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Midsummer Night in the Workhouse (edition 2011)

by Diana Athill

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484242,697 (3.77)8
Member:writestuff
Title:Midsummer Night in the Workhouse
Authors:Diana Athill
Info:House of Anansi Press (2011), Edition: 1, Paperback, 208 pages
Collections:Your library, Favorites
Rating:*****
Tags:2011 Advance Readers Edition(ARE), Early Review(House of Anasi Press), Short Stories, Literary Fiction, BEST of 2011, 2011 Read

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Midsummer Night in the Workhouse by Diana Athill

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I have long had a problem with short stories. There is something about the form that seldom, if ever, works for me. They tend to deliver on the “short” part, whereas the “stories” themselves often disappoint. That said, I think my main issue with them is not the inevitable lack of detailed plot development but rather a matter of tone – both in sense of tone of voice and, one might even say, moral tone. My reaction to this collection by Diana Athill was fairly typical of my response to other books of short stories.

If I were to chart my level of interest in these stories the line on the graph - where the vertical axis represents level of interest on a scale of 0 to 10, and the horizontal axis represents each story in the order they appear - the line would be around the 4 or 5 mark for the first three stories, rise to 6 for 'A Weekend in the Country', peak at 7 or 8 for 'Midsummer Night in the Workhouse' and then rapidly drop back to 3 or less.

The “workhouse” of the story I appreciated most is not a nineteenth century institution for the destitute, but a country house that has been turned into a writer's retreat. My liking for such buildings, and my interest in writers, may explain why this story met with my approval. I also liked its symmetrical form, beginning and ending as it does with the chandelier in the drawing room.

Thereafter, the stories tend to assume the gloomy, minor-key that so often seems to the fore in the short stories I have struggled with in the past. In 'An Afternoon Off' a publisher decides not to return to the office, instead visiting a cinema and roaming aimlessly around London. I find it charming when Melvyn Bragg describes his pleasure in perambulating the capital in the weekly email that accompanies his 'In Our Time' radio programme, so it is not the roaming I have trouble with but rather the absence of joy. Yes, there should be room for all the emotions in literature, of whatever its length, I just struggle with the preponderance of gloominess in so many of the short stories I have tried.

As for the issue of “moral tone” to which I alluded earlier, this is where I risk sounding like at best a prude, at worst like a tabloid newspaper preaching traditional moral values. I simply did not like the way some of the later stories in this collection seemed to celebrate infidelity. In a full scale novel I can sometimes more easily sympathise with, or at least tolerate, “bad” behaviour because I have the time to understand the full context in which moral choices are made. In a short story, the absence of background can make action seem all the more stark and hence, for me at least, difficult to stomach.

Perhaps I just keep missing the point? Maybe the sort of person who can use line graphs to describe his response to a short story collection just does not have the sort of mind to which this form is best suited? ( )
  dsc73277 | May 31, 2013 |
Midsummer Night in the Workhouse is a collection of 12 stories, 10 of which were previously published in the collection An Unavoidable Delay. Diana Athill is no stranger to the publishing industry; for decades she worked as an editor for Anddre Deutsch (she makes a cameo appearance in Q’s Legacy).

Athill herself wrote the preface to the Persephone edition, and she says that “the discovery that I could write changed my life for the better in a very profound way, so [the stories] mean a great deal to me.” Nevertheless, Athill never published any other fiction and preferred to remain in the background as an editor, although she did publish several memoirs about her career.

The 12 stories in this collection are all very different from one another but have a lot in common nonetheless. One story is a coming of age story written in the breathless excitement of a teenage girl; another is a bizarre tale about two Englishwomen in holiday in Albania. The title story is about a colony of artists in a manor house. I think these stories display Athill’s talent of telling very believable stories. This is a collection that focuses on the struggles—especially sexual—that her characters, most of them female, face. The interplay between these characters and the people they associated are part of the charm and fascination of this collection of stories. ( )
  Kasthu | May 18, 2012 |
Last week a friend of mine passed a collection of short stories by Lorrie Moore onto me saying, "I know you have a high tolerance of short stories." I took the book but wasn't entirely sure she was right. I have been known to have a very low tolerance of short story collections! However when the stories are well written, when characters are drawn so accurately we quickly understand them and when there is an underlying mood or theme connecting the stories then I am a fan!

Midsummer Night in the Workhouse passes on all three counts. The writing is accomplished, every line seems just right and the stories' protagonists easy to sympathise with. The majority, though not all, of the stories are centred around young women. They were written by Athill between 1958 and 1973. Athill is, of course, best known for her memoirs and it was difficult to avoid the idea that there was something autobiographical about many of these stories. There is a theme of women with the potential to be strong, creative and passionate and intelligent forces, looking for something to complete them and completely failing to find that within their relationships. As a generalisation, the men in these stories make their partners unhappy not through cruelty but by being weaker, less imaginative and less intelligent than them! I think it is significant that the majority of the stories were written in the sixties just on the cusp of feminism being taken seriously in the seventies. I should add, though, that not all the central characters are women. In An Afternoon Off, reliable Roger, confused by unfamiliar and vague feelings of disatisfaction takes a subversive afternoon off work to do nothing in particular at all!

My favourite stories were the first two about very young women learning about relationships for the first time. My favourite paragraph is at the beginning of Laughing Matter where Jane looking back at her childhood and youth realises that the source of all her youthful passion had not been him but herself!

There had been things not so long ago (or, by Jane's reckoning, years ago) that could become strange and tormenting for no reason: a bonfire throbbing and blazing as though for ever, the flames rushing her eyes up into dizzy night; water folding around the pier of a bridge, into which her inability to flow was suddenly an absurd limitation; an afternoon in summer when she had squatted in a tree, wearing a stolen string of amber beads, and something wonderful had been going to happen-something so wonderful, so imminent, that its not happening had been unbearable. She had suffered the unbearable there in the tree because of the happening which went on keeping itself to itself through a whole hot afternoon. When she was older love was like those things. At first she was not sure whether she was thinking of clothes or a party or men (or a man) because the dazzle of love could be on any of them, not coming out of them but streaming into them from the source in herself out of which the flames and the water and the imminent happening had come. Now, in her first year at university, it was Stephen who received it.

In these stories Athill looks at love, relationships and their limitations at a time when marriage was still widely believed to be all a woman needed. ( )
8 vote Soupdragon | Jan 27, 2012 |
Diana Athill will celebrate her 94th birthday tomorrow (December 21). Athill retired at the age of 75 after fifty years in publishing, and then went on to write a series of memoirs, one of which (Somewhere Towards The End) won her the 2009 Costa Book Award. She has also written a novel and many short stories. She is one of the most iconic figures in publishing (her response to V.S. Naipaul’s ridiculous comment about women only writing “tosh” was brilliant). Athill’s sharp wit and keen observations inform her latest collection of short stories: Midsummer Night in the Workhouse.

The stories in this collection are connected thematically and revolve around women (mostly young women finding or losing love). In No Laughing Matter, a young woman experiences first love and faces the wrenching decision about whether or not she will lose her virginity. The Real Thing introduces the reader to a woman in her first year of University who is enthralled by her first kiss even though it lacks the passion she had expected.

I stood quite still while Toofat was kissing me – it didn’t take long – and I was doing a lot of things all at once: thinking ‘This is me, being kissed’; remembering Thomas Hardy; noticing the tree with the lights and the green grass outside the windows; listening to the music from the house; smelling the honeysuckle; thinking that I must fix every bit of it in my mind for ever. – from The Real Thing -

Love for the women in Athill’s stories is not always unencumbered – they consider cheating on their spouses, they have one night stands, they get drunk and dream of a life unattached to their husband. One woman has a week long affair and then is haunted by the possibilities for years afterwards as she plods through her predictable marriage. Another woman leaves her husband at a party and walks home alone and drunk – along the way, she appreciates the beauty of a wine glass and the moon in the sky and hopes to remember the feeling of being utterly alone in the world.

I must remember, I must remember how beautiful it is, because now I can see it. It is so still, and the grass has just been cut, and the leaves are being blown, they are just settling together, sometimes, on the air, and the wine glass is standing on the railing, and I am alone. I am me, under the moon, on a summer night, alone. – from An Island -

Perhaps my favorite of the collection is the title story, Midsummer Night in the Workhouse, where a writer finds herself at a luxurious retreat battling writer’s block and a charming author whose work is perhaps just ordinary. Cecilia reflects on the other writers at the retreat, and is distracted by Charles Opie, a man whose wife has divorced him because of an affair and who has enjoyed an element of fame associated with his writing. In this story, the sexual tension is played out against the backdrop of a woman’s struggle with her career, self-doubt, and the difficulty of finding inspiration within her life.

The horror in wait at Hetherston, nearest in her room but present everywhere, even after dinner when she talked with the others or pub-crawled with Philip, came from the knowledge of how closely her work connected with her own experience and dread that everything of significance in that experience might have been used up. – from Midsummer Night in the Workhouse -

Athill’s writing is fluid, simple, perceptive and sometimes funny. She is able to capture the internal conflict of her characters with ease, uncovering their insecurities, dreams, joy and despair. I thoroughly enjoyed this delightful collection of stories, slipping into the lives of women who could define a generation. There was a time when a woman was supposed to be proper, not take risks, focus on family instead of career, and be the dutiful wife. Athill’s prose reveals the hidden desires and adventurous spirits of woman who came of age in that era.

Readers who want to be transported by an author who has established herself as one of the best writers of the late twentieth century, will be well rewarded by picking up a copy of Diana Athill’s collection of short stories.

Highly recommended. ( )
2 vote writestuff | Dec 20, 2011 |
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In unsentimental though often touching prose, Athill's young women anticipate, enjoy, or just miss out on brief sexual encounters with men met on trains, at parties - just about anywhere they can.

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