Compton Burnett’s narratives of miserable family intrigue, and the stories remind me Rose Macaulay’s Crewe Train for how they show the processes of social catastrophe. They need rereading and decoding, since all that is simple and obvious in the stories hide the unrecorded nuances of society’s unhappy cruelty. Dorothy Edwards was a marvellous, skilled writer.