Penguin Book of the British Short Story – Volume One – edited by Philip Hensher
I find the short story as a literary form extremely satisfying, at least for the reader. It forces the writer to aim for concision, to paint a picture, a few characters and a credible storyline in between 15,000 and 40,000 words. It is not easy. An anthology of short stories – volume one of Hensher’s anthology runs from Daniel Defoe to John Buchan – is even more appetising for me – it allows me to pick and choose, set the volume down and not feel too guilty that it has been temporarily put aside for something more substantial. It is something to be digested as a snake does its prey – at length.
Anthologies are personal and Hensher has set a rather idiosyncratic mark on this collection. Whilst everyone will cavil at his audacity to have omitted one’s particular favourite, an anthology shouldn’t be a greatest hits album but should have some entries which surprise, stretch the reader and even cause them to discover a new writer. Whatever you may think of the final selection, Hensher has been nothing if not thorough and claims to have read 20,000 stories to come to his final selection of 90 spread between two delicious volumes.
The heyday for the British short story was between the 1890s and the First World War there were at least 34 magazines publishing short fiction. At a time when a doctor would earn £400 a year and a professional footballer £4 a week, a popular writer could command a fee of £350 from a magazine such as the Strand for their short story. With such rewards available it is not surprising that some of the literary giants of the period – Kipling, D H Lawrence, Arnold Bennett, Joseph Conrad and H G Wells – turned their hand to the shortened form and they are all suitably represented in this volume.
My favourite of the collection comes from that era – Arnold Bennett’s The Matador of the Five Towns, a brilliant story with a fine and vivid description of a crowd at a professional football match – the more I read of Bennett the more I think he is vastly underrated. My least favourite was the Ayrshire writer, John Galt’s, The Howdie from 1832, which is written in a dialect which defeated this dyed in the wool Sassenach. I also enjoyed Wilkie Collins’ Mrs Badgery, another underrated author in my view.
Of the old favourites Conan Doyle’s Silver Blaze, the one about horse nobbling and the dog that didn’t bark, is always worth a reprise. Jonathan Swift’s Directions to the Footman is a wonderful example of the Irishman at his satirical best. What surprised me is that there are some stories from the 18th and 19th centuries which have a peculiarly modern feel to them. Henry Fielding’s The Female Husband of 1746 is a story of transvestism or at least the adventures of a woman who passes herself off as a man and gets married to boot. Hannah More’s tale from around 1795, Betty Brown, the St Giles Orange Girl, is a cautionary tale of the perils of taking out Wonga-style loans.
There are so many wonderful writers and stories of different genres – social commentary, mysteries, ghosts and simple entertainments – that there is surely something for everyone. And even if you do not recognise a writer, perseverance is often rewarded. The joy of an anthology is making an unexpected discovery.
I am already looking forward to dipping into volume two that takes us from P G Wodehouse to Zadie Smith.