Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

One of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s recurring themes is the incalculable nature of human personality. Lucy Ridpath symbolizes the “nova,” the aborted or inchoate possibilities in everyone. More a possessed psyche than an eccentric, Lucy stands as a pathetic but sharp indictment of the selfish insensitivity of men, a critique of hypocritical society dominated by prudence and calculating pettiness, where money dictates the terms of freedom and happiness.

When Lucy’s ego is taken over by the spirit of the dead Aurelia Lefanu (the name evokes the mysterious and supernatural tales of the nineteenth century Irish writer Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu), an alternative life opens up for her. Losing her memory, she assumes a persona that functions as an empty signifier whose meaning can be filled by anyone. Thus she symbolizes spirituality to Fogg, an art object to the man she calls “Ithamore,” and a surrogate sweetheart to Mr. Bastable. Oblivious of any class constraints, she delights in “a total lack of obligation,” which she associates with the compline ritual.

Lucy definitively becomes Aurelia when she is able to project her old self onto the cat that she rescues, nurses, and adopts as Lucy. The theory underlying this is that identity can be fixed only with reference to another. However, Aurelia herself is a fluid sign. The fair or carnival where Lucy finds the cat, lost and abandoned, signifies fantasy, games, free play. All of her repressed...

(The entire section is 556 words.)