The widow has let her hair go. It is half mahogany and half dull grey. Not only grey, but dull grey.
One has the sense that being a widow might have brought this about. The simple act of inhabiting widowhood.
But that it was completely unavoidable in this case, because she is not only a widow, but a widow whose husband left her no security. Nothing.
And not because he did not have any to offer. But because he granted that to his mistress instead. (Her hair is not described. It must be lush and blonde, naturally sculpted into waves.)
One feels that the widow’s hair is dull grey because of this additional insult, that a deeper disappointment has left her colourless and limp.
In contrast, the youngest girl in the story has her hair put into a tail each morning. By the Austrian nurse who is caring for her this summer.
This girl is the youngest daughter of the widow. The nurse has no sooner arranged the elastic band so that the hair can be secured when the young girl disrupts the process.
This disruption occurs daily, but in the scene we observe directly, the young girl not only wriggles free but bites the nurse as well.
The nurse cries. The child – Anna – does not. The mother slips her hair into a tail without resistance. Now the little girl can go swimming.
The people whom you would expect to cry in this story, do not. Their disappointments and griefs are present but not in tears.
The widow’s friend has a stylish cut and colour. She is in the midst of negotiating a marriage for her daughter.
Her daughter and the widow’s daughters are friends. Well, not friends exactly, but friendly. Well, not exactly friendly either.
The widow’s daughter is Paola. The other daughter – the one who might be married soon – is Renata.
In the title of this story, they are presented as equals. In fact, their power and positions shift and wriggle throughout the story.
Paola’s hair is short and brushed forward in a “Charleston”. Renata’s mother pets Paola’s hair and says she wishes that Renata’s hair was like Paola’s. What she means is that she wishes that Renata could cause her as little trouble as Paola’s hair causes her, or anyone, for that matter.
Renata is causing a great deal of difficulty. Partly by having reached the age of seventeen. Partly with her bent towards deception.
Renata swims without a bathing cap, in hopes of lightening her hair, which is “Scandanavian” and floats on the water.
She is like Ophelia. But not mad. And not drowning. So, not really like Ophelia at all. Except for her hair.
And, so, the hair does matter. It is, of course, only a single detail shared about the women in the story (the help, whether Austrian – bad – or Italian – good, don’t seem to have any hair). But it is used to demonstrate the restraint and confinement which girls and women can find in various stages of their lives.
In the beginning, it is summer.
“The father had died not quite two years ago, and there was a faint new difference between the girls, delicately felt, invisible still, like the turning of summer.”
In the end, summer turns. Paola observes this directly, in terms of climate and comfort. But she is simultaneously commenting on a more profound change.
“Paola shuddered and rubbed her arms and legs with a rough towel as soon as she came out of the water. In less than a week the climate changed. They dragged their towels and cushions away from the shade of the bamboo fence and followed the sun. When they sat on the beach – Paola, and her mother, and little Anna – Paola was conscious of them as a family without men. She did not miss Renata.
‘I wish something would happen,’ she said.
‘You’ll be engaged later,’ said her mother. ‘Seventeen is too young.’
‘Can’t anything happen without an engagement?'”
Mavis Gallant’s girls do wonder whether anything can happen without an engagement.
Here, it seems that the answer is “no”.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Mavis Gallant’s stories, as I read through her short fiction. The first four stories in Going Ashore have been discussed earlier in this reading project, as follows: Going Ashore (TOP) / Wing’s Chips (TOP) / The Legacy (TOP) / Bernadette (MHiB). This is the sixth story in Going Ashore. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company. Next week’s story: “Dido Flute, Spouse to Europe”.