The Contrast, and other stories

July 17, 2011

The Contrast is the first book of Elinor Glyn’s short stories I’ve read, and it’s a pretty mixed bag. There are five stories in all; “Fragments” is the shortest and “The Point of View” by far the longest.

In no particular order, except that I saved the best for last (and by best I mean worst):

“The Contrast” is one of those stories with a thesis, although I suppose all of them are, to some extent, because Elinor Glyn is like that . It’s about a singer who is presented with two very different men: a selfish, fickle, attractive young Frenchman whose love for her isn’t as strong as hers for him, and a quiet, steadfast American businessman who has apparently been devoted to her for years. The title is entirely appropriate, because it’s barely even a story, just a study in contrasts.

“Her Advice” is the Elinor Glyn-iest of Elinor Glyn-y set pieces. Yes, of course the young husband goes after the dark-haired, mysterious, stunning European woman of indeterminate age. Yes, of course the wife goes from angry and confrontational to admiring and eager to be instructed in about five seconds flat. Yes, of course the mysterious woman finds them both adorable and helps them sort out their problems. Whatever, Glyn.

“The Irtonwood Ghost” is, in fact, Elinor Glyn trying her hand at a ghost story, and it would work better if she didn’t take so much care to point out at the end that yes, there really was a ghost involved. Or if you couldn’t figure out the next five things that were going to happen at any given point. But hey, points for trying.

“Fragments” was perhaps the most intriguing. It’s the story of a young woman whose fiancé went off to war — I’m guessing the Boer war, based on the time frame? — and came back wheelchair-bound.  She was too nice to break off the engagement (and, to be fair, she does seem very fond of him) so they got married and settled down in a small house pretty much in the middle of nowhere. And the husband doesn’t even have a hobby, and neither of the two has any kind of social life, and I doubt he’s any happier than she is. And then an old friend of his shows up, and is generally just like the husband would be if he hadn’t gotten shot, and all of a sudden we’re in the middle of one of those situations that can’t possibly turn out well. Are the friend and the wife going to fall in love? Three guesses, and the first two don’t count. Is the husband going to die? Very probably, but is that really going to make anyone happy?

And yet, I found the story pretty interesting. It’s told in an almost stream-of-consciousness style, an undifferentiated mix of dialogue, diary entry, and thought — definitely interesting to read. But still. I know the wife is miserable. But hey, the husband is miserable, too. Why are stories like this always about the wife escaping, and never about the two of them making things work? Does he not deserve to be happy because he got shot?  Is it bad that he’s not happy that his friend is falling in love with his wife? Or is this some kind of punishment for not breaking off the engagement and setting his fiancee free? Or does Glyn just want to tell us that everything sucks? Well, okay then.

And then there’s “The Point of View.”

You know how, when you start a romance novel, it’s generally pretty clear who the heroine is going to end up with? And then sometimes you kind of want it to be someone else, and if the author is good at creating red herrings, you can convince yourself that the thing you want to happen might actually happen? I do that all the time, and yeah, I’m still bitter about Miss Billy. The thing is, though, that most of the time I have no excuse to expect things to happen the way I want them to happen. And in this case — well, I know Elinor Glyn. Once you’ve read a couple of Elinor Glyn books, you have no excuse for not knowing exactly how things are going to go. And I wouldn’t have entertained any hopes of “The Point of View” if I hadn’t been so thoroughly skeeved out by what I couldn’t help but know was going to happen.

I mean, obviously I knew that adorable, inexperienced, quietly brought up Stella Rawson wasn’t going to marry her stuffy curate fiancé, Eustace Medlicott. And I know that when Glyn introduces a enigmatic Russian who makes high-flown statements about Love and Life, the young English person who hears them is a lost cause. It’s just that Count Roumovksi is so creepy. I kept hoping that Stella would say to herself, “Yes, Eustace Medlicott is an ass and I’m not going to marry him, but maybe it’s also not a good idea to go off with this guy who keeps arranging secret assignations and putting me in compromising positions and not really talking about marriage in quite the way one would hope to hear.” But no, this is Elinor Glyn. And it was sort of startling to realize that Elinor Glyn describing a happy love affair can sound exactly like another author — almost any other author — telling a cautionary tale.

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