Book Review: Great British Short Stories: A Vintage Collection of Classic Tales

Classic short storiesI’m not a big fan of short stories, so when I saw a book of short stories listed as one of the options for the Back to the Classics Challenge, I perused a few sources, didn’t see anything that interested me, and decided I’d skip that one. But then I finished all the other options for the challenge and didn’t want to leave that one undone. I finally found an audiobook of Great British Short Stories: A Vintage Collection of Classic Tales, with tales from familiar names like Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Robert Louis Stevenson as well as unfamiliar ones like Barry Pain, James McGovan, and William J. Locke.

There are ten stories in all:

“The Dog” by Arnold Bennett: A man from one class of a family takes out a girl from another class, and, as luck would have it, they have an accident in a very public place, causing trouble in both families. The title and description of the man man throughout as a dog confused me – I wasn’t sure what that meant at the time and whether it was good or bad. The young man seems to think it’s good; the story itself seems to indicate otherwise.

“Not On The Passenger List” by Barry Pain: A widow on a ship to meet the man she is going to marry keeps seeing her dead jealous former husband on the ship.

“The Old Man’s Tale About The Queer Client” by Charles Dickens: The wife and son of a  man in debtor’s prison die, and he vows revenge on the man responsible for putting him there and contributing to their deaths. Not my favorite from Dickens, who didn’t end this on a note of hope and optimism as he usually does, but I was surprised by the twist in who the responsible party was.

“The Half Brothers” by Elizabeth Gaskell: A man marries a widow with a small son; they have another son; the wife dies shortly thereafter; the man blames his step-son. Though the story ends in a tragedy, it brings resolution. A little predictable, at least by today’s standards, but nicely told.

“The Veiled Portrait” by James McGovan: A physician treating an older woman asks to see the painting that she has veiled in her room. It’s a portrait of her wayward son when he was an innocent child. The doctor, who really wanted to be an artist but couldn’t make a living at it, wants to borrow the painting and copy it, or at least make a sketch of it, but she refuses all requests concerning it. He happens to hear of a skilled thief and decides to have him steal the portrait long enough for him to copy and then return it, but things go in a very unexpected way. This was one of my favorite stories in the book.

“Markheim” by  Robert Louis Stevenson: The title character kills a man in order to get to money he has hidden in his business and then is unexpectedly confronted by what he thinks is a demon offering to help him. Shocked, thinking he hasn’t fallen that far, he refuses its help and promises this will be the last bad thing he ever does. Though the first part of the story took much longer than needed to tell, what’s interesting in this one is the moral argument: the being shoots down all of Markheim’s arguments, resolutions, self-deceptions one by one. But there is a surprising twist at the end.

“The Bottle Imp” by Robert Louis Stevenson: A man tries to sell a bottle containing, not a genie, but an imp. The imp will help it’s owner in any way requested, with two caveats: if the bottle isn’t sold before the owner dies, the owner will go to hell, and it must be sold for less than it was bought for.

“The Adventures Of The Kind Mr. Smith” by  William J. Locke: A case of mistaken identity lands an ex-French teacher in the middle of a plan to commit fraud. He keeps up pretenses until the person he is supposed to be shows up. But from there on out, the plot takes continuous surprising turns. Loved this one!

“The Man Of Mystery” by Barry Pain: a butler who keeps his own confidences is dismissed by his employer, until she realizes she wrongly accused him and tries to rectify the situation. Would have liked this one except for someone getting away with and profiting from doing wrong.

“The Brazilian Cat” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: A man in financial straits seeks out the help of a cousin who is married to an unfriendly Brazilian woman and keeps a large puma-like Brazilian cat. This was the first non-Sherlock Holmes story I’ve read by Doyle, and it was easily the most suspenseful and exciting in the book.

So, though I am still not likely to seek out short stories in general, this was not an unpleasant excursion. I listened to the audiobook, though there is a print version that can be found through used book sellers. The narrator’s voice and style was a little grating at first, but before long I got used to it and it didn’t bother me any more.

(Sharing at Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)

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7 thoughts on “Book Review: Great British Short Stories: A Vintage Collection of Classic Tales

  1. Pingback: Reading Plans for 2016 | Stray Thoughts

  2. I’m with you re the short stories although I heard an interesting comment by David Hicks on a Circe Institute podcast – he said something to the effect of modern stories are best told in the short story format. I’m reading a selection from Flannery O’Connor for that part of the challenge.

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