A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman: Complete Short Stories

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Release Date: 
May 17, 2011
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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“Each story contained in this collection is a beautifully faceted and highly polished gem. . . . at long last, a collection of these short works of fiction.”

Margaret Drabble is hardly a name new to the world of literary fiction. The very sound of Drabble recalls a world of characters drawn from an archaeology of her own life and embodied in rich hue and dry wit as each of those characters contends with—which is to say either reaches the heights of or completely upends—the ladder of the British social system.

Ms. Drabble’s characters are busy women, intelligent women, women on the move from here to there; and author Drabble’s world is the Great Britain of the last four decades: that conservative, prosperous land of Margaret Thatcher, that Emerald Isle on which Ms. Drabble spots more than a few dark blots—both on the landscape and the peerage.

Oddly, during a lifetime in which she has managed to produce some eighteen novels and eight book-length works of nonfiction, she has managed to write only fourteen short stories, the first dated 1964, and the last 1999. A Day in The Life of a Smiling Woman is, at long last, a collection of these short works of fiction.

In describing this short fiction, Spanish scholar Jose Francisco Fernandez, who provides the book with its introduction, uses words like “focused,” “well-made” and “elegantly climactic” before issuing the conclusive statement:

“At the same time they are so very English; they encapsulate values and idea that, for better or worse, have been associated with England, or with a kind of England Ms. Drabble admires: restraint, moderation, common sense, intolerance to snobbishness (which was the main topic of Ms. Drabble’s first story, ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses,’ published in 1964), wit and seriousness.”

As to that story, “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” which opens this volume, it begins with a pip of a sentence inviting the reader in to stay a while:

“It was the kind of party at which nobody got introduced.”

What follows is a brief snack of a thing, a quick delight. Humphrey enters the party.

“The room was dark, lit only by candles in bottles, and although a certain amount of feeble shuffling was going on in the centre of the floor, most of the guests were grouped around yelling in a more or less cheery fashion to people whom they were lucky enough to know already.”

Humphrey, a rather dull little man, cannot help but be slightly besotted with all the guests, especially the women. (“He liked artistic and intellectual-looking girls, himself; he could never see what other people had against all these fiercely painted eyes, these long over-exposed legs, these dramatic dresses.”)

In the corner, he sees a woman holding court. He makes his way to her. (“It was remarkably hard to cross the room: instead of parting to let him pass, people seemed to cluster closer together at his approach, so that he had to force them asunder with his bare hands.”)

He reaches her, then realizes that, armed only with “his own unoriginal views on Harold Pinter,” he has no way to reach her.

Suffice to say that he uses what is at hand. That candles are involved and flame and flame-red hair. Combustion leads to commotion. They look into each other’s face.

“Let me introduce myself,” he says, “My name is Humphrey.”

The joy of it is that that is the whole of it. Margaret Drabble, even the young, young Margaret Drabble of 40 years ago knew that when writing a one-joke story you need only tell the joke once. And so we have the “meet cute”—and the rest of the lark is a tale for another day.

And yet, in just over six pages, Drabble creates her iconic character, this time named Justina, the girl holding court like Scarlett O’Hara eating barbeque at Twelve Oaks. What follows in the pages ahead are variations on this girl, the one who is noticed in the crowd, the one who smiles and we smile dumbly along with her, the one who, even in old age, has opinions and desires lurking just under the surface, of a nature that we could never guess.

If “Liaisons” is a good story—the key turning in the lock to let us inside Ms. Drabble’s world—then the title story, “A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman,” is far, far better. It is, in fact, a masterwork of a story, a joy to read, a work that churns in the reader’s mind for days after first reading it.

This is the story Jenny Jamieson, a creation of the Dorothy Parker “Big Blonde” sort, who has married a man who helped her find a profession in television and then watched her eclipse him in terms of career achievements. His simmering anger and the tension that exists between them is best explained by single, devastating sentence:

“Sometimes he would wake up in the middle of the night and hit her.”

We are given more information from the husband’s point of view—that which perhaps is meant to explain that which is unforgivable and unacceptable. (“He made endless unpleasant remarks and innuendoes about Jenny’s colleagues in the television world, as though he had forgotten that he had introduced her to them in the first place. . . . He would accuse her of neglecting him and the children.”) But nothing more is said of his cruelest act of ripping away the comfort of sleep. There is no description of the blow, hard or soft, or of resulting bruises, only this perfect expression of the undercurrent of threat, and the displacement of any sort of kindness, trust, or love.

Through it, in spite of it all, Jenny Jamieson presents the camera with a perfect Princess Diana smiling face.

As promised, the story singles out one day, a day in which Jenny Jamieson—it is hard to write out her first name without completing it with the media-perfect second—pushes herself to her limits—and, in doing so, represents Ms. Drabble’s perfect idea of the 1970s woman (the story was first published in Cosmopolitan in 1973), the first generation to dare to feel that she could “have it all”—at least if she is willing to shed her own life’s blood to get it.

Better still, and perhaps one of the finest short stories of its era, the 1980s, is “The Merry Widow,” a story in which, having lost her brute of a husband, Phillip, the newly widowed Elsa faces life in a new way:

“When Phillip died, his friends and colleagues assumed that Else would cancel the holiday. Elsa knew that this would be their assumption. But she had no intention of cancelling. She was determined upon the holiday.”

We are given much information in this opening breath, with more to follow:

“During Phillip’s unexpectedly sudden last hours, and in the succeeding weeks of funeral and condolence and letters from banks and solicitors, it began to take an increasingly powerful hold upon her imagination. If she were honest with herself, which she tried to be, she had not been looking forward to the holiday while Phillip was alive. . . . But without Phillip, the prospect brightened.”

What follows is a story that gives proof of all that Fernandez’s introduction promised—a story that is perfectly constructed, beautifully written and in which the character and plot are fully realized. If “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” is a lovely appetizer, then “The Merry Widow” is the main course—one that leaves the reader in a state of perfect comfort and with the desire for an after-dinner drink.

Other tales suggest that perhaps Elizabeth Bennet loved Mr. Darcy’s house more than she loved him, and that the British, no matter how far afield they might travel, always remain The British.

Each story contained in this collection is a beautifully faceted and highly polished gem. It is about time that they be published in one volume—one that is highly recommended.