He’s middle-aged and the father of a grown woman the same age: no wonder Stella thought Henry was a catch, a great romance.
Did Stella really think so?
And, even if she did, at one time, once she met his daughter, Peggy, in person, did Stella still think so?
Maybe. Maybe not. At one point, she speaks of some advice that her mother gave her, years ago. That it is “better to be an old man’s darling than a young man’s slave”.
Is it? Really? But let’s not go down that road again. Not on our own.
Let’s go back to Stella. Here’s what we know about her inner thoughts. About her theoretical position.
“It had not been Stella’s ambition to marry money. She had cherished a great reverence for family and background, and she believed, deeply, in happiness, comfort and endless romance. In Henry, she thought she had found all these things: middle-aged, father of a daughter Stella’s age, he was still a catch.”
She reminds me of Carol in The Other Paris, her head filled with ideals, her heart so disappointed.
Another story in that collection also comes to mind, not only because of the disappointments, but also because of the focus on family inheritance: “The Legacy”.
Because Stella is poised for a second disappointment. She has believed that she would be provided for (oh, she AND her baby son, the heir) and that security is at risk.
And she can’t talk about it with Henry. Who doesn’t appreciate, doesn’t even comprehend, her concerns.
So, of course, she shares her dilemma with Henry’s daughter, Peggy.
Really? Oh, nevermind, she must have been feeling rather desperate. She must have forgotten, for a spell, Peggy’s anger over her father’s remarriage. Even though, just a short spell before, Peggy was standing in the hall of the rented house in Italy (a run-down and drafty space – not at all what Stella expected of a home in the Italian countryside).
Stella reveals something of her disappointment, her sense of being poorly treated. And, unsurprisingly, daughter Peggy is not sympathetic. But, neither is she cruel. And readers are so pleased that she asks the question we’ve been dying to ask ourselves, right from the beginning. (Stella has asked it of Henry: she intuits his answer – as do we – but we long to know what Stella was thinking.)
Had Stella had no other offers? Peggy asks. And then she asks the next thing we want to know:
“’There was a nice man in chemicals,’ said Stella. ‘We would have lived in Japan. There was another one, a boy in my father’s business a boy my father had trained.’
‘Why in the name of God didn’t you choose one of them?’”
The answer lies beneath the surface. And Stella doesn’t want to peer too closely. And Mavis Gallant is not going to hand it over in a tidy epiphany.
But it’s about what your people go in for, what they value, what you believe they value, the things you take for granted, the very foundation beneath your feet, your desire for the familiar – what’s easy and safe, what frightens you, and what you’re willing to sacrifice to maintain your illusions.
But you don’t have to think about all that. Stella doesn’t want to either. And Gallant treats us to pages and pages of scenic detail and believable dialogue. Children take baths and plans for a garden fail. It’s all very ordinary:
“‘My people never went in for it at home,’ said Stella, suddenly broken under Henry’s jokes, and homesickness. ‘Although we had a lovely garden. We had lovely things – grass. You can’t grow grass here, I tried it. I tried primroses and things.’
‘This extraordinary habit the English have of taking bits of England everywhere they go,’ said Peggy, jabbing at her plate. Nigel started to say something – something nice, one felt by his expression – and Peggy said, ‘Shut up, Nigel.
In Transit‘s stories: By the Sea / In Italy / An Emergency Case / Jeux d’Ete / When We Were Nearly Young / Better Times / A Question of Disposal / The Hunter’s Waking Thoughts / Careless Talk / The Circus / In Transit / The Statues Taken Down / Questions and Answers / Vacances Pax / A Report / The Sunday After Christmas / April Fish / The Captive Niece / Good Deed
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. This is the second story in In Transit. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next story: “An Emergency Case”.