The Penguin Book of the British Short Story, edited by Philip Hensher

In the dappled late May sunshine of South Lanarkshire, it may just be possible to detect the live murmur of a summer’s day. Your day will not be out of the ordinary. In the background the servants are busy with their morning tasks, and the clatter of pots and pans drifts over the policies to where one takes one’s ease in the familiar striped deck chair. Their chatter and laughter, inane as ever, is somehow consoling. Your chore for the day may extend to trickling a hose around the camellias, rhododendrons, azaleas and hydrangeas. Clearly, one is unlikely to remain awake for longer than half an hour at a time. Not with the languor of the day. Not in the contented knowledge that the offshore account is ripening nicely in Panama. Not with the heady scent of those nearby Emmannuelle and Clarence House variety roses. Not with Barney the Sealeyham daydreaming under a shrub. Nature’s top predators permit themselves to doze, so why should you not?

How then to fill those unsettling periods of consciousness after the fentanyl wears off? Reach for The Penguin Book of the British Short Story. Philip Hensher ( has put together a selection in two volumes. The stories will mildly amuse and not tax one greatly. Tax is something to be avoided. Amusement is something to be cherished.

Hensher’s definition of the ‘British’ short story is delightfully idiosyncratic. The work of Elizabeth Bowen — born in Ireland, lived in England — is in, because her ‘subject seems indubitably British’. But Katherine Mansfield — born in New Zealand, lived in England — is out because there is a ‘strong movement’, to regard writers like her ‘as conferring merit on their place of birth rather than their residence’. His tentative definitions of what characterises a typical British short story is as follows. The BSS is playful, it is ‘rumbustious, violent, extravagant, fantastical’, but also capable of ‘withdrawn exactitudes’. Perhaps one needs to have attended Hensher’s college of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford to understand fully what a ‘withdrawn exactitude’ means. Here you will find classics, rarities, unconsidered trifles, and only the occasional dud. The book begins with Defoe’s ‘A True Relation of the Apparition of Mrs Veal’, followed by Swift’s ‘Directions to the Footman’, which is an early version of the ever-enjoyable short-story sub-genre of story-as-form-of-ironic-instruction. (‘When your master and lady are talking together in their bed-chamber, and you have some suspicion that you or your fellow-servants are concerned in what they say, listen at the door for the publick good of the servants.’)

And so one may read on through all 1,500 pages, through Hannah More and Thackeray and Conrad and Wells and M.R. James, all the time wondering at the range and quality of these tiny little diamonds of pleasure, some of them no longer than a few pages. You’ll enjoy Saki, Stacy Aumonier,  T. Baron Russell, Jack Common, Leslie Halward,  James Hanley, Shena MacKay, Ian McEwan, Zadie Smith and Candia McWilliam. A cornucopia of the better known and less well known writers. It’s all waiting for you to lap up in those interludes of summer’s repose. It’s the ultimate dip in, dip out bag of treats. Should the effort strain, you may reach for the crystal decanter of Ardbeg Corryvreckan, and Lethe-wards may sink again.

Send Bates around to enquire at the local library or consult  for full bibliographic detail.

Here’s wishing the story of your summer will be literary and languorous.

Volume 1: From Daniel Defoe to John Buchan

768 pages in Penguin Classics

First published 2015

ISBN 978-0141395999


Volume 2: From P.G. Wodehouse to Zadie Smith

784 pages in Penguin Classics

First published 2015

ISBN 978-0141396019

Image result for philip hensher

Philip Hensher (editor)

Scroll to Top