A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman

Complete Short Stories

by Margaret Drabble and Jose Francisco Fernandez

Paperback, 227 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, List Price: $13.95 | purchase

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Title
A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman
Subtitle
Complete Short Stories
Author
Margaret Drabble and Jose Francisco Fernandez

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Hardcover, 227 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24, published May 18 2011 | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman
Subtitle
Complete Short Stories
Author
Margaret Drabble and Jose Francisco Fernandez

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Book Summary

A single-volume compilation of the author's previously uncollected short works offers insight into her use of irony, female friendships, and personal passions and is complemented by an introduction that places her works in a context of her life and novels.

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Excerpt: A Day In The Life Of A Smiling Woman

 

Les Liaisons Dangereuses

It was the kind of party at which nobody got introduced.
The room was dark, lit only by candles in bottles,
and although a certain amount of feeble shuffling was going
on in the centre of the floor, most of the guests were grouped
around yelling in a more or less cheery fashion to people
whom they were lucky enough to know already. There was
a lot of noise, both musical and conversational, and the general
tone seemed to Humphrey to be rather high, a kind of
cross between the intellectual and the artistic. He could
hear from time to time words like ‘defence mechanism’ and
‘Harold Pinter’ being bandied about above the deafening
body of sound. He supposed, upon reflection, that one might
have expected this kind of thing from his host, a young man
whom he had met in a pub the week before, who had been
most pressing in his invitation, but who had hardly seemed
to recognise Humphrey at all when he had duly arrived,
some time ago. Now, after half an hour of total neglect, he
was beginning to feel rather annoyed. He was in many ways
a conventional young man, and had not the nerve to go and
accost a group of strangers, who anyway seemed to be getting
on quite nicely without him, simply in order to add his
own unoriginal views on Harold Pinter. On the other hand,
he did not really want to leave.
 The situation was made even more annoying by the fact
that everyone looked so interesting. That was why they were
all getting on with each other so splendidly, of course. The
only people who were not shouting or shuffling were extremely
boring-looking people like himself, who were
propped up sadly in dark corners. And the girls, one could
not deny it, were most impressive. He liked artistic and intellectual-
looking girls, himself; he could never see what other
people had against all these fiercely painted eyes, these long
over-exposed legs, these dramatic dresses. They all looked
a little larger and brighter than life, and talked with a more
than natural intensity, and laughed with a more than natural
mirth. He found them most exhilarating. He gazed with
frank admiration at one exotic creature with long pale hair
and a long maroon velvet dress: her legs were not over-exposed
but on the contrary totally enclosed, though she made
up for this modesty elsewhere, displaying to the world a vast
extent of pallid back, where angry pointed shoulder-blades
rose and fell as she gesticulated and discoursed. All he saw
of her was her active back: her face and front were bestowed
upon others.
 Even she, though, had nothing on a girl he could see at
the other side of the room, far away and perched on top of
a book-case, whence she was holding court, and whence she
smiled serenely above the heads of others and above the sea
of smoke. Her slight elevation gave her a look of detached
beauty, and her face had a cool superiority, as of one who
inhabits a finer air. She too was surrounded, naturally, by
hordes of friends and admirers, who were plying her with
chat and cigarettes, and constantly refilling her glass. And
she too, like the pale girl, had long hair, though hers, as far
as he could distinguish, was not pale, but of a dark and fiery
red. He decided that he would cross the room and distinguish
a little more closely.
 This decision was sooner made than executed. It was remarkably
hard to cross the room: instead of parting to let
him pass, people seemed to cluster closer together at his approach,
so that he had to force them asunder with his bare
hands. They did not seem to object to this rough usage, but
continued to ignore him altogether, and managed to talk uninterruptedly
as though he simply were not there, as though
he were not standing on the foot of one and sticking his elbow
into another’s chest at all. He steered his course by taking
the face of the red-haired girl as his beacon, shining dimly
for him above the raging social waters, and finally, a little battered,
he reached her vicinity. When he got there, he found
that his luck was in: by squeezing himself into a small gap
between the book-case and a table, he could get very close
to her indeed, though he was of course directly behind her,
with no view of her face at all, and with his head on a level
with her waist. Still, he was near, and that was something; so
near that he could have stroked with ease her long descending
hair. Not that there would have been any future in such a
gesture. In an atmosphere like that she would not even have
noticed. In fact, now he had got there, it struck him that
there was not much future in anything, that this was really as
far as he was likely to get. He had given up hope that somebody
would come along with those oft-scorned but now desired
words, ‘Hello, Humphrey old chap, let me introduce
you to a few people.’ This lot were clearly far too avantgarde
for a bourgeois convention like introduction. He wondered
how they had all got to know each other in the first
place. What was one supposed to do? Surely one couldn’t go
up to someone and say, ‘Hello, I’m Humphrey, who are you?’
It seemed, apart from anything else, a positive invitation to
rudeness.
 The red-haired girl seemed to be called Justina. The
name suited her, he thought: there was something finely dramatic
and vital about it, and yet at the same time something
superior. As well as remarkable hair and a remarkable face,
she was the lucky (and conscious) possessor of a remarkable
voice, which she was not at all afraid of using. From where he
was standing, directly behind her, he could hear every word
she uttered, so deep and clear and vibrant were her tones.
She seemed to be fond of brave abstract assertions like,
 ‘Well, in my opinion, the abstract is a total bore, anyway.
I like things that happen, I don’t like talk, I think that action is
the only true test, myself.’
 He was so entranced that he was content to listen to this
kind of thing for a few minutes, but then he began to get a
little restless, for, like Justina, he preferred action to talk,
especially when the talk in question wasn’t directed to him.
He began to think of imaginary witty replies, things that he
might have said had he not been such a non-participant. He
even thought at one point that he might say one of them,
loudly, just to see if Justina and her admirers would turn
round, but by the time he had summoned up the courage
the remark was no longer appropriate, and he had to start
thinking up a new one. Then he wondered what would happen
if he really took action, and pushed her offthe bookcase.
That would make them notice his existence, at least.
She might even like it. Or perhaps he might just grab her
from behind and shout gaily ‘Hello, let me introduce myself,
I’m Humphrey.’ And then again, he thought, perhaps not.
 Sadly, for the twentieth time that evening, he reached
for a consolatory cigarette and put it in his mouth, the miserable
last of a miserable pack. And he didn’t seem likely
to get offered any more, either. When I’ve finished this, he
said to himself, I’ll go home. Then, reaching for a match,
he found he had lost his box: for some reason the eternal
introduction of ‘Have you got a light’ never even crossed his
mind, occupied as it was on far more desperate levels, and
he reached to the table behind him for one of those candles
in bottles that served as illumination and decoration to the
whole dreary scene. He lit his cigarette and stood there, candle
and bottle in hand, staring gloomily into the small wavering
flame. Thoughts of dramatic calls for attention continued
to flow before him: what about that chap he had once known
who had put a cigarette out on the back of his hand because
some girl said he was a physical coward? He had been drunk
at the time, of course, and it had left a horrible scar, but
the girl had been most impressed: indeed she had screamed
loudly and burst into tears. Humphrey reflected glumly that
he could have put out all twenty of his cigarettes all over his
person and nobody would have batted an eye-lid. One had to
be introduced first, before one could embark on that kind of
thing. One had to have an audience.
 When it happened, it happened so suddenly that he never
quite knew whether it was inspiration or accident. As he did
it, he did not quite know what he expected to happen: clearly
he could not have hoped that she would go up in a sheet of
flame, nor even that she should sustain any injury, however
mild, for he was a kind and unmalicious person. She did not
go up in flame, anyway: hair is not a particularly flammable
substance, not even long flowing fiery-red hanks of it, and
he did not apply the candle with much violence. But it did
singe and scorch, with a most alarming and dangerous smell,
strong enough to cause a great commotion.
 ‘Good Lord, Justina,’ said one of her admirers, ‘you’re
on fire!’ and he only just had time to put the candle down before
she twisted round to clutch at the singed ends, shrieking
with dismay and delight, and lost her balance and fell into his
arms.
 ‘You did it,’ she said, challengingly, from a breath-taking
proximity. ‘You did it, you set me alight.’
 And he, reading in her face nothing but pleasure at having
created so large a disturbance, held on to her tight and said:
 ‘Let me introduce myself, my name is Humphrey.’
  ‘What did you do it for?’ she cried, in a positive blaze of
admiration, the kind of excitement kindled by duels or the
Rape of the Sabine Women or indeed any violent and decisive
action taken in the cause of passion.
 ‘Oh well,’ he said, with nonchalant pride, as though
such inspirations came to him every day of the week, ‘I just
wanted to attract your attention, that’s all.’
(1964)