When Sylvia Townsend Warner died in 1978, she left behind a number of uncollected stories and a few not previously published. Thirteen of these uncollected pieces and seven previously unpublished ones have been assembled by Susanna Pinney for inclusion in this, perhaps the last, volume of Warner’s short fiction. Lovers of the genre and admirers of Warner will hope that there are still more awaiting publication, but if this is indeed her final book, it is certainly a fitting and worthy close to a long and distinguished career.
In an age jaded by sensationalism and overwhelmed by crises, Warner’s brand of gentle, charming fiction may seem an anachronism at best, an irrelevance at worst. The stories in this volume seldom look at the world portrayed by the nightly news but focus on one that seems quaint, curious, remote. Of the twenty stories, only two deal with “significant” issues, and these are set during and immediately after World War II, a period now remote enough to seem nostalgic. The remainder deal with lonely spinsters, the Elfin world, and English village life. Three of these concern an eccentric family, the Finches; four are set in the arcane world of antique dealers and their customers. It seems damning with faint praise to say that much of the appeal of this volume lies in its humor, gentleness, and charm—in its insistence on the importance of the individual and its sensitivity to the plight of the lonely. If that is the case, so be it; there are still those, one hopes, for whom these qualities are virtues.
Warner’s brand of wry humor and her understanding of people are revealed in the series of four stories centering on a village antique shop owned by the fastidious Mr. Edom and his discreet assistant, Mr. Collins. This is a trade actually practiced at one time by Warner, when her lifelong companion, Valentine Ackland, began dealing in Victorian bric-a-brac and silver. Warner’s insider’s knowledge gives the stories their authentic ring, but it is her insights into human nature and village society that make the stories worth reading. “A Saint (Unknown) with Two Donors” pokes gentle fun at the pretensions of the trade and the foibles of the pious. “A Pair of Duelling Pistols” turns on the observation that people can be induced to pay high prices for anything (including a pair of superfluous kittens) if the seller knows his wares and appeals to snobbery. Curing Mrs. Otter’s alcoholism in “The Three Cats” is made to seem almost tragic, for in place of the charming, vivacious, alluring, and brandy-nipping lady—“one of those women who are sent into the world to turn the heads of ageing men”—Mr. Edom and her other admirers are returned a woman of plain respectability and coarse voice. Psychiatry has gained a cure, but the world has lost a person. “Sopwith Hall” seems at first glance a casual, wandering tale with a Maupassant-like twist at the end. Reflection, however, reveals that Warner has deftly exposed the heartlessness of good taste, the limitations of the aesthetic, by focusing the conflicts of a marriage on the purchase of a Victorian china dessert set. Her skill in construction here is masterly.
One of Warner’s great appeals is her finely tuned sense of tragicomedy. Many of the stories in this collection tread the fine line between wry comedy and wistful tragedy. The title story, for example, presents an overworked and underappreciated housekeeper employed by two Catholic priests. One day, accidentally, she throws a handful of snuff into what is supposed to be lamb curry and is dismayed to find that neither priest notices. Realizing that “to be relied upon is not the same thing as being attended to,” she launches a series of culinary sabotages, each as ignored as the first. She resorts to wearing her hair down to attract attention but is simply given a lecture. Finally, she resigns, marries the only man who has paid her any attention, and establishes a successful shop. The housekeeper’s eccentricities and the priests’ obtuseness are in one sense comic, but the lack of male communication and caring is sad. This is the kind of ambivalence that Warner consistently evokes with great skill. “Some Effects of a Hat” is not quite as successful as “One Thing Leading to Another” because it hastens too rapidly to its conclusion, but the inclusion of one of Warner’s letters, outlining the incidents on which the story is based, provides a case study in the transmutation of fact into fiction. “The Sea Is Always the Same” finds its tragicomedy in a triangular relationship involving a young married couple and the aged Miss Belforest, whom they drive to a seaside resort so that she can revisit scenes of her childhood. Warner’s depiction of the hypocrisies and deceptions which they practice on one another during this one afternoon movingly captures the difficulties people experience in being honest with one another while simultaneously suggesting the...
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