THE RICH MRS. ROBINSON by Winifred Beechey


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The ""rich Mrs. Robinson"" never was rich: she was author Beechey's ever-optimistic, ever-generous mother--and she's the star of this quiet, charming little childhood memoir. Beechey (a first-time author at 73) grew up in the years just after World War I--when her father returned from Army service to find himself perennially unemployed. The family lived for a while in a decayed cottage, in ""concealed"" poverty. But it was a life rich in texture: stories, songs, blackberry-picking; mysterious aunts; evening prayers (""no formality to my sister and me, but a very real and necessary preparation for the hours of darkness""); and, from Mother, not just piano lessons but a reassuring framework--""suggested by words and expressions. . . such as methodical, will-power, ladylike, and firm."" Then, after those ""waiting years"" during which Mother downplayed all hardship, came an actual glimmer of the ""rich Mrs. Robinson"" fantasy. Father found a small, cheaply rented, ""derelict"" shop; the family labored to refurbish it; Mother summoned up all her talents, for design, sewing, fashion. And a viable shop was born, starting out with just a few gathered-together items. (""But it's better than having it overcrowded,"" said Mother of the shop-window. ""Some of the very best shops have just one thing--flung."") There were ups: the phenomenal word-of-mouth benefits of a customer who was thrilled with her corset. There were downs: Mother's susceptibility to the sob-stories of traveling salesmen--resulting in the acquisition of unsellable stock, e.g., a huge quantity of veils. (""Sometimes my sister and I. . . would go and stand beside her when Travellers came, trying by baleful glances to crush them . . . ."") Bankruptcy was fended off, just barely; Father (a dour pennypincher) actually bought a car. But this heady moment is balanced by a 1965 epilogue--with aged Father and Mother living on ""dwindling capital,"" in daily triumphs of frugality. Delicate and mild, but elegant and touching too--with real sparkle in the tales of making-a-shop-from-scratch.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1984
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press