Lead book review

The best British short stories — from Daniel Defoe to Zadie Smith

Philip Hensher’s two-volume anthology is bigger and broader than anything else available — and handsome enough to hang on the wall

7 November 2015

9:00 AM

7 November 2015

9:00 AM

The Penguin Book of British Short Stories Volume I: From Daniel Defoe to John Buchan Philip Hensher

Penguin, pp.717, £25, ISBN: 9780141395999

The Penguin Book of British Short Stories Volume II: From P.G. Wodehouse to Zadie Smith Philip Hensher

Penguin, pp.734, £25, ISBN: 9780141396019

Philip Hensher, the thinking man’s Stephen Fry — novelist, critic, boisterously clever — begins his introduction to his two-volume anthology of the British short story with typical gusto. ‘The British short story is probably the richest, most varied and most historically extensive national tradition anywhere in the world.’ Take that, ye upstart Americans, with your dirty realism and your New Yorker swank! Read it and weep, ye Johnny-come-latelys! Look to your laurels, Chekhov and Carver. Jorge Luis Who? Maupassant? Bof!

And there’s more — much much more. In a short introduction of just 35 pages Hensher sets out his stall, settles some old scores and convincingly establishes himself as a world authority on the subject of the short story, even though these days his own books — The Northern Clemency, The Emperor Waltz — tend to be vast baggy monsters with grand state-of-the-nation ambitions. (Though it’s worth remembering that way back last century A.S. Byatt concluded her Oxford Book of English Short Stories [1998]with Hensher’s ‘Dead Languages’ — quite a compliment, and well deserved. Hensher now dutifully returns the compliment, dedicating his Penguin Book to Byatt, and including one of her own stories, naturally.)

If you buy both volumes — Defoe to Buchan and Wodehouse to Zadie Smith — and you absolutely should, because as books, as objects, they are as good as it gets, quality paper, thick-set, sewn, and handsome enough to hang on a wall — you get the same introduction twice. Fortunately it’s worth rereading. The second time around you start to notice the tiny little pricks and barbs that you missed the first time. Hilary Mantel gets a little dig (‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’ is ‘not a very accomplished piece of work’). There is short shrift given to abstruse arguments and ‘restrictive explanations’ about the short story: Hensher blames such nonsense on ‘the rise of creative writing as an academic discipline’. (Hensher is in fact a professor of creative writing at Bath Spa University, so presumably partly responsible.)

As for his definition of the ‘British’ short story, it is, as it should be, delightfully idiosyncratic. The work of Elizabeth Bowen — born in Ireland, lived in England — is in, because her ‘subject seems indubitably British’, whatever that means. But Katherine Mansfield — born in New Zealand, lived in England — is out because there is a ‘strong movement’, apparently, to regard writers like her ‘as conferring merit on their place of birth rather than their residence’ — which sounds rather like one of those silly academic arguments worth giving short shrift to, but never mind.

Hensher’s tentative definitions of what characterises a typical British short story is perfectly unobjectionable: according to him the BSS is playful, it is ‘rumbustious, violent, extravagant, fantastical’, but also capable of ‘withdrawn exactitudes’. That just about covers everything. You could probably argue that these are characteristics of all short stories, and possibly all literary fiction in all countries at all times. It would be an interesting argument, if one that Hensher would undoubtedly win: he doesn’t strike one as someone to be bested.

Just whatever you do, don’t get him started on short story competitions. He despises short story competitions (with the notable exception, presumably, of the V.S. Pritchett Memorial Prize, for which he was a judge earlier this year). Competitions, according to Hensher, produce solipsistic drivel. They encourage work that lacks ‘real energy’, which Hensher doesn’t define but which is presumably quite unlike ‘unreal energy’ and which seems to have something to do with ‘the social interaction which is the proper subject of fiction’. Also, prizes are humiliating: ‘No one… ever invited, or required Conan Doyle or V.S. Pritchett or Kipling or P.G. Wodehouse to put on a dinner jacket and shake the hand of a retired academic before they could receive a cheque for a short story.’

He’s got a point. He also has a solution: pay writers proper money for their stories, so they don’t have to enter competitions. In 1914 W.W. Jacobs could expect to be paid by the Strand magazine about £350 for a short story, not far off the annual income of a family doctor. One hundred years later to be paid £350 for a short story would represent an unimaginable fortune. Hensher’s not naive enough to think this situation could change overnight, but he does have an interesting suggestion:

If an ordinary newspaper took to publishing, once a week, a short story and paying the same that it currently pays for the celebrity interview that fills the same space, then the short story in all its forms would soon return to the energy and inventiveness that it possessed until recently.

If you are reading this review and you happen to be a newspaper proprietor, an editor, or someone wielding great power and influence, take note: this is a good idea.

And as for the stories — there are classics, rarities, unconsidered trifles, and only the occasional dud. The book begins with Defoe’s ‘A True Relation of the Apparition of Mrs Veal’, which is tiresome, but picks up immediately with Swift’s ‘Directions to the Footman’, which is an early version of the ever-enjoyable short-story sub-genre of story-as-form-of-ironic-instruction. (‘When your master and lady are talking together in their bed-chamber, and you have some suspicion that you or your fellow-servants are concerned in what they say, listen at the door for the publick good of the servants.’)

And so one reads on and on, through all 1,500 pages, through Hannah More and Thackeray and Conrad and Wells and M.R. James, all the time wondering at the range and quality of these tiny little things, some of them no longer than a few pages. (Hensher doesn’t go in for ‘short’ shorts or flash fiction.) Who’d have thought they could squeeze so much into them? God, you remember, Saki’s good. But so is Stacy Aumonier! Stacy Aumonier: you remember Stacy Aumonier? No, me neither. And I’d definitely never even heard of T. Baron Russell, Jack Common or Leslie Halward. But James Hanley, of course! And Shena MacKay! And whatever happened to Candia McWilliam (represented here by the beautiful, tragic ‘The Only Only’)?

In any review of an anthology the reviewer is duty bound to mention unjust exclusions and unwise inclusions. Being a diligent and forceful sort of chap, Hensher foresees these objections and gets his response in first. He admires work by David Rose and Penelope Gilliatt, he says, of course he does, but decides not to include them in the book, ‘with regret’, which is a shame — it would have been such a treat for readers and a boon for the writers, too little known and appreciated.

We get Ian McEwan and Zadie Smith instead, whose work is perhaps more familiar. Oh well. ’Twas ever thus. Fame the perpetual motion machine. But Christine Brooke-Rose gets a look in, the experimentalists’ experimentalist, as does Georgina Hammick, a total one-off, and Adam Marek, with ‘The 40-Litre Monkey’, which is as good as anything else here, by a writer little known, and which helps guarantee in the end that Hensher’s anthology is bigger, better and broader in several senses than anything else currently available.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

The Penguin Book of British Short Stories Volume I: From Daniel Defoe to John Buchan, £20 and Volume II: From P.G. Wodehouse to Zadie Smith, £20 are available from the Spectator Bookshop, Tel: 08430 600033. Ian Sansom’s books include Paper: an Elegy, The Truth about Babies and two ‘County Guides’ detective novels, The Norfolk Mystery and Death in Devon.

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Show comments
  • Miss Floribunda Rose

    How strange. I’m the only one here. I’ve forgotten what I wanted to say. Oh, well…….I enjoy the short stories of M.R.James, Jean Rhys, Denton Welch, Paul Bowles, and the shorter prose works of Samuel Beckett–his “Texts for Nothing”, for example. I do hope some of the stories by the aforementioned writers will appear in this collection.

    • greencoat

      Have you tried Robert Aickman? Smashing stuff.

      • Miss Floribunda Rose

        I shall add him to my list of authors to be read, thanks.

    • Philip Hensher

      M.R.James and Jean Rhys are there, as is Robert Aickman. Paul Bowles and Samuel Beckett aren’t British, so were left out. I admire Denton Welch, but in the end just couldn’t find space for him, alas.

      • Rebecca Lloyd

        You’ll be meaning Jean Rhys from Dominica? I see.

  • King Zog

    One of the most effective and affecting short stories is surely M.R. James’ Oh, whistle and I’ll come to you, my lad. Just writing that gives me the creeps… Ignore the recent abysmal TV adapatation with John Hurt, and although the Miller/Horden version from the ’60s is a mini-masterpiece in itself it never quite captures (nor could it, given the nature of its medium) the creeping horror and menace of the original story. If you ever read it, you’ll never sleep in a room with another, empty bed in the room ever again. Or possibly even look at a duvet in quite the same way… The story also excels at subtle social/cultural/historical commentary, as with many of James’s finest stories.

    • Miss Floribunda Rose

      The 1973 TV adaptation of ‘Lost hearts’ is very good too, though the 1966 version (part of the series ‘Mystery and Imagination’) was far better. Alas, this earlier adaptation was erased, together with most of the rest of the series. There is also an excellent adaptation of ‘The Stalls of Barchester’. Still, the best ghost story ever filmed is ‘The Innocents’ from 1961: “Never has horror looked more beautiful”, it says in my movie guide. “The film bristles with menace as it draws you inexorably towards its chilling conclusion.” ‘The Haunting’ and ‘The Night of the Demon’ are also brilliant.

      • King Zog

        Oh yes, I watch ‘Night of the Demon’ every time it’s on – which is about once a year, it seems! It never gets old – although the relation to the original story is somewhat tenuous, admittedly. ‘The Stalls of Barchester’ I think I caught once a few years ago at Christmas (always the best time for M.R., of course), starring the great Robert Hardy, I believe.

        • Miss Floribunda Rose

          All are available on DVD, just in case you’re interested. Most can also be seen on You Tube. Also of interest is ‘The Monkey’s Paw’, another very good Victorian ghost story.