Alan Bennett’s The Clothes They Stood Up In is a 1996 short story that details the robbery of Mr and Mrs Ransome as they are out one evening at the opera. Bennett’s story is compelling with its dry humour and constant comic misdirection and seemingly banal main characters.
The opening is a great example of Bennett’s ability to show, but not tell. We are introduced to the stringent and straight-laced Mr Ransome and his wife, Mrs Ransome. Although we are not told anything particularly revealing about either character in the opening scene, Bennett’s third-person omniscient narrator shows us a lot about both characters, and their relationship. Bennett is a master of subtext and while the main plot follows the robbery and the reasons behind it, right from the beginning the issues underlying the drama are brought to the fore in a clever and subtle way.
One example of the subtexts within the story is Bennett’s skilful explorations of issues surrounding race and gender within the narrative. Despite never being overtly acknowledged, Mr Ransome’s racist and misogynistic tendencies are mentioned throughout, along with Mrs Ransome’s attempts to liberalise herself out of thinking that way. Due to this, Mrs Ransome becomes a much more attractive character as the narrative progresses, providing an explicit contrast to her husband who remains unchanged all the way through.
Even though I liked the majority of the story, I was not overly fond of the main twist and the consequences of it. I was somehow simultaneously expecting, and shocked by, the twist when it arrived. I did not have a problem with the events of that bit, but some of the subsequent action put me a little out of my comfort zone. For example, the sex tape that the Ransome’s find. The description of it is absurd and obscene and I am still not quite sure how to feel about that passage. I understood the point of it being in there and the description in itself did not make me uncomfortable but I still was not entirely happy that the passage was in there. It was an odd feeling. Similarly, I did not like Mr Ransome as a character at all (I do not believe you are supposed to, but I would still consider it normal for a middle-aged man to have a stash of ‘private materials’, for want of a better phrase. Yet, when he continually listens to the tape and the reader is told about the photos he keeps hidden, I felt incredibly uncomfortable and almost violated. I still do not know why.
The tape itself is actually a very clever device that symbolises many different things. But most importantly, I liked the way in which it showed just how distant Mr and Mrs Ransome are from each other. They both react in entirely different ways to the tape, and which never have a chance of reconciliation. The ending is a bittersweet mix of sadness and hope. It is incredibly well-constructed to manipulate the reader to feel a certain way about the events of the story.
This was a tale that I enjoyed reading immensely. I often find Bennett’s work to be extremely hit and miss, with some works being very good and others being rather mediocre. But he is an amazingly eclectic writer with a lot of talent. I can appreciate his skill, even if I do not always enjoy his works myself. I am pleased to say that I consider this story one of the better ones, and I would certainly recommend it as a spot of light reading to anyone who has a few minutes to spare.