“The staircase was wide and curving, with heavy mahogany banisters and a carved newel post. The steps were broad and shallow, and the red-patterned carpeting was held in place by brass rods. Lugging our suitcases behind us, we went up in slow motion, step by step. On the second-floor landing there was a door which was always closed.”—Roxana Robinson, “Family Christmas,” from A Perfect Stranger: And Other Stories (2005)
Roxana Robinson, a practitioner of the short story, novel and biography, has written with acute insight into the worlds of Edith Wharton and Georgia O’Keeffe. Reading the former, who wrote an extended consideration of The Decoration of Houses early in her career, taught Robinson that a house is a powerful reflection of the author’s psyche, while the latter’s paintings instructed her in the interplay of light and darkness. The above lines from her third finely wrought short-story collection combine what Robinson has absorbed into a tightly written passage brimming over with implications about class, family, and shattering lessons learned about ties and divisions between people in a supposedly festive holiday.
Robinson’s subtle style has inspired frequent suggestions that she’s a worthy successor to the “two Johns,” Cheever and Updike, as a chronicler of WASP family life under siege. Like them, she demonstrates nearly effortless control of style, voice and setting.
Case in point: "Family Christmas," a 2001 finalist for the National Magazine Awards for Fiction and, in that same year, one of the titles listed in the prestigious Best American Short Storie. The viewpoint here is that of a four-year-old girl, refracted through her consciousness as an adult. Joanna, along with her three siblings and parents, is visiting Weldonmere, a private, enclosed park practically breathing ancestral privilege. The estate is owned by Joanna’s grandfather, a man whose ramrod-straight posture is a reminder of his background as an officer. He has a kindly manner, as long as one obeys the rules—his rules. Inevitably, “Grandpere’s” estate, a site of heft and history, operates on restrictions and distinctions.
The carpeting is “held in place” by rods, the banisters are “heavy,” and Joanna and her sisters, exuding wild energy at home, feel under constant constraint at Weldonmere, even ascending to their rooms “in slow motion.” Still, for those who belong—who are, in effect, to the manor born—they will find the way before them “broad” and “wide.”
But then there is that door, sitting there on the landing like Pandora’s box, filled with secrets. It is quite different here in the servants’ quarters, which are “always closed.” When Joanna looks into the “small room,” she finds a place uncarpeted, “dim,” where the air “seemed mute and dark.” It is a place of limits, where one learns one’s place.
By the end of the story, as she struggles to understand the language of adulthood—first, the shorthand and abrupt silences of adults, then the language in which the rich maintain control over servants and their loved ones—Joanna will be launched in earnest in a struggle that involves “listening hard for words and idioms and phrases, being constantly mystified and uncomprehending, knowing that all around us, in smooth and fluent use by the rest of the world, was a vast and intricate system we could not yet grasp.”
The “vast and intricate system” in Weldonmere is maintained by “Grandpere,” a godlike figure, and when his authority is flouted by the husband of Molly, the estate’s Irish cook, banishment from this Eden is swift and absolute. Even those like Joanna who only watch the awful events this Christmas are left, like Adam and Eve, with “shame for something I didn’t understand. Shame for other people’s misery, shame that it had lain naked and exposed before us, shame that we’d seen it.”
There are plenty of stories about the warmth and magic of the holidays. Yet Robinson’s story of initiation into the code of adulthood is part of another kind of literary tradition (including Russell Banks’ fine short story, “Christmas Party,” in the December issue of Harper’s Magazine) associated with Christmas, where the weight of family and obligation means pain that is almost impossible to bear.
Come to think of it, even Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” before its ending, could fall into that alternative literary tradition.