Books: A cure for the Imperial hangover

A S Byatt's new anthology provides subtle insights into our national psyche. By D J Taylor
The Oxford Book of English Short Stories

edited by A S Byatt

Oxford University Press, pounds 19.99

The limited amount of theoretical work on the short story tends to split the form into two: on the one hand, eyes-down-for-the-last-paragraph "well-made tale"; on the other, the Chekhovian "impression", in which a single ray of light breaks momentarily through surrounding cumulonimbus. In her preface to this new anthology, A S Byatt is notably severe on both these sub-genres, proposing in their place "mixed tones, precise observation, social shifts and narrative surprises". If this prescription means an absence of Somerset Maugham, and half-a-dozen of the pieces that commonly decorate anthologies of this kind, it also produces a fair amount of less familiar but mostly rewarding substitutes.

There is also the lurking question of "Englishness", in discussing which, Byatt delivers several neatly placed kicks to liberal orthodoxies. As she points out, "English" these days is nearly always a byword for depravity to any self-respecting intellectual, a kind of mental shorthand for Imperial hangovers, snobbishness, emotional frigidity and all the rest. The national characteristics she extracts from the English story take in gentleness, idiosyncrasy, moral energy of the best kind - a vein of feeling that has gone largely unexplored by recent historians of the national psyche.

If nothing else, the 37 varieties of English story displayed here - ranging chronologically from William Gilbert's "The Sacristan of St Botolph" to a story by Philip Hensher published last year - hint at some of the spadework that must have gone into their selection. Most anthologists considering, say, the shorter fiction of Anthony Trollope, would plump for "The Spotted Dog" or "Mrs General Talboys"; Byatt goes for the lesser known but equally rewarding "Relics of General Chasse". The same discriminating touch applies to M R James: the smart money here would have been on "Oh Whistle And I'll Come To You My Lad" or "Casting The Runes", but Byatt turns up "Two Doctors", one of James's chillier excursions in the ghastly-laconic. There are also some welcome surprises, in particular Byatt's discovery of Mary Mann (1849-1929) who, on the evidence of "Little Brother", takes her place as an unsung mistress of the art.

Only once, perhaps, does Byatt's eye fail her. This is with Hardy's "A Mere Interlude", characterised as "one of the masterpieces of the English short story". It concerns a diffident girl who decides to chuck schoolteaching and go back to her home in the Channel Isles to marry a rich middle-aged man whom she doesn't much like. Delayed, she falls in with an old flame who persuades her to marry him instead. The ceremony is conducted hours before he drowns in a bathing accident. Baffled and unnerved, the girl decides to go through with her original scheme (this involves honeymooning in the same town and spending a night in a hotel room next door to her first husband's corpse). Subsequently the threat of blackmail prompts her to make a clean breast to her husband, who then reveals his own guilty secret - four lately legitimised daughters he now expects her to educate. While taking Byatt's point about some of the subtleties on display, I'm afraid I simply burst out laughing.

Generalisations about a volume that covers a span of nearly two centuries are not likely to be of much value, but if the anthology demonstrates anything, it's the importance of class distinctions - and disjunctions - for English short fiction. Elizabeth Taylor's "The Blush" hangs on a thrilling piece of embarrassment that has its roots in an unbridged social divide. More blatant still is Mann's "Little Brother", set in a poverty- stricken Norfolk village in the 1890s: a labourer's wife, reproached for allowing her children to play with the corpse of a stillborn baby, cannot see what the fuss is about. Mrs Hodd simply lacks her appalled middle- class visitor's squeamishness about death.

Selections from Waugh, Greene and Saki reinforce these themes. Most anthologies of this sort give the impression that they were completed in the course of a day or so bent over the London Library photocopier, but this is a work of great interest, tact and deliberation.