Ruth is equal parts infuriating and hurting. Like Karin, in Alice Munro’s “Rich as Stink”, these girls are angered and confused by the connections they observe between the adults in their lives.
In “Thank You for the Lovely Tea”, readers meet Ruth when she is desperate to be out of art class, in the Canadian boarding school she attends. When she is out of the class, however, and in the tearoom with Mrs. Holland, she is just as reckless and ruthless.
The tension resides in Ruth, not in her surroundings, and the tearoom is the ideal backdrop. Its smells of “tea, wet coats, and steam heating” hang thick The barbs and digs stand out in relief against the swollen room.
All the things that the art teacher was discussing are elements that readers can spot in Mavis Gallant’s story as well: perspective, proportion, and authority.
For instance, we are taught to measure and find the points of action between extremes. The school Ruth attends is neither Gothic nor Tudor, but an untidy and relatively new hybrid. There is considerable debate about whether the religious instruction in the school is either too high or too low. The girls’ wardrobes reflect these extremes: either the tunics or the veils are too long or too short. Exams are finished but the school days persist. And the students who require particular attention are under the care of an elderly house-keeper, who is neither staff nor servant.
It would be simpler to inhabit just one voice, to sit in the seat of just one of the tearoom attendees: be it in the place of Mrs. Holland or Ruth, or of one of the other two girls who were invited to accompany Ruth, either May or Helen.
But Mavis Gallant allows us to glimpse the experiences of each character. So we see Mrs. Holland dismiss Helen as “cold and stupid”. But, we also see Helen feel pity for Mrs. Holland: “As far as she knew, there were no happy adults, other than teachers.”
And it would be simplest to receive a pronouncement at the end, so that we understand with whom our sympathy should lie. But we are unsure what or whom to trust. The school building is said to have been an abbey, but that is not true. The school’s founder is not a saintly figure, but a wealthy fruit importer. And Mrs. Hammond is to be Ruth’s step-mother but she seems to neither want nor deserve the role. Perhaps it’s much the same as she feels about religion: “she would believe in something if only she could”.
So we are left to admire Mrs. Holland for daring to order a sundae. “Mothers and their substitutes were expected to drink tea and nibble at flabby pâté sandwiches.”
Even while we also sneer at her a little. “And, really, watching her, one felt she had too much for any one woman to handle: a purse, umbrella, and gloves.”
Mavis Gallant handles it all so deftly. Simultaneously making us want to peer more closely. Even when the smell of wet coats is making it hard to breathe.
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 Home Truths. 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:”Jorinda and Jorindel”.
Home Truths Stories: Thank You for the Lovely Tea / Jorinda and Jorindel / Saturday / Up North / Orphans’ Progress / The Prodigal Parent / In the Tunnel / The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street / Bonaventure / Virus X / In Youth is Pleasure / Between Zero and One / Varieties of Exile / Voices Lost in Snow / The Doctor / With a Capital T