Cynthia Flood’s The English Stories
Biblioasis, 2009

The end of the first story in Cynthia Flood’s collection of interconnected stories goes like this: “Sometimes she took off the lid and put her nose right into the box, to inhale.”

Readers only met Amanda Ellis nine pages ago, so you might think that it doesn’t really matter what she smells. And, the fact is that it likely doesn’t, not to many readers: indeed, those who prefer their fiction plot-soaked would be best to look elsewhere.

But those readers who enjoy the interwar fiction of presses like Persephone and Virago, those who enjoy the short fiction of Alice Munro (or Carol Shields or Rachel Wyatt or M.A.C. Farrant), those who appreciate a focus on the relational and the psychological in fiction, you’ll be pleased. And even more pleased if you were raised on English stories as a young reader.

Amanda has read a lot of English stories as a girl, too, and they inform her experience of England in a quietly amusing way. For instance, she expects Martha, the maid, to be like the maid in The Secret Garden (but that’s not the case, though I shan’t spoil that for you).

Having been born and raised in Canada, in the Colonies, she hadn’t been expecting things in England, in the mother country, to be so different; she gets her words wrong and her schoolmates tease her about that and other innocuous but incongruent details (like the style of her dressing gown). And even though she picks up the lingo more quickly than her parents, she has already been set apart.

[Yes, she’s at boarding school, which I would have expected myself, thanks to years of Enid Blyton school stories in my own younger reading years.]

Still, things could have been worse. Here Amanda reflects upon her marginalized experience of English school life:

“As for me, my Canadian speech and ways precluded both popularity and rejection. I’d settled into the familiar route of a minor planet, not as peripheral as the weepers who didn’t have a clue and threw balls poorly, nor as the other foreigners orbiting still farther out — the girl from the Orkneys with an accent so peculiar that she scarcely spoke, and the Irish girl suspected of Roman Catholicism.”

Originally I chose to read this collection with the Women Unbound Reading Challenge in mind and many aspects of The English Stories do consider the role of women. One of my favourite stories is “The Usual Accomplishments”, in which two older sisters reflect upon their experiences. (Although I also felt decidedly unaccomplished at the end of it, as I am truly hopeless at the kind of puzzles at which the Misses Talbot excel.)

When one of them is asked if she and her sister had gone to university, she replies: “‘The which, Mrs. Ellis?’ I did ask that, I’m afraid, though I’d heard her perfectly. Just to gain a moment. ‘By that time Mummy wasn’t well, and it wasn’t really thought necessary. For girls. The expense. Then Mummy died. And we couldn’t leave Daddy.'”

It was accepted that women simply did not have the options available to them. In the same story, it is also recalled that the “mathematical girl should have won a certain prize, but it went to a young man. In 1943 she abandoned her studies. The other married.”

The man, who is listening to Mrs. Ellis recount the conversation, says: “Such lives”. You can almost hear him shaking his head in wonder and complacency. And then there is one of those quiet last lines, closing the story, which substantially adds to the reader’s consideration of the way in which a man might consider “such lives”: a perfect conclusion.

The only male teacher at Amanda’s boarding school is Mr Greene: “I am Mr Greene: Foreign Affairs, or Mr Greene Current Events, or Mr Greene: Specialist in History. Why does Mr Gaitskell think we must tighten wage and price controls? I can explain his ideas in terms that little girls can understand.” The other teachers are female, presumably capable of instructing in all the other subjects. Including Miss Hudson, who teaches French, pointing out that “masculine pronoun is always used in the general sense”, correcting Stephanie, who was confused by the fact that the pronoun referred to a female horse and so she had employed the feminine form.

So, yes, if you were looking for a collection of interconnected short stories for Women Unbound, Cynthia Flood’s The English Stories would be an excellent choice.

But Amanda’s stories are fundamentally satisfying, individually and as a collection. To borrow an image from an early story, The English Stories begins when Amanda is little more than a “chicken that couldn’t peck its way out of its egg”, but the experiences contained in these twelve stories (although not all are rooted directly in Amanda’s perspective) take her through the membrane and into the world.

I’m so glad that I finally read Cynthia Flood’s work: I definitely want to read more.

How about you?