Mrs Donaldson is a youngish 55, not unhappily widowed after an underwhelming marriage, though burdened by a strict daughter who idolized her father. When Mrs Donaldson’s pension proves inadequate, she’s forced to get a part-time job and take in lodgers. The job is acting out symptoms for medical students as part of their training in diagnostic and patient-care skills. (Who knew such a profession existed? Reading fiction is truly an education in itself.) Mrs Donaldson is a star in this particular firmament, and she’s lusted after from afar by the doctor in charge of the training. Her lodgers are drawn from that same pool of students. Despite vague yearnings for a more fulfilling widowhood, all is quite seemly until Andy and Laura find themselves unable to pay the rent. Their suggestion of a creative way to pay it off in lieu is the seed for The Greening of Mrs Donaldson.
In the second story, The Shielding of Mrs Forbes, her in-the-closet son, Graham, breaks his mother’s heart by leaving home and marrying a woman he’s much too good for. But plain Betty does have a lot of money. And a lot of sense, which she’s far too clever to make known to her husband. It’s about secrets, lies, blackmail, and how an apparently dysfunctional family is perfectly sustainable when everyone else has their own secrets, and aren’t particularly bothered by Graham’s.
Alan Bennett’s voice is unique. He has captured a blend of English, middle class respectability that is completely aware of the throbbing veins of desire lurking beneath the skin. And perfectly capable of accommodating those desires in a way that doesn’t disturb the status quo. His sex scenes are exemplary – discreetly explicit, without descending to the vulgarity of a naming of parts, and yet you know exactly what’s going on. And often very funny. We’ve all heard of the Bad Sex Award, where writers of literary fiction are raked over the coals for their purple passages. Alan Bennett would win hands down if there was a Good Sex Award.
I also like his humanity. While some of his characters are veritable monsters, he doesn’t lose sight of the fact that they’re human monsters. Speaking of the dreadful Mrs Forbes, for example:
Monstrous as she was, a tyrant and a snob, Graham’s mother was an ogre of such long-standing that her feelings (though they could often only be guessed at) nevertheless merited respect. Not yet an ancient monument she was a survival and on that score alone her outlook and her armour-plated ignorance merited preservation.
As you can see from this passage, Bennett is tough-minded as he is humane.
These thoroughly smutty tales are a delight. I highly recommend Smut: Two Unseemly Stories.