I bought them in a junk shop, where they’d been orphaned, for only 50p. A thousand of the best stories in the world, elegantly bound, seemed to deserve a better home than the recycle bin.
They’re genuine antiques – mostly written in the last decades of the 19th century or the first two of the twentieth, though older stories and folk tales also have a place. The editorial board, listed on the title page, gives a glimpse of another literary world – they are all ‘distinguished’ academic and literary figures from England and the USA – elderly white males with posh prefixes and suffixes. Professor Sir Arthur Quiller Couch MA, Litt.D., Sir Edmund Gosse, CB, LL.D., etc etc.
Not a woman in sight. And there are precious few in their collection – among a thousand stories less than 40 are by women (though you do wonder about Anonymous). The subtitle, 'Masterpiece Library', says it all.
|The editorial board - exclusively white males with prefixes and suffixes|
Women don’t feature largely in their pages either – the main protagonists are men. Women are distractions – stereotyped as weak and fluffy, or temptresses, many of them are devious, many are air-heads. They are patronised, patted like pets, indulged, restrained, but never, ever taken seriously.
The message it seems to throw out is that Men are the stuff of Literature – the gate-keepers and the only serious protagonists. This is the world that Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Richardson and Jean Rhys were struggling to get an equal footing in. It was tough. No wonder Mary Ann Evans and the Bronte sisters adopted male aliases. I have to be thankful that sexism, although still alive and well, is no longer such a powerful barrier.
But reading them made me start thinking about the way the short story has changed. Or, rather, stayed the same. We still have the same kind of story - the 'problem' story, the 'epiphany', the 'psychological', the 'single moment' story. They all start with the 'triggering event' that sets it all in motion, the development, the crisis and the revelation or resolution that ends it. What seems to be different is the way it's narrated. We don't always have an identified narrator these days - the idea of a 'told' story is out of fashion. Events unfold, are shown. Time is no longer expected to be linear. I didn't find as many differences as I expected between stories 150 years old and ones written yesterday. Anyone who can shed more light on this?