The Clock at the Biltmore — Jean Stafford: “Children Are Bored on Sunday”

Jean Stafford is a name I’ve heard often but I have never gotten to know her work.  I noticed that later this year NYRB Classics is releasing her 1947 book The Mountain Lion.  Checking out The New Yorker I found that she was a prolific contributor with a couple dozen short stories to her name.  Not having the first clue where to start, I opted for “Children Are Bored on Sunday,” which was published on February 21, 1948.

Click for a larger image.

This story did two things for me: (1) it made me want to get to know Stafford more — it’s an intriguing character portrait; (2) it made me think that neglecting Stafford might be like neglecting Edith Wharton — their style (at least, according to my limited perspective) is very similar and their dissection of New York society very acute.

The main character, Emma, is visiting the Metropolitan Museum on Sunday.  While there she almost panics when she sees an old acquaintance.  Here are the opening lines:

Through the wide doorway between two of the painting galleries, Emma saw Alfred Eisenburg standing before “The Three Miracles of Zenobius,” his lean, equine face ashen and sorrowing, his gaunt frame looking undernourished, and dressed in a way that showed he was poorer this year than he had been last.

There’s no sign of the panic there yet.  It doesn’t come for a while, actually.  We first get some interesting insights into Emma’s relationship with Alfred and, even more importantly, into Emma’s troubled heart:

Emma liked Alfred, and once, at a party some other year, she had flirted with him slightly for seven or eight minutes.  It had been spring, and even into that modern apartment, wherever it had been, while the cunning guests, on their guard and highly civilized, learnedly disputed on aesthetic and political subjects, the feeling of spring had boldly invaded, adding its nameless, sentimental sensations to all the others of the buffeted heart; one did not know and never had, even in devouring raptures of adolescence, whether this was a feeling of tension or of solution — whether one flew or drowned.

Still no sign of panic.  But soon we get this interesting sentence wherein we learn that something has happened to Emma relatively recently:

In another year, she would have been pleased to run into Alfred here in the Metropolitan on a cold Sunday, when the galleries were thronged with out-of-towners and with people who dutifully did something self-educating on the day of rest.

That line “in another year” is almost a repeat from above.  There is something that has made this year unlike any other year.  The encounter with Eisenburg has thrown off Emma’s plan.  This little outing to the Met was part of a bigger plan that resembles some sort of rehabilitation, but that plan has not only been thwarted but its goal is shown to be more distant than Emma hoped.

She paused because she could not decide what to look at now that she had been denied the Botticelli.  She wondered, rather crossly, why Alfred Eisenburg was looking at it and why, indeed, he was here at all.  She feared that her afternoon, begun in such a burst of courage, would not be what it might have been; for this second’s glimpse of him — who had no bearing on her life — might very well divert her from the pictures, not only becuase she was reminded of her ignorance of painting by the presence of someone who was (she assumed) versed in it but because her eyesight was not bound to be impaired by memory and conjecture, by the irrelevant mind-portraits of innumerable people who belonged to Eisenburg’s milieu.

Emma has withdrawn from society — not that it was her society to begin with.  She grew up where they could play hide-and-seek behind lilac bushes and not behind ash cans; these had a head start “because they had grown up in apartments, where there was nothing else to do but educate themselves.” 

This is only a glimpse at this story.  There are a few pages left where Emma looks at the others in the museum, in particular at some of the youths wandering around.  There are some powerful social dynamics going on, but this is played out in the Met and in the context of art and science and religion.  As I said above, the style and the precision reminded me of Edith Wharton.  The tone of the story isn’t lightened by Wharton’s wit and charm, but this particular one didn’t need that.  Certainly it is time to develop a relationship with Stafford.

2 thoughts on “The Clock at the Biltmore — Jean Stafford: “Children Are Bored on Sunday””

  1. Tony S. says:

    I’ve read all of Jean Stafford, two novels and two collections of stories. I’ve been impressed with all her work. She had a somewhat sad life. When she was in her early twenties she was dating Robert Lowell. He got in a car accident, he was drunk, and Stafford’s face was disfigured. They married a couple of years after that, divorced about ten years later. She is a fine writer.

  2. Trevor says:

    Hi Tony. I can’t say that this story made me want to go read all of Stafford, but — it made me think that, if I read more of Stafford, I’d eventually have to read all of her. I’m looking forward to NYRB’s edition of The Mountain Lion.

    When I decided to read Stafford for this post I looked up what Wikipedia had to say about her life — sloppy but effective when looking for a very quick bio — and I was shocked at how tragic it seemed to be. I see there that she pretty much stopped writing at the end toward the end of her relatively short life, as if the will had been stripped from her.

Leave a Reply