“On the Edge of the Cliff” first appeared in the New Yorker in 1978 and was the title story for a collection of nine short stories published in 1979, in the latter part of V. S. Pritchett’s writing career; “On the Edge of the Cliff” explores the tension between two sets of romantic partners with remarkable age differences. The story follows Harry, a widower and retired professor in his 70s, and Rowena, an artist in her 20s, through the early stage of their romantic relationship. However, the story questions Harry’s relationships with women and their attitude toward him—his wife Violet, who committed suicide; Daisy, who nearly broke up his marriage; and now Rowena, his young girlfriend by whom he wants to be loved yet to whom he never quite reveals himself. V. S. Pritchett, sometimes called the English Chekov, does not pass judgment on these characters but rather gives the reader the opportunity to understand these relationships.
Throughout “On the Edge of the Cliff” there is an ease between Harry and Rowena yet also an ever-present awareness of the difference in their ages. Pritchett does not fall into typical readerly expectations of a romantic relationship between younger woman and older man—the relationship is not primarily sexual. Rowena is sensitive to and cautious of bringing attention to Harry’s age. The narrator portrays Rowena as very childlike. She reads Harry’s facial expressions like a child would a parent’s: “she saw by his leaden look that the subject was closed.” She sees Harry without his dentures and responds “with a horror she tried to wipe from her mind.” Harry thinks of the relationship: “There are rules. . . . It has to be played as a game.” He performs certain tones of voice and censors some of his own emotions. As he stands on the cliff, Rowena asks him what he is thinking. His honest reply would be, “these days I think only of death,” though he says to her “You.” Harry thinks she carries an “arrogance” of youth: “Like all girls she wanted to leave her mark on places. . . . Ownership! Power!” However, Harry seeks some form of conquest over her; he thinks to himself, “How marvelous. She is jealous, after all. She loves me.” The difference in their age is magnified during this day, the day of their first sexual encounter. Harry takes Rowena to the fair and then to Withy Hole and the cliffs. Before he jumps into the water, he breaks a “rule” and allows her to see him naked in the daylight— something he never does, as it foregrounds all of the evidence of his old age. That night, Rowena enters his bed for the first time, and she says, “I’ve come to see the Ancient Mariner.”
The story juxtaposes this relationship with that of Daisy Pyke, a middle-aged woman, and Stephen, her younger lover. The couples encounter each other at the fair. Harry and Rowena presume Stephen to be Daisy’s son. A few weeks later, Daisy unexpectedly visits Harry at home one afternoon. The reader learns that she nearly caused Harry’s marriage to end. As Daisy speaks “in her old hard taunting style,” Harry momentarily recalls her allure—past and present. Harry reveals himself to Daisy; the thoughts of death he censors from Rowena, he confides to Daisy: “I only think of death now.”
The contrast between Daisy and Stephen brings into focus the difference between Harry and Rowena. The two never speak of their ages, and it is only at the end of the story that the difference is noted verbally. With surprise, Harry tells Rowena that Stephen is Daisy’s lover. Her response is, “ ‘You can’t mean that.’. . . putting on a very proper air. ‘She’s old enough—’.” At the end of the story, the reader has the sense that Harry and Rowena’s relationship will move into a new phase, further defining Harry as inextricable from his past loves. As Harry wants to tell Rowena, but keeps to himself, “Girls were like flowers with voices and he had spent a lot of his life collecting both. When young girls turned into women they lost his interest: he had always lived for reverie.”
Pritchett, V. S. The Cab at the Door and Midnight Oil. New York: Modern Library, 1994.
———. The Complete Collected Stories. New York: Random House, 1990.
———. The Pritchett Century. Edited by Oliver Pritchett. New York: Modern Library, 1999.
Stinson, John J. V. S. Pritchett: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1992.
Treglown, Jeremy. V. S. Pritchett: A Working Life. New York: Random House, 2004.