Diana Athill’s Midsummer Night in the Workhouse was a book club book which Katie and I both agreed had to be part of our revised 2016 reading list. The short stories collected here were originally written between 1958 and 1962, and were published by Persephone in 2011; we were both understandably rather excited to read it.
Many of the stories collected here depict couples, or those destined to become romantically involved, and sex is a strong – and occasionally surprising – theme. Athill places more emphasis upon the physicality rather than the psychology of the act, and whilst the latter is mentioned from time to time, it feels as though animal urges interested her far more than the thought patterns which they stem from.
The title story here did intrigue. In ‘Midsummer Night at the Workhouse’, Cecilia Mathers has been sent to the artists’ retreat of Hetherston Hall by her publisher, who ‘thought her pretty and was worried that she could afford to eat only baked beans’. Being packed off does not have the best of effects upon Cecilia; with five other writers in residence, she feels isolated and unable to perform her craft: ‘For some months she had believed that she did not feel like beginning a second novel, or even a story, because she was so poor and harassed. Given peace and lamb chops for lunch… but now that she was given peace and not just lamb chops but roast chicken and asparagus, and summer pudding with cream, she could still find nothing to write’. Athill goes on to describe Cecilia’s issues with writing: ‘Shut in her room, she would look at her typewriter with loathing and would sometimes even cry’.
Cecilia’s situation has been well – and touchingly – wrought. Hers is a believable dilemma for a writer to face, and one cannot help but wonder if Athill has placed autobiographical touches into the portrait of her creation: ‘It was not for want of trying. She had now been there for five weeks and in that time she had painfully contrived a synopsis of a novel – a structure of cardboard and glue which would clearly fall to pieces if touched. She had also rewritten a story once scrapped and had seen why she had scrapped it’.
‘An Unavoidable Delay’, in which an Englishwoman named Rose takes a holiday by herself to Yugoslavia in order to reevaluate her marriage, has merit; there is perhaps more psychology to her character portrait and situation in life when compared to other stories here. Athill shrewdly displays the way in which: ‘There had been a great quarrel before she started on this holiday alone and she had hoped that now Neville would say that she had gone too far and mean it. At the beginning she used to think: Oh, why won’t he make up his mind to throw me out?’
Midsummer Night in the Workhouse is not my first brush with Athill’s work. I picked up her memoir, Somewhere Towards the End, in an Oxfam bookshop last year, swayed as I was by the positive reviews on its cover. Whilst it did contain some interesting ideas, and elegant phrasing, I felt as though it lacked depth in places. I hate to say, too, that there seemed to me to be a sweeping air of pretension over the whole. This is exactly the same opinion which I have come away with after sampling her short stories; they are interesting, sometimes shrewd, and often very well written, but they just did not strike me as memorable – or realistic, in some places – slices of life, or character portraits which will sit with me for a long time to come.
There is a strong emphasis upon art here; many of the protagonists, and some of the secondary characters, practice such things as painting or writing as their professions. This serves to provide a thematic link from one tale to the next, and nicely demonstrates the importance which Athill placed upon the arts.
Despite very much enjoying the preface to the Persephone edition, in which Athill speaks of her career as editor at a London publishing house, the majority of the stories here just did not grab me as I imagined they would. I had no real sense that Athill’s works were mini masterpieces in the same way as I have almost immediately had with other Persephone short stories – Diana Gardner and Dorothy Whipple’s collections, for instance. I found that many of the tales in Midsummer Night at the Workhouse ended rather abruptly, or were lacking in terms of plot. Similar relationship details and scenes were repeated from one story to the next at times, and there was no real variation to the whole in consequence. The tales were formulaic; barely a single one jumped out and grabbed me, or surprised me in any way, and I found this a real shame. I had expected to be wowed by Athill’s writing, praised highly as it is, but have come away feeling more than a little disappointed.