There is less than a year between Jane and Ernestine Kennedy, young sisters who “resemble little Renoirs”. They live with their mother, Mrs. Kennedy, who is so preoccupied with caring for their father, that the girls have a minder, Frau Stengel (their sixth).
Frau Stengel has already seen the movie “Das Herz Einer Mutti” twice already. As a governess, it’s easy to see why she would have been drawn to this film, which chronicles the difficulties of a life caring for others but ultimately rewards its heroine’s service.
The girls’ governess cries a lot. “She lived a cozy, molelike existence in her room on the attic floor of the hotel, surrounded by crocheted mats, stony satin cushions, and pictures of kittens cut from magazines. Her radio, which was never still, filled the room with soupy operetta melodies, many of which reminded Frau Stengel of happier days and made her cry.”
But she has her reasons. “Frau Stengel and her husband had lived in Prague, where Herr Stengel, who now worked at some inferior job in a nearby town, had been splendidly situated until the end of the war, and then the Czechs sent them packing. They had left everything behind – all the tablecloths, the little coffee spoons!”
She is lucky to have such lovely charges. “Their charm, after all, was not entirely the work of nature; one’s character was just as important as one’s face, and the girls, thanks to their mother’s vigilance on their behalf, were as unblemished, as removed from the world and its coarsening effects, as their guileless faces suggested.”
But not everyone views the family so purely. In fact, there is some nasty gossip about the girls in the community, whispers of their being both German and adopted, which would have shocked Mrs. Kennedy.
Without a husband on hand, this is exactly the kind of misunderstanding to which the Kennedy family is vulnerable.
“Mr. Kennedy seldom saw his daughters. The rules of the private clinics he frequented were all in his favor. In any case, he seldom asked to see the girls, for he felt that they were not at an interesting age. Wistfully, his wife sometimes wondered when their interesting age would begin – when they were old enough to be sent away to school, perhaps, or, better still, safely disposed of in the handsome marriages that gave her so much concern.”
In the meantime, while they remain uninteresting, the girls are cared for by governesses. (It’s subtle, but amusing, that the rules of the clinics are described as being in Mr. Kennedy’s favour. Mavis Gallant is not all vinegar: she certainly does have a sense of humour.)
“The children were much too pretty to be taxed with lessons; Frau Stengel gave them film magazines to look at and supervised them contentedly, rocking and filing her nails.”
Mrs. Kennedy spends her days keeping her husband company and reading him the novels of Upton Sinclair (specifically the Lanny Budd novels).
Perhaps Lanny Budd’s character was appealing to Mr. Kennedy, who moved around Europe in search of a cure. Lanny Budd was charismatic and agreeable, managing to get along with everybody, regardless of differences between them.
Certainly his little girls are charismatic and wholly appealing and pretty. Right up until the moment when they are not. When they tax Frau Stengel mercilessly.
To be fair, they taxed her first. But what with the loss of her coffee spoons and, perhaps even more importantly, the loss of Herr Stengel (who mysteriously works in another town, unseen, unreal), Frau Stengel is in no mood to be trifled with.
When the girls make a joke about their father having died, they cross a line. They make their own sense of the world, and they make their own rules too.
And even though they ask Frau Stengel questions, they clearly doubt her capacity. Perhaps it’s all the crying.
“For them, God was the catch-all answer to most of life’s perplexities. ‘Who makes this rain?’
Jane had once asked Frau Stengel.
‘God,’ she had replied cozily.
‘So that we can’t play outside?’
‘He makes the sun,’ Frau Stengel said, anxious to give credit.”
But that exchange was ‘once’, as in ‘once upon a time’. And now, in real time, after the girls have made this joke, Frau Stengel issues a threat.
“Until now, however, God had not been suggested as a threat. The children stayed where they were, at the table, and looked wide-eyed at their governess.”
And then she exits. Which leaves Mrs. Kennedy alone with her girls.
“It was not often that Mrs. Kennedy had time to enjoy or contemplate something not directly dependent on herself or fated by one of her or her husband’s decisions. For nearly a full minute, she stood perfectly still and admired the night. Then she remembered one of the reasons she had come into the room, and bent over to draw the covers up over her daughters.”
This leads her to muse upon the idea of her children, who remain innocent and untouched in her mind. (Perhaps this is not all that different from Carol’s ideas about Paris.)
“Meanwhile, of course, they had still to grow up – but after all what was there between this night and the magic time to come but a link of days, the limpid days of children? For, she thought, smiling in the dark, pleased at the image, were not their days like the lights one saw in the valley at night, starry, indistinguishable one from the other?”
But, in fact, Jane and Ernestine have entered a period of darkness, in which the night of the valley and the night of Frau Stengel’s threat have become indistinguishable.
The children in Mavis Gallant’s stories are observant and responsive; their days are not limpid but pulsing with possibilites, not all of them golden.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the final story in The Other Paris. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next collection: My Heart is Broken. (Maybe starting sometime in July.)