53. William Sansom’s city of night and ‘A Woman Seldom Found’

William Sansom

In these entries up to now I have been candid, have I not – maybe too much so? – in ‘fessing up to many and various sources of inspiration for images, lines, odds and ends in The Possessions of Doctor Forrest. One slight problem of this policy of truth, one I alluded to in the past entry on Robert Aickman, is that it could nonetheless start to look like a sly policy of concealment designed in respect of certain other writers whom I (honestly!) hadn’t read prior to completing the Forrest manuscript but whose fingerprints might appear, in a certain half-light, to be all over it…
To wit, another seeming candidate in this category: William Sansom, a selection of whose novels and stories I now watch over in my role as editor of the Faber Finds imprint. Sansom was a gloriously gifted writer who could turn his hand to many forms and subjects. He was a master of the short story, for sure, and his short-form work has generally garnered more praise than his novels. He is utterly brilliant on detail, has a miniaturist’s eye and the ability to prolong a moment on the page, twisting and turning it across the sentences. He is by no means exclusively or even mainly a writer of the supernatural or uncanny, but some of the tales tend that way – they are, as Time magazine once put it, ‘populated with gentle stranglers and murderous lovers, with beasts that think like men and men who dream themselves into beasts. Their environs are often menacing and unfailingly strange.’
I didn’t read Sansom until the start of this year, I promise – with Forrest already at the presses. But given all my hommages and tips of the hat, will anyone who reads Sansom’s story ‘A Woman Seldom Found’ and then considers ps. 257-264 of Doctor Forrest (Robert’s account of his first encounter with Dijana Vukovara) believe that I wasn’t making a heavily-underscored reference to Sansom? I would say so now were it true, Your Honour, but it ain’t. What I would like to admit to here, though, is envy and admiration of just how consummately Sansom carried off This Sort of Thing…

‘In [] a pavementless alley between old yellow houses, a street that in Rome might suddenly blossom into a secret piazza of fountain and baroque church, a grave secluded treasure-place – he noticed that he was alone but for the single figure of a woman walking down the hill toward him.
As she drew nearer, he saw that she was dressed with taste, that in her carriage was a soft Latin fire, that she walked for respect. He face was veiled, but it was impossible to imagine that she would not be beautiful. Isolated thus with her, passing so near to her, and she symbolizing the adventure of which the evening was so empty – a greater melancholy gripped him. He felt wretched as the gutter, small, sunk, pitiful. So that he rounded his shoulders and lowered his eyes – but not before casting one furtive glance into hers.
He was so shocked at what he saw that he paused, he stared, shocked, into her face. He had made no mistake. She was smiling. Also – she too had hesitated. He thought instantly: ‘Whore?’ But no – it was not that kind of smile, though as well it was not without affection. And then amazingly she spoke.
“I – I know I shouldn’t ask you… but it is such a beautiful evening – and perhaps you are alone, as alone as I am…”‘

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One response to “53. William Sansom’s city of night and ‘A Woman Seldom Found’

  1. I would be very interested to know whether you think William Sansom’s A Woman Seldom Found was inspired by the story-within-a-story found in Oliver Onions’ lengthy The Honey in the Wall.

    So far the earliest publication date I’ve found for the Onions story is in Ghosts by Daylight (1924), while Sansom’s story is dated at 1956, here.

    Let’s hope those links work.

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