I started reading Tea With Mr Rochester at the end of the first Persephone Reading Week and I realise now, at the start of the second, that it has been on my bedside table ever since.
Because it is a long book? No. The ten short stories that make up Tea With Mr Rochester fill just one hundred and sixty-two pages. It has lingered because the stories are so lovely that they need to be savoured slowly. So lovely that I read many of them more than once; that I was reluctant to read the last story, to never again be able to come to one anew.
Yes, it really is that good.
It is a book to transport you to a different world. England in the 1950s, and a series of well-appointed drawing rooms. Each is distinctive, but there will always be beautiful furnishings, with just the right individual touch. And they will always be adorned with flowers, and with music. Such beautiful descriptive writing.
“It was, of course, a peculiarly gracious room, with its high ceiling and Adam chimney-piece. The shining white walls were painted with light and dim reflections of colours, and a thick black hearthrug smudged with curly pink roses – an incongruous Balkan peasant rug in that chaste room – somehow struck a note of innocence and gaiety, like the scherzo in a symphony. That rug, and the photographs on the lid of the grand piano, the untidy stack of books on a table; and a smoky pseudo old master over the fireplace, with the lily of the Annunciation as a highlight, a pale question mark in the gloom, gave the room an oddly dramatic quality.”
Young women pass through these rooms. Genteel young women who have had sheltered lives, and whose pictures of the world, whose ideas of romance, have been painted from literature: Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice.
In the title story a young girl wrapped up in Jane Eyre imagines onew of her aunt’s friends as Mr. Rochester, and is thrown into confusion when her aunt takes her to tea with him.
“They went on with their gay, incomprehensible conversation as if she was not there. It was quite safe to steal glances at Mr Considine, recalling the moments when he had played with Jane, as a cat with a mouse, the delirious moments when he had broken short a sentence with a betraying word, all the moments of agony and bliss one had shared with the little governess. And that most wonderful moment of all, when he at last declared his love and gathered her into his arms, and one had nearly fainted with delight.
But suddenly Mr Considine took her by surprise. The blue eyes looked straight into her own, and then he said, with an amused smile – “Prissy has been weighing me all this time in her invisible scales. And what, Prissy, if I may ask so personal a question, is your private opinion of me?””
Yes, men are dark and mysterious creatures. And other women are darker too. More knowing, and often troublesome.
For all of this to work the writing needs to be perfect, and it is. The descriptive writing is lovely, but it is also clear and exact. The observation of the characters is exact; empathy is there always, but sentimentality never.
The construction of the stories is elegant, the storytelling is flawless, and although they are set in a very real world they often have the air of fairy-tales.
Their sphere may be narrow, but they are wonderfully diverse. Some are gently satirical, some are fanciful, some are haunting. All are romantic, in the best sense of the world.
My heart wants to tell you about them all, but my head says no. These are stories should creep up on you, and delight you, as you read.
And read them you must.
Frances Towers died in 1948, leaving behind just this one book.
But this one book is perfect.