Buried in Print's Mavis Gallant Reading Schedule
Mavis Gallant on The Reading Life
Born August 11, 1922 in Montreal
1950- moves to France
September 1, 1951, publishes her first short story (In The New Yorker)
February 18, 2004 - dies in her beloved Paris.
"Thanks for the Lovely Tea" by Mavis Gallant
"Ruth took her in coldly, leaning on a plump, grubby hand. Mrs. Holland was untidy –she had heard people say so. She was emotional. This, too, Ruth had overheard, always said with disapproval. Emotion meant “being American”; it meant placing yourself unarmed in the hands of the enemy. Emotion meant not getting one’s lipstick on straight, a marcel wave coming apart in wild strands. It accounted for Mrs. Holland’s anxious blue eyes, for the button missing on a blouse, the odds and ends forever falling out of purse or pocket. Emotion was worse than bad taste; it was calamitous."
Today's story, "Thanks for a Lovely Tea" is set on a rainy day somewhere in Canada around 1931. It centers on a teenage girl, Ruth, placed in a boarding school after her mother passed. I admit as I read this story I wondep if I might find, or read into the story, a glimpse as to why Gallant moved out of the country as soon as she could and for sure I did. The story is replete with images evoking a bland repressed emotion rejecting society.
The story begins on a slow time of day in the slowest period of the school year. The virtues of Ruth is that she is patient, self-controlled. The King has just died along with the Kipling, a celebrator of British colonialism. The just retired head mistress is described as a spinister. Two other girls live at the school full time, friends with Ruth. Ruth is further described as placid, lazy. The school patron is a wealthy fruit merchant. The girls wear uniforms, no showing of teenage looks or family wealth.
All is not well for Ruth, as we might have guessed. Her widowed father has a lady friend, Mrs Holland (reaching here "Holland" might evoke, in 1932, a very bland place, far from Paris). Mrs Holland has come to take her to tea at a fancy department store. Ruth brings her two friends. We never learn what Mrs Holland looks like, how she met Ruth's father, her first name or her life history. Ruth seems her and her father as to elderly for serious romance.
The tea is a classic of repressed emotion, Mrs Holland, you can tell, wishes it was just her and Ruth. Ruth, it seems to me brought her friends along to prevent Mrs Holland from broaching the idea of her marrying Ruth's father. Mrs Holland sees the girls as "cold little Canadians". Now I wondered could Mrs Holland actually be an American? As the story closed the head mistress asks Mrs Holland if the girls thanked her for tea.
"She laid her cold pink hand on Mrs. Holland’s for a moment, then withdrew it, perplexed by the wince, the recoil. “One forgets how much it can mean at that age, a treat on a rainy day.” “Perhaps that’s the answer,” Mrs. Holland said. The headmistress sensed that things were out of hand, but she had no desire to be involved; perhaps the three had been noisy, had overeaten. She smiled with such vague good manners that Mrs. Holland was released and could go."
The last paragraph masterfully, in a subdued denouement perfectly closing "Thanks for the Lovely Tea" takes us deeply into the zeitgeist of proper Canadians in 1930.
I have been reading short stories by Mavis Gallant (born Montreal 1922, died Paris, 2014) since 2013. I was delighted when a blogger I have happily followed for years, Buried in Print, announced they would be reading and posting on her many short stories (116 published in The New Yorker alone) on a weekly basis. I have on my E Reader The Collected Short Short Stories of Mavis Gallant (contains per Gallant about half of her stories) so I decided to try to read along with Buried in Print's weekly schedule as much as I might.
Recently I was delighted to find a collection of sixteen of sixteen mostly set in Canada short stories by Gallant,Home Truths for sale in Kindle format for $1.95. it is now back up to $9.95. Buried in Print has just reached these stories so I will be reading along on all these works.