The English Stories
1st Ed: 2009
Jump to a specific review:
Lynda Grace Philippsen, The Globe and Mail June 2009
The English Stories consistently delight…
Vancouver writer Cynthia Flood, whose past novels and short stories have been distinguished with numerous awards including The Journey Prize, takes readers into the milieu of 1950s England in her latest collection, The English Stories.Flood recreates the cultural, social, political and economic tenor of the era by examining the lives of various middle-class characters. Through linked narratives, she develops the thematic complexity of a novel but gives readers the satisfaction of short stories — the more dense and intense art form. And by using several voices to narrate the stories, she achieves greater depth than the single perspective of her principal child-narrator, Amanda Ellis, would allow.Amanda, a plucky fifth-grade girl, is uprooted from her familiar Muskoka, Ont., surroundings to a residential hotel, The Green House, in Oxford. She attends St. Mildred’s as a day girl. She boards during those times that her father, Gerald, on a fellowship to write a book on Keats and Shelley, and mother, Rachel, an editor, must travel for research.
The English Stories consistently delight for their careful craft and thematic intricacy, but especially for their attention to language — the pleasure of logos. Word.
No longer shielded by the WASP pretensions of her colonial Canada, Amanda discovers how the maps and the margins of her world have altered without “my own country spread solidly around me.” In addition to coping with loneliness, bullying, and the sexual hazing of “dirty night,” she can’t come top in anything because the penmanship learned in Canada slants incorrectly, and marks evaporate from her exercises and tests. Assignments that deserve more are given less, because, Mr. Greene, instructor of Foreign Affairs (the only male at St. Mildred’s other than Fitzgerald the factotum) explains, “She must learn shame.”
English becomes a foreign language. People hoover. Girls wear frocks and plimsolls. No one speaks the word toilet; they spend a penny and use the loo. Branches rhymes with launches. Amanda chafes “at the mockery at St. Mildred’s for her lapses in English usage and accent. She would never learn the language, not entirely. Never.”
“For the knowledgeable reader looking back on the politics, prejudices and practices of the day, the stories are charged with dramatic irony”
In this ultra class-conscious world that meticulously sorts insiders from out, “One word can kill,” says Mr. Greene, who is not only adept with languages, but also “Irish as Paddy’s pig.” However, he has “cracked the code and achieved a flawless accent,” thereby passing for what he is not. He lets drop, “Miss Pringle and Miss Hodgson [the Head and Assistant Head] are irreproachably Home Counties, but Miss Lincoln’s speech is too carefully not northern, while I suspect that Miss Flower’s gentle voice overlies an origin involving coins, counter, and till.”
Miss Pringle bemoans the ubiquitous materialism, lapsed moral standards and the lasting stringencies of a war that cost Britain its imperial status. Though she claims to welcome “the post-war trend of arrivals from other lands in the Commonwealth, as we are now to call it,” her bigotry is obvious. “The ways of life followed by persons from the Caribbean … cause social disruption. Naturally, there is nothing of this sort with Amanda, who is indistinguishable from her classmates, but.”
Perhaps the most compelling of Flood’s wonderfully imperfect characters, Pringle’s charm is in her restraint. Hers is the only diary in the collection, and reading it is deliciously akin to snooping through things that were never meant to be known. She subtly reveals much — pride, prejudice, meticulous attention to detail and a stiff upper lip. However, telling exclamation marks that are as school-girlish as her charges (HRH) and Victorian connotations of words also reveal her hidden passion and love.
In all, here is little to fault here without seeming petty. A minor incongruence: Flood creates a precocious, pre-pubescent narrator who, in some instances, is bewildered and insecure, in others poised, challenging authority with questions well beyond her tender years.
Tellingly, in an interview with Laurie Smith in which she probed for which aspects of the stories might be based on “real people” in Flood’s parallel childhood experience, Flood says, “The theological issues [Amanda raises] actually came up in Canada in my high school years.” Exactly.
The English Stories consistently delight for their careful craft and thematic intricacy, but especially for their attention to language — the pleasure of logos. Word. Green House resident retired Professor McGeachie tells Amanda the Greek alphabet is the beginning of learning, “The first step to Low Goes.” In play-by-play fashion, 77-year-old twins Tilly and Milly battle to complete The Times Crossword each day. Amanda keeps lists: amaranth, ignoble, crystal, vicissitude.
As well, for the knowledgeable reader looking back on the politics, prejudices and practices of the day, the stories are charged with dramatic irony. Readers realize the disquieting truths the author reveals even though the characters are blind to a broader world-view and their own flaws. Still, the microcosm in which they operate is universal and representative, even today.
This is perfect summer reading. Without being light or trite it can be picked up and put down with ease, and the characters linger with the reader long after.
Candace Fertile, The Vancouver Sun June 2009
The English Stories is a remarkable book.
Vancouver writer Cynthia Flood has won a slew of prizes for her fiction, and her latest book, a collection of linked short stories called The English Stories, shows why the accolades are so well deserved. Flood is a thoughtful writer whose richly dense prose opens up worlds to explore.In this collection of 12 stories, she employs several narrative stances to show what happens when a Canadian couple and their daughter go to Oxford, England, for two years in the early 1950s. Gerald Ellis is an academic working on Keats and Shelley — or, as he and his editor wife, Rachel, joke, “Sheets & Kelly.”The wordplay is extended by Flood, particularly to expose the difficulties 11-year-old Amanda Ellis has with her Canadian accent and vocabulary.
Amanda is at the centre of the stories. The collection begins and ends with a third-person narrator focusing on her departure from Canada and her return.
In some of the stories, Amanda is the narrator, giving the perspective of a young girl thrust into uncomfortable circumstances.
She is sent to boarding school so her parents can travel, unencumbered, for their research. Flood does an amazing job of getting into Amanda’s head and describing what life is like at St. Mildred’s School, a no-nonsense establishment meant to prepare girls for the world, but which destroys some in the process.
Intelligence and being Canadian partially save Amanda from the grief that afflicts other students.
“As for me, my Canadian speech and ways precluded both popularity and rejection. I’d settled into the familiar route of a minor planet, not as peripheral as the weepers who didn’t have a clue and threw balls poorly, nor as the other foreigners orbiting further out — the girl from the Orkneys with an accent so peculiar she scarcely spoke, and the Irish girl suspected of Roman Catholicism.”
Amanda occasionally leaves the school to stay with her parents at The Green House, a residential hotel where some rather eccentric characters live. Flood dips into the lives of the teachers at St. Mildred’s and the inhabitants of The Green House and uses different narrative points of view.
In “The Usual Accomplishments”, for example, Flood focuses on the elderly twins Milly and Tilly Talbot and their penchant for doing puzzles from The Times.
They are quite competitive with the puzzles, and Flood shows how circumscribed their lives have been because of gender and economics.
In “A Civil Plantation”, the only male teacher at the school tells his story. He agonizes over a grade he gives Amanda for a picture she has drawn of English settlers planted in the ground, their mouths open in Edvard Munch-like screams.
The multiple voices create a vast and profound examination of time and place. So many of the characters appear trapped in worlds not of their own making, and unhappiness infiltrates most of the lives.
Along with the unhappiness is a kind of acceptance of how things are and, as visitors, the Ellis family provides a counterpoint to the others in Oxford. The Ellises get to go home and resume their comfortable lives. But the others (with the exception of some schoolgirls) carry on valiantly, if perhaps gracelessly.
One of the guests at the hotel is Captain George Belland, who is in Oxford to study for his viva voce (an oral exam). Occasionally his wife comes to stay with him, and they are a wildly mismatched couple. Belland would love to emigrate to Canada to teach in a boys’ school, but it’s quite clear that his wife would never agree.
He pumps the Ellises for information about Canada and is delighted when Amanda shows him her “Indian box,” a handcrafted container of birchbark, sweetgrass and porcupine quills.
But Belland has his dark side, and while the adults understand what is happening between him and his wife, Amanda doesn’t. Readers see her confusion and her desire to know, but no one will explain.
The English Stories is a remarkable book. Flood’s insight and skilful prose illuminate a diversity of characters and provoke thoughtful sympathy for people caught in lives they wouldn’t have chosen, given a choice.
Back to Top