Another collection of old stories dropped on my mat today (metaphorically that is – it was actually left in a box outside the house).

It was the previously mentioned Westward for Smelts, a series of tales loosely based on Boccaccio’s Decameron – in structure and style – and put into the mouths of some Thames ‘fishwives’ as they are rowed home by the putative narrator, Kinde Kit of Kingstone! The tales are sometimes described as bawdy. Most are about cuckolded husbands and their sexually predatory wives. They bring a thrill – Joyce gives Leopold Bloom a taste of it – to all submissive hetero-sexual males – of female dismissal! The tales were published in 1620, but may have been passed around orally before that. They pre-date Defoe’s Apparition of Mrs Veal by a century, but it’s that story which academics seem to plump for when looking for the start of the ‘short story’ in England (or indeed, in English).

I would go rather with Kinde Kit, and with that possible oral tradition. The short story belongs to the fishwife, and her cuckolded husband, more than to the printing press, or even the hand written story that might have preceded it. Short stories, Tales, as Coppard always referred to them (to Bates’ irritation), are of the voice, and are short. They belong with the anecdote rather than the blockbuster or the three volume novel.

They are to be told (not shown), heard (or, if written down and printed, imagined as being spoken), and reacted to: job done! They are held in the mind as a whole, and sometimes days later might give us the kick of an aftertaste as some little detail slips into place. Primarily though they operate in the here and now of the telling, however often we recall them, and when we do recall them, we perhaps re-read them and get the espresso kick of their point.

There is another form of prose fiction that goes before these fishwifely tales. Those are the cumbersome, stylised – dare I say tedious? – stories of the Elizabethans. I have but one collection – Euphues, Pandosto & Piers Plainness, which individually make watching paint dry seem entertaining, and taken together make having teeth pulled seem pleasurable.

Not at all like a tale told from the experience of life – remember Pritchett’s assertion, that short stories ‘reveal what real life merely suggests’? – these highly formalised fictions bury story under the detail amassed as long sentences of contrasting clauses vie for the prize of having said the least in as many words as possible. They are Jenga-towers of paired statements, built to dizzying heights, to impress fellow practitioners rather than to entertain the passer-by.

Curiously, these relatively short – albeit tediously long – pieces could be seen as the fore-runners of the novel, rather than of the short story, though the title page says they are ‘very pleasant to reade, and most necessary to remember,’ which reminds me that the thousands of lines of Homer were intended to be recited from memory!

I’ll still take my fishwives’ tales though, as the first glimmerings of the short story in print, in English, and have a chuckle, or a wince, depending on which one I read.

One final curiosity. My copy, a print on demand one, came from India. The English, it seems are not interested in their literary roots; though I could have got a free copy online, had I possessed the technology to read it. Maybe the fishwives are lurking on I-phones and tablets all around me, but no-one is telling!

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