Tea with Mr. Rochester by Frances Towers
Never have so many sitting rooms been so sumptuously described. You might feel that if you've encountered one elegant, well-appointed English wartime parlor you've encountered them all, but rest assured this is not the case. The specifics of arrangement and furnishing, the tones of wood and the colors of wallpaper, the subtly differing ways afternoon and evening light glint off careful configurations of tasteful objects: all these details are accorded rich depiction in the short fiction of forgotten author Frances Towers, collected in Tea with Mr. Rochester and reprinted in an appropriately exquisite edition by British publisher Persephone Books.
What would be an insular, sterile purgatory as rendered by a lesser writer is redeemed by Towers's prose, by characterizations that cut to the quick without being cute and a suffusion of imagery so deft and precise that choice phrases linger with the reader like an aftertaste or impressions from a dream. Setting aside the arguable banality of the subject matter, it is extraordinary descriptive writing. The evocation of scents in particular is so weighted and insistent that readers may hanker for an accompanying John Waters Odorama card, though Tea with Mr. Rochester's would be strictly polite: spiced hardwood, old leather, roses, tea, orchids, roses, jasmine, plums.
Towers's fiction is populated by sensitive, innocent women in search of love, women who have certainly read Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë -- the book's title is a Jane Eyre reference -- but apparently skipped Thomas Hardy. Men are a thrilling, terrifying enigma to these leading ladies. We are led to infer that this naiveté is not universal, that worldly older sisters and bawdy, sinister servant women have some access to the secrets of the stubbly alien gender, but the prevailing view is a vaguely paranoid reverence for malehood's mysteries.
If the unfairer sex is uniformly opaque and anonymous, a more intriguing recurrent character is the "dark woman" who appears throughout the collection in multiple guises. Whether a maid, a teacher, or the solicitous spinster next door, she is always a wise, corrupt Lilith to the protagonist's wondering Eve. The dark woman is ambiguous, dangerous, wholly outside the control of the book's tiny world, and although the stories in which she incarnates are meant to prickle the neck with a whiff of the ghostly and a gleam of witchcraft, the dark woman isn't evil. She's just different: strong, knowing, and uncanny.
Social custom is the order of the day, and the frequent knocking back of tea is as baroque with ritual as any Japanese tea ceremony. Ladies strive to sip silently, hold the cup properly, and are humiliated to leave a smudge of lipstick on the rim. Even in this rarified stratum, however, where "common" and "coarse" are the depths of deprecation, there are modern touches. A girl sent to boarding school finds "[t]he worst thing was that there wasn't a moment of the day to play ball by oneself. She had 'played ball' ever since she was nine years old. She could not 'make up' without her ball. She needed solitude and secrecy and the rhythm of the ball's being bounced..." This can only be euphemism; the quotes around "play ball" leave no doubt. College freshmen with roommates who hang about too much have experienced this frustration for autumns immemorial.
In "The Spade Man from Across the Water," a newlywed thinks of her husband that "[d]rawn into his orbit, one could but revolve dizzily round him in the void. She had lost touch with her past self. She was wildly happy, but there was this queer feeling of disintegration." Who hasn't felt or seen that happen, with or without marriage and parlors?
Towers's powers extend beyond observational artifice; though the place settings are distractingly gorgeous, there is usually food on the table. "The Little Willow" concerns a wallflower named Lisby, eternally outshined by her sisters, who forms an unspoken bond with a similarly shy boy. He heads off to war without either of them ever able to profess (let alone act on) their secret love, and Lisby's heart cracking and crumbling beneath the intact veneer of polished mannerism makes for poignant, affecting reading. When a guest at her sister's wedding informs Lisby that her Emo soulmate has been killed, and that the boy's last words were a stuttering declaration of undying love for her, sentimental old farts such as this reviewer will feel their throats tighten.
Another admirable quality distinguishing Towers's tales is their length. None runs a moment longer than it needs, a profound virtue in the short-fiction form. Read quickly, however, the similarities between stories can be wearing; what they achieve in brevity they lack in breadth. As another two trembling devotees of the Cockney School of Poetry fumble and part in unhappy disappointment beneath trailing willows, one half-expects a young Morrissey to prance by in velvet cuffs, or to be peeking from behind a funeral urn.
An afterword whose highlight is the titillating revelation that Ms. Towers's brother was killed by a tiger -- KILLED BY A TIGER! -- posits Towers' repressed "Literary Daughter" archetype as a precursor to Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones. Disregarding gender, there's a better resemblance in Adrian Mole, Sue Townsend's earnest Thatcher-era journalizer. Though Towers' parody is gentler and tightly proscribed, Tea with Mr. Rochester's literary daughters, often diarists themselves, are drawn with the same clear-eyed affection. If we fall for or identify with these nervous aesthetes, it's not in spite of their adolescent pretensions but precisely because of them.
Tea with Mr. Rochester by Frances Towers