I recently came across Noël Coward’s The Collected Short Stories in the library. I never knew that Noël Coward wrote short stories. I thought of him mainly as a delightful writer of plays, many of which were adapted for the movies, and as the author of screenplays for several films. Coward’s credits include the script of the play and movie Design for Living, as well as the play Private Lives and the script for the theater that was adapted into the wonderful movie Brief Encounter.
Coward was a witty and knowing writer, so I thought I’d give his short stories a chance. I wasn’t disappointed. There are several wonderful selections in the book, but I’d like to highlight one that I think has an interesting message for writers, for artists of all sorts, and for practically anyone, come to think of it.
The first story in the collection, “Traveller’s Joy,” concerns a character named Herbert Darrell, an actor past his prime, staying in a theatrical boarding house in a provincial city in England. This could potentially be quite a sad story, since the actor has fallen on fairly hard times since his days as a romantic leading man in the West End of London. Darrell is now reduced to playing character roles in tours of the provinces in whatever play he can land a part.
The dilapidated boarding house where he is staying is owned by a middle-aged spinster with a hunchback, a Miss Bramble, not a glamorous leading lady by any means. Still, she plays an important role in the story, but more on that in a moment.
We first see Herbert Darrell putting on his makeup for the evening’s performance, rehearsing in his memories his successes and failures in the theater and in love. Darrell may have slipped into a life that is a poor imitation of his former stardom, but he still has high points (not to mention several Guinesses) to float him over those moments when life’s failures swamp him with gloom.
Noël Coward then switches point of view in the story to Miss Bramble’s thoughts the next morning. (Coward, perhaps influenced by film, is very fluid in the way he approaches point of view in his stories.) We realize through her recollections that she ended up spending a night of passion with Herbert Darrell, who fell asleep while she slipped out of his room. Coward describes in a moving way how, for Miss Bramble, this night was literally once in a lifetime: “Again she shivered, this time with the sudden chill of clear realization that she wanted him again, that every nerve in her body was tingling with an agony of desire.”
Even though Darrell gives her a cold and piercing look when she returns with his breakfast in the morning, Miss Bramble was prepared for this snub. Nothing will prevent her from preserving this night in her memory like a delicious jam of summer figs, just as Darrell has nourished himself through his ups and downs in the theater with his recollections of glamorous opening nights and love affairs with stars.
The take-away for artists, writers, and others is this—life is full of the shoves and slices of the quotidian. What can sustain a writer through these wounds is to keep a recollection of first learning about an acceptance, seeing a new book in print, receiving words of gratitude after a reading, or hearing praise from an admired colleague. Those moments are easy to shrug off, overlook, or forget if we don’t think we deserve the acceptances or accolades, but the way to keep going is to genuinely savor and remember those small but important treats. That, for me, is the takeaway of Noël Coward’s story.
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