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7 July 2021

From the NS Archive: Lawn Tennis

24 June 1934: “He loves me, he doesn't,” her mind repeated mechanically. Savagely she tore the flower petal by petal to pieces.

By Bryan Guinness

In his short story “Lawn Tennis”, Bryan Guinness, 2nd Baron Moyne and heir to the Guinness family brewing fortune, speaks with such pain of someone blighted by unrequited love that it is hard to not draw parallels between the text and his personal life. Married in 1929 to Diana Mitford, of the infamous Mitford sisters, the couple were once considered “truly, madly in love” and leaders of London’s artistic and social scenes. Yet by 1933 Diana had left him and their two sons for Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists. In this piece published in the New Statesman in 1934, Guinness writes of the blinded ignorance of a partner to the pains one will put themselves through, both mentally and physically, in the attempts to earn another’s affection. Following two sisters, Martha and Mary as they separately attempt to seduce the household visitor, the story warns on the destructive nature of desire on the idyllic domestic and the subtle violence that threatens to “shatter its peaceful surface”.

***

“He loves me, he doesn’t,” said the clergyman’s daughter, tearing a flower to pieces.

“Tea’s ready, Martha,” called her mother through the bow window of the rectory, and Martha wandered back over the lawn to where tea cups tinkled with a refreshing sound in the cool obscurity of the drawing room.

“Is there no sign of Walter yet?” asked Martha.

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“No,” replied her mother, “I know he won’t mind our beginning without him. Go and fetch your father, there’s a dear.”

“Mind your feet,” said Martha, kicking her sister Mary’s legs as she passed. “You are an old book-worm.”

“So sorry,” replied Mary, meekly withdrawing her long limbs from her sister’s path.

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“Why should I be the one always to be sent on errands,” thought Martha, as she barged along the corridor. “Just because Mary is older than me she thinks she can lounge about doing nothing all day long, and mother simply panders to her idleness. Whereas I come in all hot and tired, and before I can sit down I have to run about on everybody’s business. Blast! I won’t put up with it any longer. Damn!”

“Tea’s ready, Father,” she called into the study.

“Very well, child,” said the rector. “Have you had a good game?”

“No; Walter hasn’t come yet. We weren’t going to play till after tea,” said Martha.  

“Oh,” said her father, and accompanied her along the corridor.

They all four settled themselves at the tea table.

There was the ring of a bicycle bell upon the drive and Walter arrived. He wore white flannel trousers and a shirt open at the neck. He carried a tennis racquet. Compliments were exchanged. The guest was installed in a chair, to be fed with bread and honey, and refreshed with tea.

“I have been reading Gibbon’s Fifteenth Chapter,” said the rector to Walter, as they walked afterwards under the vociferous elms of the rookery. “It is curious that so wise, so scholarly a brain should have allowed its own power of sarcasm so to mislead it.”

“Yes,” said Walter, with the intelligent interest that was expected of him.

He caught Mary’s eye, and smiled quietly to her.

Martha bustled up with the tennis balls and pushed her away.

“How shall we play?” she asked.

“Run away, child,” replied her father, “and let us poor men have a minute to talk in peace, undisturbed by your feminine chatter.”

“You are an old nuisance,” said Martha, prodding her father playfully in the ribs with the handle of her racquet, but obedient none the less to his request.  

Mary seemed very naturally from its terms to consider that it applied to her also, and departed with her sister to adjust the net of the lawn tennis court. But as she left she returned Walter’s quiet smile.

“I intend,” continued the rector, “to preach a sermon on the vanity of human reason. How excellent an example is Gibbon. Starting, I verily believe, with the best of intentions, honestly to trace the glorious growth of the Christian creed through the declining years of secular Rome, he allowed his ingenuity so to confound him, that he ended by casting a doubt upon the very faith which he had set out to extol.”

“It will be most interesting, I’m sure,” said Walter, politely. “Do let me know when you intend to deliver it.”

Martha stood by while her sister Mary wound and measured and wound the net. She told herself that she was not like the Martha in the Bible, that she did not enjoy working, that she was a contemplative character, and that her sister Mary should have been called Martha instead.

“Now, James,” called the rector’s wife from the tennis court, “you mustn’t monopolise our guest.”

And so Walter escaped from between the Scylla of argument and the Charybdis of silence.

The rector walked away disappointed to his study. He felt that Walter held unorthodox views on religion; his sermon was addressed in his imagination to the misguided youth of the country. His arguments were overwhelming, but before finally launching their fury upon the docile heads of his little country congregation he would have liked to try their effect upon a more critical audience.

“How shall we play?” asked the rector’s wife.

Walter was rolling up his sleeves. He welcomed the golden warmth of the sun upon his arms.

“I’m the worst,” said Martha, who knew, however, that she was a better player than her sister Mary, but who hoped that her modesty might gain her the support of Walter as her partner.

Mary went meekly to measure the height of the net. It was quite unnecessary to do this again, but she disdained to enter into competition with her sister by stating her genuine claim io the assistance of the most powerful elbow. She stood her racquet upright upon the ground, and was marking its height with her finger, before placing it sideways across the top, when Walter, perceiving her difficulty, went to her assistance.

As he put his racquet sideways across the top of hers their heads came into gentle proximity. Martha sent a tennis ball whizzing into the net at her sister’s side. “Let’s have a knock-up,” she said.

They began to play. When Walter handed a tennis ball to his partner, Martha, during her service, he noticed with displeasure that her hand was hot and sticky.

The set was soon over. Mary served a number of double faults. Her mother played a judicious underhand game, but her skill was not enough to counter-balance the marked inferiority of her partner to both of her opponents.

They changed partners. Mary was like a tall, white lily, bowing beside him in the wind of the game, thought Walter. The twang of her racquet was like the music of lute strings. How gracefully she curved over the ball; how delicately she directed its course into the net.

Martha was delighted at the success of herself and her mother. She felt that Walter could not fail to appreciate her skill. She could see him now and then glance in her direction. Was his eye merely following the flight of the ball, she wondered? Or did it dwell upon her with admiration? She was putting her whole heart into the game.

Walter did not notice the defeat of himself and Mary. He was longing to walk with her among the roses in the cool of the evening. He was delighted when the set came to an end.

He began to collect the tennis balls, as a hint that they should play no more. The rector’s wife agreed that they had played enough. Martha ran to Walter’s side and walked round the court through the long grass with him, helping him to search.

Mary sat on a bank in the dappled shade, idly catching the speckles of sunlight in the palm of her hand.

Martha was happy. Here was Walter at her side. One, two, three; with a quiet contentment she counted the balls. She began putting them into the cardboard box in a neat row. There was one more ball, she remembered, over the hedge. It would be pleasant to wander round with Walter to look for it. “There’s still the one over the hedge,” she said. “Do come and help me find it.”

Walter was not listening. He was walking towards Mary. He was watching the golden sequins of the sun run through her slender fingers. “Do come,” called Martha over her shoulder. But Walter’s back was turned.

Martha did not like to turn and abandon her quest. So she hastened her steps in order to bring it soon to an end. But the gap in the hedge was some distance beyond the end of the court. When she was through it she ran to where she expected to find the ball, and beat about with her racquet among the strawberry plants. Then she searched among the intricacies of the blackcurrant bushes and their protecting nets. She caught a button in one of these, and made such frenzied efforts to extricate herself that she entangled another. When she was free she stood still for a moment, frantic with rage, but determined to control herself. She decided to give up the search, and made for the gap. She would call for Walter’s help, and turn her misfortune to account. She changed her mind, however. She would feel humiliated at her failure. If he came to her help it should be of his own accord. He must soon notice her absence. She turned back. Surely he must be coming. But where could the ball be? She tried to search methodically. She could not make up her mind, though, whether it would not be better for her not to find it till Walter had arrived. Yet she continued to search up and down and to and fro. Would he never come?

There it was, there it had been all the time, she told herself, right underneath the little box hedge. She picked it up and ran frantically back to the tennis court.

They were gone.

When Walter reached Mary he asked her to come for a walk. She consented and rose timidly to her feet.

“We are just going for a little walk,” they called to the rector’s wife, who was putting on her coat.

 And so they set off between the garish hollyhocks and the serene lupins. They came to the roses and inhaled their fragrance in silence.

“Let me pick you one,” said Walter. He chose a large, white bloom. The stem was smooth and cool to his fingers. Dexterously avoiding the cruelty of the thorns, he snapped it asunder.

“Thank you,” said Mary, and raised it to her lips. “It’s delicious.”

“May I try it,” said Walter, and buried his mouth passionately among the petals her lips had touched. He handed it back, and they glanced shyly for a moment at one another.

They walked on and sat down in a little nook by a pond, where the water lilies grew in exotic profusion. A dragon fly hovered in savage splendour before them. The sun glinted on the water.

They sat perfectly silent, each scarcely daring to breathe, each relieved as the seconds passed that the other did nothing to break the spell.

When Martha found the tennis court deserted she ran back to the house.

“Where’s Walter?” she asked, breathlessly.

“Oh, he’s gone round the garden with Mary,” said the rector’s wife.

Martha rushed after them. Upon the gravel path she stumbled in her haste, and fell, tearing her stocking, and grazing her knees and the palms of her hands.

She lay still for a minute, inclined to kick the earth in her resentment at the intractable behaviour of the universe. She rose to her feet full of a controlled fury. She would be even with her sister yet.

Walter and Mary were sitting silently by the pond. She stalked aggressively up to them.

“Oh, I see, there’s a petting party going on,” she said, and turning upon her heel, stalked deliberately away.

A stone kicked by her feet fell ominously into the pool, and shattered its peaceful surface. Martha staggered back along the path. As she went she picked a flower. “He loves me, he doesn’t,” her mind repeated mechanically. Savagely she tore the flower petal by petal to pieces.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson