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In The Pool in the Desert, first published in 1903, Sara Jeannette Duncan explores the impact of isolation on the small British communities of Victorian India. In the four stories collected here—“The Pool in the Desert,” “A Mother in India,” “An Impossible Ideal,” and “The Hesitation of Miss Anderson”—Duncan’s women have certain freedoms living amidst the reaches of Empire, but they also must negotiate their way through a landscape dominated by the constraints of small military societies. The stories that result combine a delicacy of manners and movement that recalls Henry James, with a wit and sharp eye for small town foibles that bring Stephen Leacock to mind.
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I knew Anna Chichele and Judy Harbottle so well, and they figured so vividly at one time against the rather empty landscape of life in a frontier station, that my affection for one of them used to seem little more, or less, than a variant upon my affection for the other. That recollection, however, bears examination badly; Judy was much the better sort, and it is Judy’s part in it that draws me into telling the story. Conveying Judy is what I tremble at: her part was simple. Looking back — and not so very far — her part has the relief of high comedy with the proximity of tears; but looking closely, I find that it is mostly Judy, and what she did is entirely second, in my untarnished picture, to what she was. Still I do not think I can dissuade myself from putting it down.
They would, of course, inevitably have found each other sooner or later, Mrs. Harbottle and Mrs. Chichele, but it was I who actually introduced them; my palmy veranda in Rawul Pindi; where the teacups used to assemble, was the scene of it. I presided behind my samovar over the early formalities that were almost at once to drop from their friendship, like the sheath of some bursting flower. I deliberately brought them together, so the birth was not accidental, and my interest in it quite legitimately maternal. We always had tea in the veranda in Rawul Pindi, the drawing-room was painted blue, blue for thirty feet up to the whitewashed cotton ceiling; nothing of any value in the way of a human relation, I am sure, could have originated there. The veranda was spacious and open, their mutual observation had room and freedom; I watched it to and fro. I had not long to wait for my reward; the beautiful candour I expected between them was not ten minutes in coming. For the sake of it I had taken some trouble, but when I perceived it revealing I went and sat down beside Judy’s husband, Robert Harbottle, and talked about Pharaoh’s split hoof. It was only fair; and when next day I got their impressions of one another, I felt single-minded and deserving.
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