A literary anecdote (not mine)

A while ago I bought The Writer’s Voice by Al Alvarez, hoping for some hints and tips, but really all Alvarez had to say was that, at some vague point, writers find their “voice”, but he has nothing practical to say about (a) how it’s found or (b) what it is, which was a bit disappointing.

The one good thing about the book, which had me chuckling to myself for a while, was this anecdote. It’s not laugh-out-loud, perhaps, but it still gets me. It’s not by Alvarez, but by Edith Wharton, from her book A Backward Glance, and starts with herself and fellow author Henry James in Wharton’s chauffeur-driven car:

James and I chanced to arrive at Windsor long after dark. We must have been driven by a strange chauffeur — perhaps Cook was on a holiday; at any rate, having fallen into the lazy habit of trusting him to know the way, I found myself at a loss to direct his substitute to the King’s Road. While I was hesitating, and peering out into the darkness, James spied an ancient doddering man who had stopped in the rain to gaze at us. “Wait a moment, my dear — I’ll ask where we are”; and leaning out he signalled to the spectator.

“My good man, if you’ll be good enough to come here, please; a little nearer — so,” and as the old man came up: “My friend, to put it to you in two words, this lady and I have just arrived here from Slough; that is to say, to be more strictly accurate, we have recently passed through Slough on our way here, having actually motored to Windsor from Rye, which was our point of departure; and the darkness having overtaken us, we should be much obliged if you would tell us where we now are in relation, say, to the High Street, which, as you of course know, leads to the Castle, after leaving on the left the turn down to the railway station.”

I was not surprised to have this extraordinary appeal met by silence, and a dazed expression on the old wrinkled face at the window; nor to have James go on: “In short” (his invariable prelude to a fresh series of explanatory ramifications), “in short, my good man, what I want to put to you in a word is this: supposing we have already (as I have reason to think we have) driven past the turn down to the railway station (which, in that case, by the way, would probably not have been on our left hand, but on our right), where are we now in relation to…”

“Oh, please,” I interrupted, feeling myself utterly unable to sit through another parenthesis, “do ask him where the King’s Road is.”

“Ah-? The King’s Road? Just so! Quite right! Can you, as a matter of fact, my good man, tell us where, in relation to our present position, the King’s Road exactly is?”

“Ye’re in it,” said the aged face at the window.