Alan Bennett
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Buy *Smut: Stories* by Alan Bennett online

Smut: Stories
Alan Bennett
160 pages
January 2012
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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In reading Bennett’s two eccentric, uniquely British stories under the cover of Smut , I am reminded of the enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa. What might she have been thinking? If anyone might have a clue, it would be Alan Bennett, a connoisseur of the labyrinthine female psyche, the turmoil behind the façade of normalcy.

For the widow Donaldson in “The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson,” a lifetime of predictable routine is turned inside-out by a part-time job as a pseudo-patient for physicians in-training and the letting of rooms to student lodgers, the former encouraging a streak of minor rebellion and the latter experimentation in a life proscribed by duty. The proper widow, attractive even at fifty-five, has begun to explore the particular freedom of her changed circumstances, an adventuresome landscape she had never imagined.

Not so different from the widow is the newly married Mrs. Betty Forbes, wife of Graham, a suave narcissist with an eye for handsome young men and a resistance to expectations (“The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes”). Though not particularly attractive, Mrs. Forbes is certainly good-spirited, and she has considerable funds to sustain their lifestyle. Graham manages to explore the marriage bed with some alacrity, while Betty nicely refrains from remarking on her husband’s shortcomings as a lover. But the truth lies elsewhere than between the sheets.

While Bennett has a superb instinct for the intricacies of the female persona, he is equally attuned to the mechanisms of society and the importance of manners, accommodations made in the guise of propriety. While change roils behind the calm exterior of Mrs. Donaldson and Graham Forbes’s selfishness disturbs a carefully balanced relationship, the surface of congeniality is at all time unruffled. Indeed, there is a fine art to maintaining the status quo, compartmentalized communication fostering a treasure trove of shocking secrets.

Tidy and considerate in characters and style, Bennett reveals the busy internal lives of his protagonists, emphasizing the need for maintaining dignity in all circumstances. Such is the English sensibility, light and dark caught in the same photograph, continuity intact as long as critical barriers are not breeched. Both Mrs. Donaldson’s broadening horizons and Betty Forbes’s clever machinations indicate the women’s underappreciated talent for multi-tasking, deftly embellished with the brilliant irony of the observer who captures it all.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Luan Gaines, 2012

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