My colleagues and I will be celebrating Christmas next week with a potluck lunch and gift exchange. The theme dictates we bring a gift that represents something we could not live without on a desert island. I could probably learn to live without tea after a very ugly period of withdrawal but living without something to read is unthinkable. Thinking of mass appeal, and the fact that not many of my colleagues stop me for conversation about feminine middlebrow novels, I chose London Stories.
The list of authors will make any anglophile melt as their eye scrolls down the Contents page. Short story collections are also an excellent way to experience the writing of an author you wouldn't normally have considered. I've never read anything by Irma Kurtz but enjoyed her story called Islington and her commentary about the differences between Londoners and ex-pats.
The stories are laid out in chronological order beginning with Thomas Dekker's London, Lying Sicke of the Plague (1603) and ending with Hanif Kureishi's The Umbrella (1999). From the Muckle-pit to divorce. Two of my favourite short stories are included...Elizabeth Bowen's Mysterious Kôr and Mollie Panter-Downes Good Evening, Mrs Craven, both set during The Blitz. Both are exquisite evocations of that era.
A couple of nights ago I read Frederick Treves The Elephant Man (1923). The heart-wrenching story of John Merrick brings forth the image of a shuffling man cloaked by a large cape with a hood hiding his disfigured face. Treves goes behind the ugly sideshow aspect sharing first-hand knowledge of a man who cried with joy when Queen Alexandra shook his hand and panted with excitement while seeing his first play. Covertly escorted into the theatre with nurses sitting in the front row of a box to create a screen, John was able to realize a desire. He also fancied himself a bit of dandy, enjoyed romance novels including Jane Austen's Emma.
Another touching story is Henry Mayhew's Watercress Girl (1851) about an eight year-old girl living in poverty in Clerkenwell. She buys cress at Farringdon market to sell on for a small profit. Her meals are usually slices of bread with a cup of tea but on Sundays her family enjoys meat with gravy and even a puddin'. A child braving the winter clothed in a threadbare dress and light shawl reads like something from Dickens but in this collection that doyen of Victorian literature shares a short story featuring the Thames in Down With the Tide (1853).
Hopefully the colleague who ends up with this book enjoys it as much as I do. What would your desert island item be with a budget of $15?