Tea with Mr. Rochester
Tea With Mr. Rochester
Pages: 184; Price: £10
Date Reviewed: April 2004
Reviewed by: Serena Trowbridge © 2004
Note: the covers of Persephone Books are gray
with a cream coloured title & author inset; the endpapers, different
each title,are seen in this image.
There are a number of British campaigns running at the moment to "save our short story", since it is felt that the reading of short stories is dying out. This may be true, but I am convinced that a national reading of Frances Towers' Tea with Mr. Rochester could save the story in an instant. The title itself has appeal: most women have read Jane Eyre and been fascinated by Mr. Rochester, which is a good start. The title story tells of a slightly melodramatic schoolgirl, Prissy, with something of a crush on a teacher, who in her romantic mind has assumed the aspect of Mr. Rochester. It is impossible to read without a knowing smile to teenage years, and has literary echoes that are delightful.
These stories pay no attention to fashion or trends; they are about quiet, subtle observation and are some of the most beautifully written short stories you are ever likely to come across. Her stories have been described as being like oil paintings, and this is true: she is a startlingly visual writer, describing rooms, people (especially children), and situations with a clear, unsentimental eye. Towers was a master of the short story format; however, the afterword by Frances Thomas tells me that she was a reluctant writer, who did not find writing easy. She wrote only the eighteen stories collected here during her lifetime, and did not live to read the rave reviews they received; and since there were no more forthcoming, the reading public soon forgot about her.
The stories appear easy to read, but they sink slowly into your thoughts, and have a particular gift for illuminating what we already know in life - the little, daily observations Towers' makes are unforgettable. I first heard her tale of office life - Don Juan and the Lily - about a mysterious woman who keeps up a pretence despite a miserable life, and the boss she fell in love with - on the radio last year, and I find my mind keeps coming back to it. Some are quite sinister - the tale of Violet, the perfect maid who harmlessly insinuates herself into a household dominated by the mistress of the house, and gets her own way, is almost eerie in its observation, and in what it doesn't say, rather than what it does. And it takes a real master of the art to achieve that.
She has been compared as a writer to Jane Austen, and indeed there are similarities, with a social awareness and a gift for verbal mimicry, not to mention a distinctly English tone at times. There is also a brevity about her language, almost a terseness sometimes, which is a blessed relief after some of the more verbose writers around today.
The novel has endpapers with a design of small violets produced by Humphrey Spender in 1949, which manages to be delicate and almost pretty without being too pastel or sickly. This seems to sum up the stories beautifully and is a perfect choice to offset this excellent book.