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Coppard’s published short stories ran to thirteen collections – with several duplications in short run special editions, often illustrated by artists including Robert Gibbings – usually of about twelve to fifteen stories. There was a ‘Collected’ edition, published in the USA with around fifty, chosen by Coppard himself, and a British ‘Selected’ with less than half that number. A recent collection of seven tales – Coppard’s preferred descriptor – was produced in 2013 by Turnpike Books, and on Goodreads you will find a ‘Coppard page’, listing other available selections and collections. His current popularity in Britain might be judged by the fact that this morning it had 2 followers!
Out of the two hundred or so stories he published, a handful crop up again and again: The Higgler, Dusky Ruth, and The Field of Mustard are three of the most commonly referred to. All three concern the love lives of women, and the men who fall for them. They also hint at another regular Coppard theme: that of poverty, usually but not exclusively rural. My own favourite tale is Weep Not My Wanton, a four page masterpiece in which a family of itinerant farm labourers pass across a beautifully painted English landscape while playing out the brutal game of their family dynamic – and raising a question of why that should be. In a line I’ve quoted often enough, an American commentator wrote of Coppard’s England as one in which ‘accidents of heredity’ outweighed all other factors in determining the course of the lives that Coppard described.
Coppard himself came from grinding poverty –as a child he worked picking oakum (one of the tasks given to felons in the English penal system of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) in a Whitechapel sweatshop, having left school at the age of nine. Frank O’Connor accused him of having an ‘issue’ with ‘unearned income’ – surely not an unreasonable one!
I became interested in him a few years ago, while reading about H.E.Bates and V.S.Pritchett, with whom he was often compared, and seemed in some way to hover behind. Writing over the same inter-war decades as them, he was, however, of an earlier generation which was publishing in the 1890s, with writers like Mary Mann, who wrote of poverty in rural Norfolk, and Arthur Morrison, who wrote of poverty in London’s East End. What I discovered was that there is relatively little published about Coppard or his writing, save for the bare bones of biography, and a couple of dozen short-ish press reviews.
English of the English, a collection of 20 essays on Coppard’s tales and their themes, was an attempt to redress the balance. It is available as a paperback, and for Kindle, here.
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!
Somerset Maugham was born in 1874, four years before A.E.Coppard. But their lives, and stories diverge more widely.
Maugham was educated at Canterbury and Heidelberg, and considered training as a doctor. By the age of twenty three he had published his first novel, by 1919 he was an established novelist and playwright.
In 1921 a curious convergence occurs though, for that was the year in which both Coppard and Maugham published their first collection of short stories: Adam and Eve Pinch Me, and Little Stories of the South Sea Islands respectively.
Education, travel and class separate these two English writers more widely than do their years, and it shows in the sort of stories that Maugham went on to produce, and in the points of view from which they are narrated.
Typical of his South Sea story narrators is the worldly wise and slightly cynical traveller, who has seen much and recounts stories of planters and traders, steamer skippers and their crews, and itinerant writers, exiles and ne’er do wells who move from port to port. In bars and club houses they drink to forget, and to remember, mixing uneasily with each other, and with the native peoples they encounter.
There is poverty here, but not the same sort of poverty as afflicts Coppard’s Old Venerable or his Poor Man. Maugham’s protagonists have the poverty of those who have left comfortable worlds behind them in Europe. They live as self-imposed exiles rather than in circumstances that have been forced upon them. The backgrounds to their lives, and to those of their narrators, have little in common with those of Coppard’s characters. England is a memory, or some other European country is. They are a community of isolates, in their clubs, on far flung estates, or aboard the wandering ships of the archipelagos.
Stories like Mabel, where a would be wife chases her man from Malaya to China, begin with the narrator ‘at Pagan in Burma, and from there I took the steamer to Mandalay.’ He hears the story at a ‘riverside village’ and passes it on to us. Nothing is rooted in these stories. Neither events nor narrators, nor, by implication we ourselves. We are just another passing traveller to whom another passing story is told.
‘The Book-Bag’ is another in which a narrator arrives somewhere, is befriended by a planter, and is told a story as strange as any in the eponymous holdall. Like many others, this story is inconclusive, indecisive, a story about strangers, passed onto strangers, concerning strangers. Whereas Coppard is rooted in places, Maugham is blown about the seas. His characters belong nowhere, and that is where their stories are traded.
Who these characters were, and in what sense they were truly British is a subject for discussion, but they did exist, and Maugham had met them, and in the clubs and bars, and plantation houses in which the stories are set, he listened and noted. When his South Sea Tales began to appear it seemed, to the people whose stories they were, often recognisable as individuals, an act of betrayal, to the extent that Maugham felt unable to visit the area again.
Yet there is little in them, save for the details of location, and the specifics of events that could not be found in the stories of any peoples at any time and in any place. Lust, greed, fear, disappointment and the striving to hold or to gain power over their own lives and those on whom they depend are present in all humanity’s stories. Coppard’s characters might also recognise themselves, and not be so happy to do so, yet Coppard’s narrators seem to be closer to those they describe than do Maugham’s. But what of either of them’s readers?
Though that may be true, it remains that the element which made Maugham’s stories so attractive when they were first published, the whiff of the far flung unknown location, is what makes them worth reading now. What has changed is that whereas a hundred years ago, those locations were exotic by virtue of their distance in space, they are now made so by their distance in time.