Memphis Blues

Karl Miller

  • The Old Forest by Peter Taylor
    Chatto, 358 pp, £9.95, August 1985, ISBN 0 7011 3967 6

There is an occasion in Sense and Sensibility when the three sisters go for a walk and perceive, in the distance, the coming-on of an interesting horseman. His approach casts something of the spell cast by that long take in the film Lawrence of Arabia where a mirage shimmers on the horizon and sways towards the watcher in the stalls to be read in due course as a man mounted on a camel. The sisters in Jane Austen’s novel perceive a single rider, whom they eventually distinguish ‘to be a gentleman’: but this, too, could be called a mirage. The occasion is almost over by the time we are able to gather that there have been two riders, one of them a servant. An invisibility of underlings is among the features of her fiction which might encourage one to think of it as grounded in the delineation, and in the perceptions, of a social class. No such grounding, no such principle of invisibility, can be found in Dickens.

I am assuming that it may be all right to talk of classes with reference to the work of writers who did not themselves do so. Backward-ranging comparisons, and a risk of anachronism, are likely to enter into an experience of Peter Taylor’s fine stories, for his is an art which makes much of the existence of traditions, and of a deep past. At all events, it seems clear that the stories exhibit Austen’s dedication to a class, and that the class he is concerned with carries points of resemblance to the Austen gentry. His people are the gentlemen and gentlewomen of the Southern Midwest, in and around Memphis, Tennessee, and Nashville, during the Thirties and early Forties of the present century: the Second World War is approaching, though you would hardly suspect it until, here and there, it happens, and uniforms are worn. We are shown, therefore, a new Ante-Bellum South, in which the old one survives, at times preposterously, and in which the survival of a way of life is feared for. Taylor cares about the old-fashioned society girls of the region, about the ‘narrow natures’ among its monied males, about their ‘pantywaist’ prissiness. He imitates and impersonates the old-fogey father, or the shrinking young man who, even when he is called up into the Army, has yet to say goodbye to all that status and heritage, kin and kind, and class. The servants are black, and they supply the personnel for the firings which so often impend. But they are far from invisible to the author – unlike the region’s poor whites, who are very rarely seen: there is no white poor, and there is little sign of government – it’s as if affluence, and influence, rule. The servants are ill-treated by the whites they fascinate: but the author is not to be classed among these hard masters, with their talk of noblesse oblige and ‘good families’, of such-and-such a black being on, or off, ‘the place’ – in the sense of the estate.

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