Warner, Sylvia Townsend (Short Story Criticism)
Warner, Sylvia Townsend 1893-1978
English novelist, short story writer, poet, translator, editor, and biographer.
Warner's stories present variations on a number of overlapping themes revolving around the attempt to understand human nature in all its complexity. Her fiction variously addresses the relationship between art and life, the contrast between appearance and reality, and the sordidness, follies, and extraordinary moments of everyday life. While often thematically linked, Warner's stories range from lengthy, full narratives to sketch-like treatments in which considerations of plot have been replaced by a concern for conveying the intensity and ambiguousness that typify many human experiences.
Warner was born to a schoolmaster and his wife in Harrow borough, Middlesex county, and educated at home. Her study of music was interrupted by the outbreak of World War I, at which time she helped raise money for the Red Cross and assisted in the settling of Belgian refugees in Harrow. In 1915 Warner went to work in a munitions factory. A few years later she moved to London, where she pursued a career as a musicologist, serving on the editorial committee for Tudor Church Music, a ten-volume project. Appearing in 1925, her first collection of poetry was followed by best-selling novels in the next two years. From 1927 on Warner supported herself by her writing. Her first short story, "The Maze," was published in 1928 and two more were included in the same volume as her third novel, The True Heart. Warner's books were even more popular in America than in England. She was treated like a celebrity during a visit to New York in 1929 and formed friendships with prominent women in American literary circles, including Dorothy Parker, Elinor Wylie, Anne Parrish, and Jean Untermeyer. In the mid-1930s Warner joined the Communist party and began to write for the Left Review. Supporting the Republican side in the Spanish civil war, she led appeals for the Committee for Spanish Medical Aid, visited Spain for the committee, and participated in rallies and demonstrations. During her literary career, Warner compiled ten collections of short stories, many of which originally appeared in The New Yorker, and one more volume was published posthumously. Warner died in 1978.
Major Works of Short Fiction
The stories of The Salutation are essentially plotless evocations of character and place. Warner's characters, commonly from the working class, are either failures or unhappy individuals. She depicts their flaws without judgment and avoids sentimentality. Written in a vein similar to that of The Salutation, More Joy in Heaven, and Other Stories satirizes the upper class and organized religion, while offering more portraits of people lost in the shuffle of society, such as the elderly and poor. Evincing Warner's political sympathies and commitment, A Garland of Straw, and Other Stories shows the hideousness of war, the smugness of bourgeois and chauvinistic individuals, the innocence of the young and uninformed, and the anti-Semitism of the Fascists. Here Warner also protests England's noninterventionist policy regarding the Spanish civil war and its failure to respond to the threat of Nazism. Similarly, in The Museum of Cheats she portrays the effects of war on the people of England, but also emphasizes the betrayals to which women are particularly vulnerable, living in fear of the men in their lives. The stories of Winter in the Air, and Other Stories are character studies featuring, for example, a soldier returned from the war, a mother tending to children left fatherless by the war, and a woman who moves to London seeking anonymity in the wake of abandonment by her husband. Demonstrating Warner's knack for the absurd and whimsical, "But at the Stroke of Midnight" from The Innocent and the Guilty tells of a man who is so insensitive and oblivious that he realizes that his wife is gone only because dinner has not been set out. It never crosses his mind that his wife, who has assumed a new identity, intends never to return to him. His wife is eventually forced back to her old life, but only long enough for her and her husband to be carried off in a flood. Toward the end of her career, Warner wrote tales set in Elfland—a world of fairies, elves, werewolves, and other fantastical creatures—using this imaginary realm to comment indirectly on human behavior and society.
Though Warner's short stories have generally been well received by readers, they have not attracted the longer, in-depth analyses that her novels have garnered. Commentators have observed that Warner successfully ennobles lowly protagonists rather than pitying or idealizing them. Similarly, critics note that Warner expressed compassion for unfortunate characters without becoming maudlin. In contrast, some of her stories with political content are perceived to be heavy-handed, and reviewers have objected to Warner's single-minded emphasis on social consequences at the expense of commentary about the morality of behavior such as adultery or prostitution. Nevertheless, feminist critics have generally been drawn to the satirical and political content of her work. Reviewing The Museum of Cheats, but summing up the sentiments of many readers, a commentator in The Times Literary Supplement stated: "Miss Warner is highly skilled as a writer in this medium [the short story], equally graceful and expert in handling farce or tragedy, the sordid or the purely funny. Her wit is delicate and precise, and her observation acute, so that a few lines are sufficient to create a character, whether it be an odious child, an obstinate lover, or a dreadful old woman who was popularly supposed to have eaten her husband. There is nothing portentous or bludgeoning about the style; and .. . the author is at her best when she is most absurd or fantastic."
*A Moral Ending, and Other Stories 1931
More Joy in Heaven, and Other Stories 1935
The Cat's Cradle Book 1940
†A Garland of Straw, and Other Stories 1943
The Museum of Cheats 1947
Winter in the Air, and Other Stories 1955
A Spirit Rises 1962
‡A Stranger with a Bag, and Other Stories 1966
The Innocent and the Guilty: Stories 1971
The Kingdoms of Elfin 1977
One Thing Leading to Another, and Other Stories 1984
*Enlarged as The Salutation (1932).
‡Republished as A Garland of Straw: Twenty-Eight Stories (1943).
‡Republished as Swans on an Autumn River (1966).
Other Major Works
The Espalier (poetry) 1925
Lolly Willowes; or, The Loving Huntsman (novel) 1926
Mr. Fortune's Maggot (novel) 1927
Time Importuned (poetry) 1928
The True Heart (novel) 1929
Opus 7 (poetry) 1931
Summer Will Show (novel) 1936
After the Death of Don Juan (novel) 1938
(The entire section is 181 words.)
SOURCE: "Catabasis," in The New York Times Book Review, October 20, 1940, p. 24.
[In the following review, Southron claims that in The Cat's Cradle Warner is "at her most beguiling best. " ]
"Our unhappiness transcended our egoism, and by degrees by a complicated process of advances and withdrawals, exchange of looks, fusion of silences, we fell deeply in love with each other. After that she lived with me . . . and now my whole life was transfigured, full of entertainment and delight. . . . Naturally, there was a good deal of talk about it—embassies always gossip." Which tells the story.
To begin with, you could hardly fail, even were no name attached, to recognize the writer. And, to proceed, the love affair was on the plane where the infrequent literary-human Alices meet in gentle, far too rare felicity; one party to the blissful, amorous interlude being a young embassy attaché, and the other—you have guessed it!—a cat. A Siamese, but no ordinary Siamese. "Beautiful, sensitive, unappreciated .. . an exquisite storyteller, in the purest, most classical tradition of narrative." His Schéhérazade, the attaché called her.
It was Haru who made it mockingly clear that the folk tales that have been told, with variations, all over the globe from time immemorial need no ethnological explanation; having been murmured to children in their cradles, in the one...
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SOURCE: A review of A Garland of Straw, in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 2165, July 31, 1943, p. 365.
[The critic offers a mixed assessment of the stories in A Garland of Straw.]
There have been several unusually interesting volumes of short stories in recent months. In most of them the stories represented the output of a longer period of time than that following the outbreak of war, so the war itself, while it has for obvious practical reasons given a fillip to the short-story form (and to verse) as a relatively unleisured means of expression, cannot alone account for the frequency of such volumes of late. But the fact is that, in this matter of types and casts of literature as of so much else, war-time conditions have only intensified the state of things before the war. For practising or potential writers of fiction of all sorts, one must assume, prolonged imaginative concentration has for some time seemed altogether too arduous, demanding greater sacrifices than they could or would make; the sense of catastrophe, after all, was too pressing. So the short story, just because it was short, offered opportunities that the novel put out of reach.
That, no doubt, is a mechanistic explanation which leaves more to be said. (It is not only the short space of time in which a poem can be composed, for instance, that accounts for the flowering of verse in war-time.) But it should not...
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SOURCE: A review of A Garland of Straw, in The Nation, New York, Vol. 157, No. 15, October 9, 1943, pp. 414-15.
[In the following excerpt, Trilling claims Warner is "an accomplished practitioner of her craft," but finds fault with artistic practices of the generation of writers to which Warner belongs.]
In writing last week about Eudora Welty's latest volume of short stories I said that somewhere between Chekhov and Katherine Mansfield the short story had got off its trolley, and I suggested that it was Miss Mansfield who was in large part responsible for the exaggerated subjectivity which has so variously corrupted modern short fiction. The line of descent from Miss Mansfield to Miss Welty may not always be easy to trace: the family resemblance is more a matter of the carriage of the head than of feature for feature. But in a writer like Sylvia Townsend Warner the connection can be seen more readily. Miss Warner is less talented perhaps, and less ambitious, than Miss Welty, but she is an accomplished practitioner of her craft and more typical of her literary generation. Twenty-eight of her stories, many of them familiar from having appeared in the New Yorker, have been gathered in A Garland of Straw. They are an interesting sampling of the thin brew of sensibility which has been so largely our nourishment in English and American short fiction since Miss Mansfield separated the flesh...
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SOURCE: "Stories to Be Long Remembered: Sylvia Townsend Warner, a Deceptively Blithe Spirit," in New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review, March 23, 1947, p. 4.
[In the following review, Hilton praises The Museum of Cheats, adding that, to fully enjoy the stories, "one must listen as well as read. " ]
Sylvia Townsend Warner, still best known as the author of Lolly Willowes and Mr. Fortune's Maggot, has collected a score or so of stories into a volume called, after prevalent fashion, from one of them, The Museum of Cheats. The title is also of a fashion: it puzzles rather than explains, incites more than invites, and in a literary world wary of face-value, it fools best by not fooling at all. Thus, in the name-story, the Museum is a real Museum and the Cheats are real Cheats. But being told that, you are no nearer to guessing what the story is about: indeed, there are readers who might still feel a need to guess when they had finished, They might conclude, after a re-reading, that it is just a story about a Museum of Cheats.
More successful, to my mind, are some of the other stories. There is one called "The House with the Lilacs" which, on the surface is a simple anecdote about a family who continually wish they had bought, when house hunting, a different house, but they hunted so much that they cannot recall where the lost paragon was though the most exact...
(The entire section is 650 words.)
SOURCE: "Tidbits in Acid," in The New York Times, Section 7, March 23, 1947, p. 16.
[In the review below, Holsaert gives a favorable assessment of the stories in The Museum of Cheats, saying that Warner's "skilled guidance" allows ordinary characters to be "unexpectedly entertaining. "]
Miss Warner is one of that handful of English and American women writers who manage to be by turns compassionate and scathing without their syntax becoming ruffled or their taste affected by the moral climate of which they write. Less vibrant and evocative than Elizabeth Bïwen, and not such a reformer at heart as Elizabeth Parsons, the touchstone of Miss Warner's gifts seems to be her level acceptance of people as they are.
It would be difficult, indeed, to choose the best from this collection of twenty-two short stories[The Museum of Cheats]. Perhaps the title entry, which is also the longest in the book, represents her antic fantasy, shrewd commentary and silken satire at its most rounded. At any rate, the two-and-a-half centuries that she encompasses in the forty pages of "Museum of Cheats" certainly are populated by a great many of those unostentatious eccentrics, defiant clerks and strong-willed women who under this author' s skilled guidance prove to be unexpectedly entertaining.
Another mood, "Boors Carousing," is an incisive study of a self-serving author...
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SOURCE: A review of Winter in the Air, and Other Stories, in The Spectator, Vol. 195, No. 6652, December 23, 1955, p. 877.
[In the following excerpt, Jennings finds that the stories in Winter in the Air reflect Warner's perceptivity about people and her strong sense of place.]
Winter in the Air, by Sylvia Townsend Warner, is a very impressive book indeed. Every story shows sensitiveness in the good sense—that is, awareness of all the possibilities of a character or a situation, swiftness in reaching the honest conclusion. Miss Townsend Warner is, above all, interested in what people feel when they find themselves in certain situations—a woman returning to the place where she has been happily in love ("Hee-Haw!"); a boy almost, but not quite, embarking on his first love affair ("Evan"); a miserable, egotistical woman living in reduced circumstances ("Under New Management"); a writer discovering that a young man who has died was writing in the same manner as, but better than, himself ("Absalom, My Son"); a woman reconciling herself to an incompatible marriage ("A Kitchen Knife"). Perhaps the finest story in the book, however, is "The Children's Grandmother." This is an extraordinarily moving account of how a grandmother, who has lost all but one of her own children in early childhood, feels towards her grandchildren. 'What she felt for them I could not determine. Unless...
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SOURCE: "Brief, Poetic, Probing Stories," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review, February 26, 1956, p. 1.
[In the following review, Hay praises Winter in the Air, and Other Stories, calling it "rewarding and stimulating."]
Charlton Mackrell, impaled on the shaft of Sylvia Townsend Warner's fine irony, was a gentleman who, "in seeing both sides of a question, giving the Devil his due, stating the other man's case, allowing that to err is human, and never committing himself to any opinion till he had made quite sure there were no signs of error or prejudice about it . . . had attained eminence both as a judge of Shorthorn cattle and as a literary critic." This pleasant baiting brings to mind an apposite statement made by a certain writer a few weeks ago, who remarked that he believed the most valuable criticism to be highly opinionated, personal, emotional and biased. Somewhere between these nice exaggerations, the reviewer attempts to maintain a delicate balance: the short stories in Miss Warner's latest book, Winter in the Air, are, quite objectively, impeccable in craftsmanship and thoroughly enjoyable reading.
Since her first novel, Lolly Willowes (which, if I remember correctly, was the initial selection of the new-born Book of the Month Club back in 1926), Sylvia Townsend Warner has produced some fourteen volumes of prose and poetry. Her prose has much of...
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SOURCE: "Humor and Irony," in Commonweal, Vol. LXIV, No. 1, April 6, 1956, pp. 33-4.
[In the following review, Rainer acknowledges Warner's technical skills but finds Winter in the Air, and Other Stories lacking in imagination.]
A great deal has happened to both literary taste and to Miss Warner's talent since 1926 when her Lolly Willowes was the first Book-of-the-Month Club selection. Not only have standards for the minor novelist fallen into a grave decline, and Gresham's Law seen them give way to the sentimentality of Rumer Godden or the pretentious trash of Wouk, but the exciting experimentation or relative daring of writers has, with little exception, been self-expurgated during the last couple of decades, so that their current work or the work of their successors seems archaic and stratified. It has not been a glorious road from Lolly Willowes to Winter in the Air.
Certainly by her earlier standards this collection of short stories, most of them reprinted from the New Yorker, indicates a decided thinning of a very substantial gift; however, by comparison with much of what passes for the art of fiction, it is work of a very high order indeed. Miss Warner seldom fails to illuminate an aspect of experience, but she equally seldom succeeds in exalting us by the uniqueness of her vision or the grandeur of her attempt.
(The entire section is 507 words.)
SOURCE: "News from Mojave," in The Hudson Review, Vol. IX, No. 3, Autumn, 1956, pp. 479-80.
[In the following excerpt from a review of Winter in the Air, Arrowsmith describes Warner as being "an almost flawless writer" within a narrow range of fiction. ]
Within severe limits, Miss Sylvia Townsend Warner is an almost flawless writer, and Winter in the Air is an astonishingly sustained collection of a score of short stories. It is rare to find delicacy so untroubled by the fear of preciousness, and fastidiousness so capable of emotional, rather than verbal or atmospheric, precision. She is incapable of real power and these stories are innocent of ideas, but all worked up out of a scrupulous literacy and a fine eye, invariably particular and minor, but with the right power of the minor that flows from a good imagination, poised for the particular. She likes the lambent touch, an eloping girl in a vulgar bakery who speaks to a cat as though to a bridesmaid, the dying matriarch with the pride of dead children, the flickering of sexual antennae between an old tart and a schoolboy. And the language is exactly equal to the attempt: close, controlled, ripe with precision more than passion, deceptively discursive before falling to its true resolution, an effortless surprised Tightness. The emotions she invokes are peripheral, but she gets her power by hinting of their real relation to the remembered...
(The entire section is 330 words.)
SOURCE: "Stories with Mood and a Sense of Place," in Chicago Sunday Tribune Magazine of Books, March 18, 1962, p. 5.
[In the following review of A Spirit Rises, Faverty appreciates Warner's ability to create an atmosphere in which the elements of her story seem believable. ]
In the title story of this collection [A Spirit Rises] a little girl is held enchanted as her father reads poetry to her on a rainy afternoon. Readers will be similarly held by some of these 14 stories, for Sylvia Warner is a practiced craftsman.
She is skilled first of all in evoking an atmosphere. The cadenced language of the title story fits the mood of reverie and nostalgia as an old lady is swept back into her childhood and feels herself secure again in her father's arms.
Along with mood goes a pronounced sense of place, so that some of the tales almost become local color stories. And the place is usually the industrial midlands of England, where one dismal town shades off into another, until the last loses itself in the moors.
Yet to these bleak streets and that harsh air the natives cannot wait to return, tho they be in Paris or on the Italian Riviera. Miss Warner achieves her realistic effects not by an inventory, as some novelists like Balzac do, but by selection of significant details.
The range of the author's interests also is...
(The entire section is 448 words.)
SOURCE: "The Indecisive Denouement," in The Saturday Review, (New York), Vol. 45, No. 16, April 21, 1962, p. 30.
[In the following review, Burnett pronounces Warner's style in the stories of A Spirit Rises lucid and graceful. ]
Since it is the sharpest and briefest form in dramatic literature, and since there is room in the short story for humor or pathos, realism or symbolism, it has, as shown by Sylvia Townsend Warner in A Spirit Rises, something for everyone.
Take the story "Barnby Robinson," where the wrongdoer in a triangle becomes the victim in an unforeseen way. At the beginning the situation is conventional enough: a playwright is leaving home for another woman, an actress, and a sad little scene takes place between him and the patient wife he forsakes. "On both their parts it was an expedient not to look at each other," we are told, and here, as always, Miss Warner shows us both her hands; no tricks up her sleeves. Yet as the story progresses we become increasingly disturbed by the very qualities we have admired in the wife, until these lead her, finally, to act as a monstrous hand of justice. After that the "other woman" has her revenge; and no doubt if the story were to be continued another paragraph the tables would be turned again, quite as effectively.
In "In a Shaken House" we see a familiar Katherine Mansfield-type character, Miss Turner,...
(The entire section is 603 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Swans on an Autumn River, in The Critic as Artist: Essays on Books 1920-1970, edited by Gilbert A. Harrison, Liveright Publishing, 1972, pp. 333-39.
[In the following review, which was originally published in The New Republic in 1966, Updike comments on the "genius" of Warner's writing. ]
The stories of Sylvia Townsend Warner stick up from The New Yorker's fluent fiction-stream with a certain stony air of mastery. They are granular and adamant and irregular in shape. The prose has a much-worked yet abrasive texture of minute juxtaposition and compounded accuracies. Candles are lit in an antique shop, and "The polished surfaces reflected the little flames with an intensification of their various colors—amber in satinwood, audit ale in mahogany, dragon's blood in tortoise shell." Two old ladies reminisce: "They talked untiringly about their girlhood—about the winters when they went skating, the summers when they went boating, the period when they were so very pious, the period when they were pious no longer and sent a valentine to the curate: the curate blushed, a crack rang out like a pistol shot and Hector Gillespie went through the ice, the fox terriers fought under old Mrs. Bulliver's chair, the laundry ruined the blue voile, the dentist cut his throat in Century Wood, Claude Hopkins came back from Cambridge with a motorcar and drove it at thirty miles an...
(The entire section is 2263 words.)
SOURCE: A review of The Innocent and the Guilty, in The Saturday Review (New York), Vol. 54, No. 18, May 1, 1971, pp. 41-2.
[In the following excerpt, Long comments on the "sophistication" and "imagination" of Warner's stories in The Innocent and the Guilty.]
Sylvia Townsend Warner, who is now in her late seventies, has had a long, distinguished career. Her stories practically glisten with craftsmanship, and her imagination has a quality of urbanity that is present in all the tales in The Innocent and the Guilty, regardless of how different the scenes and characters are.
In "The Perfect Setting" Miss Warner has an opportunity for satire on manners and social types. To the garden of the late poet Oswald Corbett come a number of admirers, including Mrs. Bugler, who has gone through Corbett's manuscripts examining every watermark; Father Garment, S. J., who has discovered a latent Catholicism in Corbett's "Three Odes to Ovid," and Professor Mackenzie, who has translated Corbett's poems into Lallan. Another devotee wants to tape-record the owls in the garden. But the principal seeker is a journalist named Bannerman, whose interest in Corbett has to do with sales. The situation that develops between Bannerman and Corbett's widow is observed with a wry irony and understatement. The same is true of "Bruno," in which a wellto-do Scottish gentleman in his sixties returns to settle...
(The entire section is 326 words.)
SOURCE: "Sylvia Townsend Warner: 1893-1978: A Celebration," edited by Claire Harman, in PN Review, Vol. 8, No. 3, 1981, pp. 35-7.
[In the following interview, which was conducted in 1975, Warner discusses her writing career and political views. ]
[Sylvia Townsend Warner]: When did I begin to write? I was led away by paper. I'm always led away by blank paper. We had a great many photographs in our work, black and white photographs of manuscripts, and there were always some throw-aways. And the white was the most beautiful smooth white photographic paper and nobody wanted it, and I wanted it, and having collected it by degrees I thought, ''I must do something about all this handsome paper—I think I'll write a poem.' So I started writing poems on this handsome paper.
My first book was The Espalier, and that came out in, I think, 1925. After Chatto and Windus had seen my poems (they were sent there by David Garnett who liked them) and they said tentatively, 'You don't think you could write a novel, do you?' and I, with exasperating brightness, said, 'I've written a novel, but it isn't worth anything. I only did it to amuse myself in the evenings when I had nothing better to do.' And that was Lolly Willowes. And except that Charles Prentice wanted me to rewrite the ending, I didn't get to alter it much. I could have altered it more.
I never thought of being...
(The entire section is 1857 words.)
SOURCE: "The Not So Little People," in The Times Literary Supplement, January 14, 1977, p. 25.
[In this review, Annan describes Warner's prose as "poetic and . . . mystical. " ]
What is named on the label is found in the jar: [the stories in Kingdoms of Elfin] really are fairy stories and fourteen of the sixteen have appeared in The New Yorker where they must have glittered with a strange unearthly light among the wife-swappings on Martha's Vineyard, the examinations of social diseases, and the advertisements for Bergdorf Goodman. The elfin kingdoms over or underlie (mostly under, because they tend to be subterranean) Europe, and their inhabitants share the traditionally accepted characteristics of their human counterparts. Thus the elfins of the Kingdom of Wirre Gedanken in the Harz Mountains are given to metaphysical speculation; on the English side of the Scottish border the fairies are comparatively uncouth and deplorably indifferent to physical comfort; in Elfhame on the Scottish side they are natural theologians; in Ireland they see ghosts, and so on. These are not accidental clichés. You might not think them clichés at all, because they are handled so wittily and unexpectedly: but I think they are and are meant to be, and that the whole book is an attack on accepted thinking.
When the stories were appearing one by one the author needed to slip all the basic...
(The entire section is 654 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Kingdoms of Elfin, in The New York Times Book Review, March 27, 1977, pp. 6-7.
[In the following review, Smith says that while Warner is dextrous and sharp in her presentation of the elfin world to the reader, behind it all "the reader senses the author's fundamental skepticism. "]
This collection of tales [Kingdoms of Elfin] by Sylvia Townsend Warner is, to say the least, cause for celebration. Issued on the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of her novel Lolly Willowes, the first book ever chosen by the Book-of-the-Month Club, it has all the freshness, wit, originality of perception and clarity of insight that have won for her rhythmical prose so many admirers over so long a time. It offers us an unforgettable journey through time and space, a cast of truly fantastic characters and an impressive and seemingly unending display of verbal fireworks.
Sylvia Townsend Warner's fairyland kingdoms will no doubt be likened to the imaginary realms of J. R. R. Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings. They may attract many of the same readers and even inspire a similar cult, but they are essentially different. It is Tolkien's contention that good fairy tales are concerned with "the adventures of men in the Perilous Realm or upon its shadowy marches. Naturally so; for if elves are true, and really exist independently of our tales about them,...
(The entire section is 764 words.)
SOURCE: "Your Elf," in Punch, Vol. 277, August 1, 1979, p. 181.
[In the following excerpt from a review of The Kingdoms of Elfin, Williams praises Warner's prose as "a delight. "]
Sylvia Townsend Warner was variously gifted. In The Corner that Held Them she wrote one of the finest novels to appear in this country since the war. She wrote also a magnificent biography of T. H. White, tragic author of The Once and Future King. But primarily she was, like White himself, a fantasist.
I'm not a Hobbit-man, not a Watership-down-man, not even a Narnia-man. These fantastics are too long, too self-important, too axe-grinding. But Sylvia Townsend Warner's otherworldliness is far different from these.
For a start, her prose is always a delight—sharp, crisp, unflagging, and often very funny. In England she never got her due, but America recognised her worth, and fourteen of the sixteen stories in her last collection Kingdoms of Elfin—she died a year or two back in her eighties—appeared first in the New Yorker.
Her various elfland hideouts are all nonmoral places, yet somehow never trivial. Her detail is richly inventive and surprising—but surprising in an assured way that commands instant acceptance. Her elfland creatures are small and green and have wings. These wings though are generally held to be bad form, and flying...
(The entire section is 318 words.)
SOURCE: "The Short Stories," in "Sylvia Townsend Warner 1893-1978: A Celebration," edited by Claire Harman, in PN Review, Vol. 8, No. 3, 1981, p. 45.
[In the following essay, Cavaliero lauds Warner's literary skill and "ability to celebrate the singular without declining into singularity. " ]
Sylvia Townsend Warner may have been neglected by the critics, but her work was not unread. For over forty years her short stories appeared in The New Yorker, giving her a world-wide reputation; over one hundred and fifty of them appeared in published collections. Clearly she found them an appropriate medium for her gifts.
Those gifts included a talent for the telling phrase; similes that illuminated and did not distract; an eye for strangeness and incongruity; a detailed knowledge of the practicalities of daily life; the power to generalise informatively, an apparent inability to waste words, and a tart, unjudging awareness of the quirks and perversities of human nature. Also, an essential skill, she knew how to secure attention.
'Mary Glasscastle would have stayed quietly in his memory's cold storage if she had not been murdered.'
'Each warehouse along the London Thames has its staff of cats, half a dozen of them or more, heavy and redoubtable, hunters like William Ruftis.'
'Private charity still persists...
(The entire section is 997 words.)
SOURCE: A review of One Thing Leading to Another, and Other Stories, in British Book News, July, 1984, p. 427.
[In the following review, Toulson calls One Thing Leading to Another, and Other Stories "a good collection" that includes some characters who showcase Warner "at her sharpest and funniest. "]
Sylvia Townsend Warner, a prolific poet and novelist, was at her best in the sympathetic creation of eccentric and slightly dotty characters. She is probably most widely known for Lolly Willowes, first published in 1925 and reissued by The Women's Press in 1978, the year of her death. Lolly is a sad, wispy, lonely person, the conventional maiden aunt, half-crazed by her isolation and inability to build herself a satisfactory life in society. The twenty stories here, selected and edited by Susanna Pinney, are woven round several such figures: Helen Logie, the priests' housekeeper in the title story, who having once accidentally made curry with snuff, amuses herself thereafter in seeing how far she can go, undetected, in using bizarre ingredients in her cooking; Mary Daker, who reacts so strongly against her neighbours' commendation that she is 'always the same' the she provokes them into burning her effigy on the Guy Fawkes' bonfire; the garrulous Miss Belforest, who is compelled to read aloud every notice she sees. The extraordinary thing about all these lost and apparently limited...
(The entire section is 462 words.)
SOURCE: "Witty and Well-Mannered," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4247, August 24, 1984, p. 953.
[In the following review, Duchêne describes Warner's prose as "witty, warmhearted, [and] well-mannered," but questions the selection and editing of the stories in One Thing Leading to Another.]
"There's been another horrid murder by Teddy Bears": a well-bred female voice disturbs the Sunday quiet ("as though the words had been etched in dry-point on the silence") of a hotel lounge, and thus the little joke, heard or imagined, becomes the nucleus of another story by Sylvia Townsend Warner. As, in the uncharacteristically laborious title story here, does a cook's mistaking snuff for curry; or, in a story dated shortly before Warner's death, a woman's sewing a "Widow's quilt" after seeing one in the American Museum in Bath.
Those who like to see the grain of sand working in the oyster of a story-teller's mind are splendidly served when another story is prefaced by a letter from the author to her friend George Plank in 1963, which uncovers the story's genesis. An American, she writes, has left a somewhat sumptuous hat, of Piccadilly provenance, in the antique shop of her woman friend; they have kept it piously, and put it outside, accessible but safe from cats, whenever they leave home; she would like to wear it herself, but her friend says this would "make her conspicuous" ("What other...
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SOURCE: "A Long Day's Dying: The Elves of J. R. R. Tolkien and Sylvia Townsend Warner," in Death and the Serpent: Immortality in Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Carl B. Yoke and Donald M. Hassler, Greenwood Press, 1985, pp. 57-70.
[In the excerpt below, Crossley compares the elfin worlds of Warner and J. R. R. Tolkien.]
Among the folklore traditions on the origin of elves is the notion that they are the lost children of Adam and Lilith, born before the fall in Eden and therefore exempt from the punishment of death, but born as well outside the framework of redemption and therefore also disenfranchised from the promise of a life beyond the end of the world. One paradox of the "fortunate fall" for human beings is that while the penalty for original sin is heavy, the unanticipated gift of a second life is a measure of the extraordinary bounty of the Creator towards his creatures. But for the elves this paradox is less happy. Their imaginative appeal for both folk audiences and sophisticated readers has always been connected with their apparent superiority to the contingencies of the world, their freedom from human responsibility and human sorrow. In their enviable longevity the elves are emblems of what human beings feel they have lost—life without interruption, life unlimited. In his catalogue of elfin antiquities in The Faerie Queene, Spenser supposes the fairies to be the creation of...
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SOURCE: "Writing against the Grain: Sylvia Townsend Warner and the Spanish Civil War," in Women's Writing in Exile, edited by Mary Lynn Broe and Angela Ingram, University of North Carolina Press, 1989, pp. 351-68.
[In the following excerpt, Brothers examines Warner's contributions to the body of literature inspired by the Spanish Civil War.]
Sylvia Townsend Warner is an exile from the pages of literary history, her contributions unmarked even in Gilbert and Gubar's Norton Anthology of Literature by Women. Her politics labeled radical in the social text of the twentieth century and her poetic and fictional forms conservative in the Modernist canonical text, she is known by epithet—a lady communist, as Stephen Spender sarcastically dismissed her, and a communist writer who contributed to the Left Review, as those who purport to write the literary histories of the Spanish Civil War and the 1930s list her. Like other women writers of the 1930s denied authority in the arena of politics and war, she is denied authorship. Even apologists for the leftist writers of the 1930s view such women as dupes of the temporarily deceived. Ghettoized by the social text as communist and resegregated as lady, Warner is unnamed in twentieth-century literary history as well. Whatever social value is accorded to political commitment, such commitment is proclaimed by the academic,...
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Forbes, Nancy. A review of One Thing Leads to Another. The New York Times Book Review (11 November 1984): 32.
Positive assessment of Warner's posthumous collection.
Kiely, Benedict. "The Sky and the River and Man." The New York Times Book Review (6 February 1966): 4, 28.
Enthusiastic endorsement of Warner's literary skills. Observing that Warner had published quite a bit to-date, Kiely states: "This is reason to be grateful. Whether she writes on the putting-to sleep of a favorite cat or on a case of quite respectable middle-class incest, she displays always that irony, that ruthless coolness, that clear sight, that style."
Maxwell, William. "Sylvia Townsend Warner and The New Yorker." PN Review 8, No. 3 (1981): 44-5.
Personal reminisces of Warner's editor.
"Wit and Fancy." The Times Literary Supplement, No. 2380 (13 September 1947): 461.
Brief review of The Museum of Cheats in which the critic identifies Warner as a practitioner of a newer type of short story that eschews "the neatly tailored and explicit endings, the tidily rounded situations of the popular short story."
Additional coverage of Warner's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61-64, 77-80;...
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