I’m off to the cinema tonight to see The Time Travel[l]er’s Wife, the novel by Audrey Niffenegger which I wrote about in a scattergun fashion last October. Since I’m otherwise engaged, I’ll save an in-depth book review for another night, and instead introduce you to one of my favourite books, EM Delafield’s As Others Hear Us.
A common experience for those who’ve loved The Diary of a Provincial Lady but have exhausted the four wonderful volumes of that series, is to read some of her works, and realise how different they are from Provincial Lady land. Consequences (published by Persephone Books), The Way Things Are and Thank Heaven Fasting (Virago Modern Classics) and the most easily available. All great books; none remotely like the Provincial Lady. Her witty, light, self-deprecating take on life is shifted for social issues, real torment, and a rather sombre tone. In my experience of EM Delafield’s works (and I’ve read, ooo let me see, eighteen of her books) only two have the same light, amusing feel of DoPL: and As Others Hear Us and General Impressions. I’m struggling to engage with a few books, as I mentioned, so I turned to the old reliable: As Others Hear Us.
The title plays on the old saw, from a Burns poem, ‘O would some power the giftie gie us / To see ourselves as others see us.’ It was a quotation of which EMD was fond, since she also named a play To See Ourselves (the play from which her novel The Way Things Are was more or less adapted.) EMD transfers this ‘see’ into ‘hear’, and thus plays with dialogue. There are four sections to this book, involving longer-running characters etc., but the bulk of it are these little scenes. They are entirely dialogue, little excerpts from people’s lives. They show what a brilliant way EMD has at exposing the nuances of people’s characters and relationships, all through their own words. Difficult to describe, so I’ve included a couple in their entirety, which I typed up years ago for a wonderful EMD site. I think you’ll either read them and be baffled at why I find them hilarious – or, like me, you’ll be desperate to read more.
Before I share them, I must be honest and say… As Others Hear Us is ruinously expensive. I didn’t pay much for it five years ago, but a quick check on the usual secondhand book sites suggests that you’ll be lucky to find an affordable copy – this is more a title to track down in your library or their inter-library loan facility. On the plus side, General Impressions is fairly affordable, and is a similar thing. The scenes in that one aren’t entirely dialogue, if I recall, but they are still incredibly funny. Do go and find either book. I’d love to see them reprinted, but I suppose this sketch-orientated kind of book isn’t very fashionable anymore… who knows, maybe the tide will turn. Here goes – ‘The Reconciliation’, and ‘At the Writing-Table’.
‘I came around because I really think the whole thing is too absurd.’ ‘So do I. I always did.’ ‘You can’t have half as much as I did. I mean really, when one comes to think of it. After all these years.’ ‘Oh, I know. And I dare say if you hadn’t, I should have myself. I’m sure the last thing I want is to go on like this. Because really, it’s too absurd.’ ‘That’s what I think. It is all right, then?’ ‘Absolutely, as far as I’m concerned. What I mean is, I never have believed in keeping things up. I’m not that kind of person.’ ‘Neither am I, for that matter.’ ‘Oh no, dear, I know. But I must say, you took the whole thing up exactly in the way I didn’t mean it, in a way. Not that it matters now.’ ‘Well, it’s all over now, but, to be absolutely honest, I must say I can’t quite see how anybody could possibly have taken it any other way. Not really, I mean.’ ‘Well, you said that I said every one said you were spoiling the child, and of course, what I really said wasn’t that at all.’ ‘Well, dear, you say that now, I know, but what you said at the time was exactly what I said you said. Or so it seemed to me.’ ‘Well, there’s not much object in going over the whole thing all over again now it’s over, is there? But if you’d come straight to me at the time, I must say I think it would all have been simpler. It doesn’t matter, of course, now it’s all over and done with, but I just think it would have been simpler, that’s all.’ ‘Still, dear, it’s perfectly simple as it is, isn’t it? If you think I spoil the child, you’re quite entitled to your own opinion, naturally. All I said was, that it seemed a pity to tell everybody that everybody thought so, when really it was just simply what you thought. And I must say, I can’t help being rather amused, but we all know that lookers-on see most of the game – it just amuses me, that’s all.’ ‘Very well, dear, if you choose to be offended you must be offended, that’s all. As I said at the time, and still say, no one is fonder of children than I am, but to let any child go to rack and ruin for want of one single word seems to me a pity, that’s all. Just a pity.’ ‘Have it your own way, dear. I shouldn’t dream of contradicting you. Actually, it was only the other day that someone was saying how extraordinarily well brought up the child seemed to be, but I dare say that’s got nothing to do with it whatever.’ ‘Well, all I’ve got to say is that it’s a pity.’ ‘And if there’s one thing I’m not, it’s ready to take offense. I never have been, and I never shall be.’ ‘Besides, while we’re on the subject, I don’t understand about the blue wool, and never shall understand.’ ‘We’ve gone over the whole of the blue wool at least twenty times already.’ ‘I dare say, and I’m not saying anything at all. In fact, I’d rather not.’ ‘And if it comes to that, I may not have said very much about it – it’s not my way – but it would be an absolute lie if I said that I didn’t remember all that fuss about the library books.’ ‘I said at the time, and I still say, that the library books were a storm in a tea-cup.’ ‘Very well, dear. Nobody wants to quarrel less than I do.’ ‘As I always say, it takes two to make a quarrel. Besides, it’s so absurd.’ ‘That’s what I say. Why be so absurd as to quarrel, is what I say. Let bygones be bygones. The library books are over now, and that’s all about it.’ ‘It’s like the blue wool. When a thing is over, let it be over, is what I always say. I don’t want to say anything more about anything at all. The only thing I must say is that when you say I said that everybody said that about your spoiling that child, it simply isn’t what I said. That’s all. And I don’t want to say another word about it.’ ‘Well, certainly I don’t. There’s only one thing I simply can’t help saying . . .’
At the Writing-Table’Are you any good at whether a thing is EI or IE?’ ‘Not much, but I might.’ ‘Well, is it receive or recieve? I’ve written them both a hundred and forty-eight times on the blotting-paper, and they look completely wrong which ever I do.’ ‘”I after E except after C.”‘ ‘That’s muddled me worse than ever. Besides, I think you’ve got it wrong.’ ‘I dare say. Look here, the only thing to do is to leave it and not look at it and then go back with a fresh eye and you get it at once. I often do that.’ ‘Very well then, this is what I’ve said: Dear Mrs. Cartwright, I must say I was rather surprised to receive – or recieve – your letter about the sweet-stall at the Fete yesterday. As a matter of fact I was perfectly furious.’ ‘Oh, I wouldn’t put that, would you? Of course it’s quite true but isn’t it kind of undignified? Or isn’t it?’ ‘Oh, I haven’t said that. I was only saying it.’ ‘Oh, I see.’ ‘Dear Mrs. Cartwright, I must say I was rather surprised – or isn’t that strong enough?’ ‘Personally, I should put Dear Mrs. Cartwright, I was completely astonished and underline astonished. Because after all you were.’ ‘Oh, I was foaming, of course. I still am, if it comes to that.’ ‘Who wouldn’t be? And the trouble we took over those accounts!’ ‘That reminds me. What do you make six sevens come to?’ ‘Well – wait a minute. Give me a pencil and paper. I can do it if I add them.’ ‘How frightfully clever you are. I should never have thought of that.’ Seven and seven and seven and seven and seven and seven and seven.’ ‘Isn’t that one too many?’
‘I thought it was. Very well, seven and seven, and seven and seven, and seven and seven. That’s forty-two.’ ‘Good, how marvellous. I’m afraid it’s pence.’ ‘Like Alice through the Looking-Glass.’ ‘Why did she have pence? I don’t remember any.’ ‘I mean one and one and one and one and one and one and one.’ ‘Oh, the Red Queen. Yes.’ ‘I always love the kitchen picture.’ ‘I know. So do I. Well, Dear Mrs. Cartwright, I must say I was a good deal surprised, how would that do?’ ‘Isn’t that the same as before?’ ‘I said Rather before.’ ‘So you did. Personally I should put Absolutely staggered.’ ‘I easily might. What was I asking you about these sevens?’ ‘You said they were pence.’ ‘So they are, I’m afraid. How many did you say they made?’ ‘Forty-two or something.’ ‘Thirty-six would be three shillings, and six over. How very neat. Three and sixpence exactly. Isn’t it?’ ‘Wait a minute. I’ve lost the pencil. I make it three and sixpence, definitely.’ ‘I should think it’s bound to be right, if we both make it come to the same, shouldn’t you?’ ‘I should think so. Why don’t you get one of those marvellous little books that tell you how much everything comes to? People use them for wages.’ ‘I always mean to. I’ll make a note of it on the blotting-paper. There’s receive and recieve again, and they both look exactly the same as they did before. No fresh eye or anything.’ ‘How awful. I don’t suppose Mrs. Cartwright would know the difference, actually. She didn’t seem to me in the least intelligent.’ ‘Oh, she isn’t. But she just might, one never knows. I wouldn’t mind spelling it wrong, if she hadn’t behaved so badly about the sweet- stall.’ ‘I know exactly. I’ve got a frightfully good idea: what exactly have you said.’ ‘I’ve said: Dear Mrs. Cartwright, I must say I was rather surprised to receive – recieve – your letter about the sweet-stall at the Fete yesterday.’ ‘Very well, just put instead: Dear Mrs. Cartwright, I must say I was rather surprised to get your letter about the sweet-stall, and so on.’ ‘That’s marvellous! I must just re-write it, but I think it’s worth it, don’t you?’ ‘Absolutely. I do loathe writing letters.’ ‘So do I. I always think it takes such ages when one ought to be doing other things. Now, can you listen a minute? This is what I’ve put: Dear Mrs. Cartwright, I must say …’