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Smut: Two Unseemly Stories

Alan Bennett

(Faber/Faber, Profile Books; US: Apr 2011)

‘Our’ Alan loves a bit of ‘smut’. It isn’t so much his last resort in fiction writing as very often his first. He concocts two narratives here that focus on ‘smutty’ encounters. Smut is the operative word here. There is a deliberately dated aspect to these two stories that make up this modest novella. They are not erotic, pornographic, or even risqué. No, ‘Smut’ is the best description.


There’s a nudge and a wink voyeuristic quality to the encounters and a self-conscious ‘out-of-touch’ atmosphere about the worlds that the sexually naïve characters inhabit. In a world full of internet banking and mobile phones, Mrs. Forbes – the central figure in the second story The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes is deliberately out of step with the lifestyle of her son and daughter-in-law. Mrs. Donaldson, in the first of the ‘unseemly’ stories, The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson appears to be a deeply immature and unworldly widow of only 55; but acts more like a walking cliché from 1955.


Bennett relishes the opportunity to sink middle-aged ladies into awkward and quirky situations, with revealing twists. He lingers upon their bewilderment and naivety. But there is an incongruity about Mrs. Donaldson and Mrs. Forbes as they are so anachronistic for their context and setting.


Not so the dysfunctional, unhappy, unfulfilled figures who populate the stories. They are very much of their time, such as Mrs. Forbes’s son who works in banking and lives a closeted lifestyle, whilst maintaining a front with Betty, his wealthy wife. It’s not that he finds the world a harsh place for a gay man, he simply enjoys the benefits of his wife’s money, and the status of being middle-class and married. Surprisingly, he also discovers that a sexual relationship with his wife is quite fun, whilst maintaining male lovers on the side.


The focus of Mrs. Donaldson’s story is probably the more entertaining of the two. She’s an endearing character, and Bennett allows her a slick device in her need to earn some money after her husband’s death. This leads her into the work of the part-time ‘demonstrator’ for which she adopts a different persona and case history each time and presents herself for scrutiny by medical students as a proto-patient of sorts for them to practice their bedside manner. Through this she enters a world of gossip and intimacy at the medical school and finds herself the object of desire from unexpected quarters.


Bennett, with his pedigree as satirist, playwright, and Oscar-nominated screen-writer, is at home with short character-driven fiction such as this neat little volume, but it does tend to meander. It lacks the dynamism and sparkle of some of his drama and as such is a quieter, cosier read, without the edge and spite he manages in other forms. He has a way of intoning and lingering upon certain images that helps to create pictures for the reader and provide a witty, charming take on sexual goings-on:


‘When you are as old as Canon Mollison,’ Mr. Forbes said patiently, ‘one of the few perks of the job is talking to young people about the sexual act. What in any other context would probably get him arrested, in the vestry passes for spiritual advice.’


This is certainly a rewarding read and has its charming and farcical touches that amuse; and there’s nothing here to really frighten the horses or annoy the neighbours. Mrs. Donaldson will see to that – she is quick off the mark with the best of them to dampen the noise of a banging headboard.

Rating:

Dr Gabrielle Malcolm is a writer, artist and academic based in the UK. She is known for her publications on Victorian literature and culture and her writing on Shakespeare on stage, TV and Film. She has published alongside writers such as AS Byatt in 'The Dickensian' journal, and her performance art pieces were featured in the Liverpool City of Culture celebrations in 2008, at the Liverpool Tate amongst other venues. Recent publications include a chapter in 'Writing Women of the Fin de Siecle: Authors of Change' (Palgrave McMillan, 2011). She is an avid fan of the Gothic and the Neo-Victorian. Her literary blog 'A Special Mention' has many followers and she can regularly be found tweeting @gabymalcolm, with fellow Shakespeareans and fans of Gene Kelly.


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