As is fitting for the opening story of Mavis Gallant’s second published collection, My Heart is Broken, many themes feel familiar.
The question of what constitutes a “good” woman, particularly when she is not a wife.
The dilemma of trying to live an interesting life while maintaining a sheen of “goodness”.
What bonds can be formed in the absence of close familial ties. What comprises a life lived off-season.
And, perhaps underscoring all of these, the idea of belonging.
In “Acceptance of Their Ways”, readers meet Lily Littel, who has a room at Mrs. Freeport’s on the Italian-side of the frontier.
Perhaps it’s more important to say that she is not staying along the French Riviera, but on the other side.
Where there is a “whiff of infirm nicety to be breathed, a suggestion of regularly aired decay”.
(I imagine the structure to be like the one pictured alongside, but that’s a building in Toronto that appeals to me, although it, too, did have a bare wintry garden, where I can imagine Lily and Mrs. Freeport sitting, after Mrs. Garnett has left for the season under a cloud.)
Lily Littel used to be Mrs. Cliff Little, but wartime afforded her the opportunity to escape that identity and a small income affords her the opportunity to live simply and independently as a woman. (This seems to have been a matter of decision, not fate, and I imagine Cliff living elsewhere, Lily-less.)
Four times a year, when Lily’s dividends are paid, she floats the story to Mrs. Freeport that she is travelling to Nice to visit her sister.
Instead, she drinks. Enough to last until the next payment. (It’s hard being Lily.)
“She simply looked on Mrs. Freeport and Mrs. Garnett as more of that race of ailing, peevish elderly children whose fancies and delusions must be humored by the sane.”
This illusion of the independent Lily requires some maintenance but the older women are either overly trusting or prefer the illusion. (I suspect it’s the former, as Lily has a thing for widows.)
“Then a lonely, fretful widow had taken a fancy to her and, as soon as travel was possible, had taken Lily abroad. There followed eight glorious years of trains and bars and discreet afternoon gambling, of eating éclairs in English-style tearooms, and discovering cafés where bacon and eggs were fried. Oh, the discovery of that sign in Monte Carlo: ‘Every Friday Sausages and Mashed’! That was the joy of being in foreign lands.”
Readers have a glimpse of Lily’s penchant for manipulation/self-preservation here, but also of the twinned desire for both ‘home’ and ‘away’. (Something Mavis Gallant, who left Montreal as a young woman, to live and write in Paris, likely understood.)
Lily’s identity is more complicated, however, for she is not simply a woman who belongs in more than one place, but a woman who has built a persona which requires constant tending.
“Talk leads to overconfidence and errors. Lily had guided her life to this quiet shore by knowing when to open her mouth and when to keep it closed.”
Her position does not appear to be not entirely happy, but comfortable. She understands the boundaries and lives inside the lines.
“Lily’s years abroad had immunized her to the conversation of gentlewomen, their absorption with money, their deliberate over-or underfeeding, their sudden animal quarrels. She wondered if there remained a great deal more to learn before she could wear their castoff manners as her own. At the reference to secret drinking she looked calm and melancholy.”
Observing the exchanges between Mrs. Freeport (whose guests are often needy, but none more so than the lonely gentlewoman) and Mrs. Garnet (whose lifelong sorrows resonate in small disappointments), Lily seems to inhabit familiar territory.
Although she is modifying her own reponses and deportment, opening and closing her mouth as required to support her identity as Mrs. Littel (rather than Mrs. Little), it appears natural, so familiar as to be innate.
“If Lily had settled for this bleached existence, it was explained by a sentence scrawled over a page of her locked diary: “I live with gentlewomen now.” And there was a finality about the statement that implied acceptance of their ways.”
But is it a bleached existence? Mrs. Freeport’s water lily hat suggests there is more to the story.
Firstly, it is a lily, so in some ways Mrs. Freeport could be said to be dressing up as someone else too.
But perhaps even more significantly, it is not only decorative but synonymous with grace and beauty (perhaps another kind of lily could carry connotations of mortality, but this kind is more likely to make one think of Monet).
Mind you, it is knocked askew on Mrs. Freeport’s head, so it is not a perfect symbol either.
“Instead of answering, Lily set Mrs. Freeport’s water lily straight, which was familiar of her; but they were both in such a state, for different reasons, that neither of them thought it strange.”
Mavis Gallant allows Lily to straighten an old woman’s hat, but she also allows the old woman’s hat to be straightened, and affords another old woman the opportunity to escape the scene, even if only for the winter.
If there are broken hearts here, the fractures are fine and go to character rather than devastating finality.
Have you been reading about broken hearts?
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the first story in My Heart is Broken. It also appears in The End of the World and The Cost of Living. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company.