Tuesday, April 14, 2009

What Do They Mean? ( A Cynthia Flood Post)

To a child, teachers seem coarse in their perceptions. Stupid, really. Can't they see that it's useless ordering a mean girl not to be mean? Do they seriously expect anyone to inform on a popular girl? Why do they smile and lean so close, showing their ugly gums and wrinkles to girls already scared witless by having to recite before the whole class?

Such bewildering behaviour. When writing The English Stories I sometimes felt that bewilderment again, though as a (coarse and stupid) adult myself Icould now see better what those teachers, or mistresses as the English then said, were trying to do.

Still clearer, as the writing went on, was the fact of the two solitudes within the school: the girls, the adult women. They were so close, what with hours and hours and hours daily in the same rooms and at the same dining-tables and on the same playing fields -- yet separate, even speaking different Englishes.

That near/far relation turns up often in The English Stories, not only at the boarding school but also at the small residential hotel. There live the Talbot twins, Milly and Tilly, together for nearly eight decades, dressed always in not quite identical clothing. The two love and hate each other intensely, but neither knows the essential story of her sister's life.

Two other residents, the newly-married Bellands, both idealize the calm safety of domestic life after the horrors of World War II. Each is mystified, though, by the other's plans for attaining that place of peace. They speak but can't make sense of each other's words -- can hardly hear them, really. Each sees the other as lost in illusion. (I think they both are, but that's another matter.)

Gerald and Rachel Ellis, Amanda's parents, have been married far longer and have a quite baroquely developed public persona as a couple. They too, though, find their mates puzzling. They too can't make themselves clear, in spite of being highly literate and literary. Habits, tastes, pleasure, memories, the whole shared culture of a pair -- they're not enough to enable true understanding.

And of course they are both lovingly blind to their daughter. As she is blind to them. . . .

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