Wednesday, June 1, 2016
The Clothes They Stood Up In by Alan Bennett
Originally published July 1998
Source: bought it for my Nook
The Ransomes had been burgled. "Robbed," Mrs. Ransome said. "Burgled," Mr. Ransome corrected. Premises were burgled; persons were robbed. Mr. Ransome was a solicitor by profession and thought words mattered. Though "burgled" was the wrong word too. Burglars select; they pick; they remove one item and ignore others. There is a limit to what burglars can take: they seldom take easy chairs, for example, and even more seldom settees. These burglars did. They took everything.
When the sedate Ransomes return from the opera to find their Notting Hill flat stripped absolutely bare—down to the toilet paper off the roll, they face a dilemma: Who are they without the things they've spent a lifetime accumulating? Suddenly the world is full of unlimited and frightening possibility.
All it took for me to decide to buy this one was that name - Alan Bennett. The guy who's written screenplays I've loved, including The Madness of King George. The guy who wrote one of my favorite reads of 2009, The Uncommon Reader (my review here). I picked it to read now because at under 200 pages, I assumed it could keep my interest for that long, even if I'm suffering from the reading doldrums. And, again, Alan Bennett.
Bennett did not disappoint. The Ransomes are so set in their ways, so staid, that Mr. Ransome's first name sounds odd to Mrs. Ransome's ears. "Set in their ways" may not be the right phrase. It's more a case of set in Mr. Ransome's ways. Not until everything they had every had, right down to the casserole baking in the oven, was stolen, does Mrs. Ransome realize that "their" ways might not be her ways. In fact, she feels a certain unexpected lightness and a joy in exploring new places and meeting new people as she sets out to pick up the things they need to get by until the insurance settles up. The television they've never had until now opens her eyes to new ways to think and speak. Mr. Ransome carries on, determined to benefit from the event only financially.
When The New York Times reviewed this book, the reviewer felt it would not do as well in the U.S. as it had done in Britain because Americans would not be able to connect to Mr. Ransome's "emotional constipation" and Mrs. Ransome's "pathological diffidence." Well, perhaps those are more British traits than American but that's not to say that we don't all know people like the Ransomes. Besides, I think we can all relate to the very mixed feelings the Ransomes have about their "stuff" and, British or not, appreciate Bennett's terrific wit.
If nothing else, The Clothes They Stood Up In will make readers think about their attachment to their "things" and the weight those same things can put on us.