A Sense of England

Graham Bradshaw

  • Collected Stories by V.S. Pritchett
    Chatto, 520 pp, £12.50, June 1982, ISBN 0 7011 3904 8

In 1976, V.S. Pritchett remarked that ‘what has always struck me in Irish writing is the sense of Ireland itself, its past or its imagined future, as a presence or invisible character.’ He added that in English short stories ‘the sense of England as an extra character is very rarely felt.’ Allowing Kipling as one obvious exception, Pritchett was too modest to mention what is probably the finest and most ambitious of his own longer stories, ‘When my girl comes home’. Here the complexity of the narrative and its oblique, carefully timed disclosures might seem to exceed the needs of an ostensibly simple subject – the return to Hincham Street of Hilda, who is thought to have suffered in a Japanese prison camp but had actually married a Japanese. Yet the responses of the various characters, including the elaborately drawn narrator, are conditioned, not only by their sustaining fantasies (‘We had all dreamt of Hilda in different ways’), but also by the challenging release from the habits and exigencies of wartime existence into a changed world: ‘we were all in that stage where the forces of life, the desire to live, were coming back’ (like Hilda). Their dreams, the shocks Hilda brings, and their subsequent adjustments, discriminations and evasions, project the ethos and changing mores of a whole community: England emerges as that ‘extra character’.

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