Sylvia Townsend Warner Essay - Warner, Sylvia Townsend (Vol. 7)

Warner, Sylvia Townsend (Vol. 7)

Warner, Sylvia Townsend 1893–

Sylvia Townsend Warner is a British author of short stories, many of which have appeared in The New Yorker, of novels—Lolly Willowes was the first selection of The Book-of-the-Month Club—and of poetry. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61-64.)

The Museum of Cheats is one of those modest little books that come unheralded but will linger on the shelf of well-loved books long after its noisier contemporaries have landed out on the street in the ten cent book box. Miss Warner's publishers recommend her "felicitous writing, spiced with an astringent satire" and for once a jacket tells a truth. There is something deeper than satire in these varied but absorbing stories of members of our own species in situations that assay their values. Under the satire are things that range sometimes from a slightly rowdy humor to ominous warnings of the thin ice on which we travel psychologically and the narrow margins by which we sometimes lose the incomparable treasures of love and companionship and self-respect; and the equally small pennyweights by which we acquire or sacrifice the insights on which freedom and integrity depend. Apart from all that there is sheer entertainment in these stories, so that the most preposterous situation has a great air of reality, and the simple real sometimes becomes the preposterous. This is the art of short story writing in durable and significant form. (p. 286)

B. D. in Canadian Forum, March, 1948.

Miss Townsend Warner has been criticised and is likely to be criticised again for the fact that in her new novel, The Corner That Held Them, she views her fourteenth-century nuns through twentieth-century eyes. I can only feel thankful that she does. How bitter this mediaeval concoction would be without the jam of modern wit and irony! The age she covers—one that as a result of the Black Death of 1358 and the Great Plague of 1374 became so obsessed by death that it produced the Dance of Death, an hysteria possessing whole communities, sending them into the church-yards to dig up bones and skulls, and dance until everyone fell exhausted—is not an easy one to humanise. Viewed from this distance, its quality is so macabre that it appears more alien than the heydays of Greece, Rome or even Egypt. It is, therefore, unlikely that any attempt by the writer to fit out her nuns with archaic language and thoughts would produce figures any nearer to our understanding than those of the Bayeux Tapestry.

In literature reality is relative only to our willingness to believe, and, because I can believe in them, Miss Warner's nuns are for me much more like fourteenth-century nuns than could be any tedious puppets talking pseudo-Chaucerian. As far as period details are concerned I do not know whether the novel is accurate or not but it is something more—it is entertaining. Miss Warner's survey of thirty-three years of life in the convent of Oby is from start to finish a mild, sustained delight, never during its three hundred and ten pages jarring one by any obvious error in the drawing of her long pageant of characters. She treats them all with equal insight and interest so that, as far as importance is concerned, they are all much of a size and rouse the same sympathy. The resulting effect is slightly flat but one of complete realism. (p. 744)

Olivia Manning, in The Spectator (© 1948 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), December 3, 1948.

In outline [The Flint Anchor] is the kind of novel that used to be a staple of English fiction—a chronicle of family life over a long period of years—though in some other respects it betrays its contemporary composition. (p. XIV)

As usual in a novel of this sort, much of the charm lies in the minor characters—the tippling Mrs. Barnard, various neighbors and family friends, relatives and retainers. Less usual is the highly finished style—witty, precise, unhurried—in which Miss Townsend Warner tells her story.

If one were to offer any criticism of so good a book it would have to lie in pointing out a slight discrepancy between Miss Townsend Warner's distinguished gifts and the kind of novel she has chosen to write. Her wit and irony do not exhaust the possibilities in a character like John Barnard, for though he is a hypocrite he is also an emotional illiterate, a man who has been taught how to take care of his soul and body and business but has been given no idea of what his heart is up to. The waste of love, the unfulfilled capacity for affection, might have been treated with less sprightliness and more sympathy than Miss Townsend Warner brings to her subject, except at the very end.

Similarly, Miss Townsend Warner's talents tend to deprive her book of the most powerful impact this kind of chronicle-novel can have: a sense of the mystery of time. The passing of fifty years has little reality in The Flint Anchor. The intelligence that surveys those years is too detached and urbane to catch the deep-toned striking of the clock.

Yet if these criticisms deprive The Flint Anchor of the highest place among English chronicles of family life, it is nevertheless the best example of that kind of fiction in some time. (pp. XIV, XVI)

Paul Pickrel, in The Yale Review (© 1954 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Autumn, 1954.

"The Flint Anchor" …, by Sylvia Townsend Warner, is, almost imperceptibly, a historical novel dealing with the decline and fall of a domestic tyrant in an east-coast English fishing port in the first part of the last century. It escapes the usual longueurs of the novel that abandons the present for the past by being both beautifully written and psychologically profound about family relationships. The depth of the penetration is easy to miss, since Miss Townsend Warner has with deliberation chosen to present her very complicated and delicate study as a piece of newsy family gossip….

Toward the end of the book, it becomes apparent that while Miss Townsend Warner has been beguiling the reader with the glittering small change of anecdote, she has been handling an extremely large theme—the idea that much more suffering and pain come from blind good will than from wickedness, and that sin is not the murky and malignant business fashionable writers about evil have recently done their best to make it but a matter of a failure in understanding. In common experience, it is rare that monsters of the sort M. Mauriac creates, resolute in their rejection of love and devoted to the service of misery and disgust, are met with, but one encounters daily Miss Townsend Warner's characters, who, linked by ties of blood and affection, explore the depths of unhappiness, because their love is not based on an awareness of all the differences between them. "The Flint Anchor" is a large-minded novel with a refreshing sanity, and its clarity of thought and expression makes it most pleasant to read. (p. 175)

Anthony West, in The New Yorker (© 1954 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), October 9, 1954.

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…. Though Miss Warner can be trivial in her effects and vague in her intentions, she rarely lacks concreteness. On every page there is something to be seen or smelled or felt. (p. 231)

The grit of factuality scintillates for her and she inhales the world's rank melancholy as if it were ambrosial perfume. (p. 232)

Between her firm particulars and the overbrooding Olympian forbearance of tone there is, sometimes, an unexpected vacuum. Her sense of form, of direction, is erratic, which is to say she has no prejudices about her material. Her endings are often weak—abrupt and enigmatic ("A Stranger with a Bag," "Their Quiet Lives"), sentimental ("Happiness"), crowded and vague ("Johnnie Brewer"). Here, where an author normally gathers his matter to a point in a final phrase or word, a dominant that will reverberate backward through the fabric of imagery, Miss Warner wanders off in the middle of the measure, or goes on a measure too long, or comes down hard on a note so wrong we doubt our ears. (pp. 232-33)

Her stories tend to convince us in process and baffle us in conclusion; they are not rounded with meaning but lift jaggedly toward new, unseen, developments. (p. 235)

Miss Warner's genius is an uncannily equable openness to human data, and beneath her refined witchery lies a strange freshness one can only call, in praise, primitive. (p. 236)

John Updike, "The Mastery of Miss Warner" (originally published in The New Republic, March 5, 1966), in his Picked-Up Pieces (copyright © 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975 by John Updike; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf, 1976, pp. 231-36.

Ordinarily, our sensible parent, The New Yorker, doles out Sylvia Townsend Warner's stories one at a time. But her collected stories, like her favorite sweets, marrons glacés, make way for immoderate consumption and some indigestion.

The unfaltering texture and taste of the latest in Swans on an Autumn River are admirable, but disconcerting too. Small talents seem properly more restless in the United States than in England. Truman Capote feels new literary forms thrust upon him; both he and we envisage the writing career as an infinite beanstalk to climb, an ascent which Miss Warner would snub as otiose, also ungainly. She herself minds her neat, confined talent like a shop for gourmets; her products aim at the choice modesty of kumquats and button mushrooms….

A collection of such stories is like an annual surprise party: within the total predictability of the gathering, each story calls out, in its well-bred accent, "Surprise! Surprise!" And we experience, against our will, the same small ridiculous sensation of pleasure we felt the year before. In the past, Miss Warner's interest in the preternatural was more distinct, but it is sensed still in the titivations of her new stories. Across the placid surfaces of her characters run inexplicable tremors. Minute unseen forces play minute tricks, equivalents of curdling milk and dropping stitches and hiding best umbrellas. Each story is allotted its moment of witchery: a sudden, often mischievous, seldom malign, and never prolonged interruption of the habitual state.

And how it is told fits like hook and eye what is told. Each sentence too executes its tweak of the mind. A shock, slightly more emphatic than others to come, sets the story in motion….

The stories are mostly about adults, often disagreeable adults like the exhausted Mother Drew, and yet their impact is light, their very skill is a simplification. The clipped witticisms, like hedgerows, exclude concern. The large, untidy bulk of adult emotions is pressed back by so much neatness. (p. 431)

Mary Ellmann, "Tidying Up the Emotions," in The Nation (copyright 1966 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), April 11, 1966, pp. 431-32.

The texture of Miss Townsend's fiction is deeply affected by her careful depiction of various locales in the United Kingdom—a coastal village, rural Scotland, the seamy Paddington area of London, to mention only three, and a reader's appreciation of this volume [The Innocent and the Guilty] is conditioned in part by his knowledge of the British Isles. Thematically, however, the stories are not dependent on time and place in their presentation of the predicaments of modern man, his isolation, alienation, loneliness, and sexual confusions. Miss Townsend's subject, like that of so many masters of the short story, is flawed man, non-heroic man struggling in a world that frustrates quests for certainty and meaning in life. (p. 111)

The strength of Miss Townsend's stories lies not in their range or philosophical depth—she tells us nothing new—but in her extraordinary capacity to depict with astringency of style aspects of the human condition. Her fiction concerns itself less with actions or events and more with states of mind, malaises of the soul: it suggests reasons for the tic in the face, the gray in the hair, the stoop of the shoulders, the twist in the smile, or the stammer in the speech. A fine example, one of the longest in the volume, is "But at the Stroke of Midnight" which recounts the flight of bland Mrs. Ridpath from the bonds of a hollow marriage, an empty life. Throughout, the author gives us vivid objective correlatives of a woman's despair so that one of those sad souls one brushes by to catch the tube home takes on individuality and meaning.

Miss Townsend's writing depends for its effect not so much on manipulations of plot to create shock or surprise (though "A Visionary Gleam," surely her jeu d'esprit in the collection, produces just that) as on her ability to evoke moods, feelings, impressions, the ineffable in life. The best example of the above is a story entitled "Oxenhope," a richly evocative record of one man's return to his past and his realization that it cannot be recovered. It is, potentially, one of the most hackneyed of themes, yet Miss Townsend avoids the trite and the cliché and produces through the topography of a small world remembered and revisited an account of genuine emotion. Other stories deserve comment and praise. In "Bruno" and "The Green Torso," Miss Townsend not only provides an intelligent commentary on the world of the homosexual and the hippie but, more important, presents those subtleties of human relationships that reveal clearly man's doomed contest against the power of loneliness and worse, perhaps, against his own self-imposed definition of sexual normalcy….

One can fault, really, only the title of the book, a particularly inept one, surely not Miss Townsend's own, which fails to suggest the complexity of the document to come. But the text throughout proves her an artist…. She is capable of that rich portraiture of humanity that is the special gift of a few. In a world where news and journalistic relevance daily test the value of the literary word, Miss Townsend's writing can renew the weakened faith of many of us. In her work the belletristic is not affectation, but the route to the truths of humanity she so ably depicts. (p. 112)

John L. Abbott, in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1973 by Newberry College), Winter, 1973.