Warner, Sylvia Townsend (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)
Sylvia Townsend Warner 1893-1978
English novelist, short story writer, poet, translator, editor, and biographer.
The following entry provides criticism on Warner's works from 1982 through 2001. For criticism prior to 1982, see CLC, Volumes 7 and 19.
Warner's novels and short fiction 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Warner's stories range from lengthy, full narratives to sketch-like treatments in which considerations of plot have been replaced by a concern for conveying the intensity and ambiguity that typify many human experiences.
Warner was born on December 6, 1893, to a schoolmaster and his wife in Harrow, Middlesex county, England, 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, The Espalier, was followed by best-selling novels in the next two years. From 1927 on Warner supported herself with her writing. Her first short story, “The Maze,” was published in 1928 and two more were included in the same volume in her third novel, The True Heart (1929). 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 on May 1, 1978.
A prolific writer, Warner published some thirty-five books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. One of her best-known novels, Lolly Willowes (1926) chronicles the story of Laura Willowes, an English spinster who rebels against her conventional life by making a pact with the devil and becoming a witch. In another of Warner's novels, Summer Will Show (1936) a spurned English wife falls in love with her husband's mistress, a French communist. The novel was set during the French Revolution. The stories of The Salutation (1932) 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 (1935) 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 (1943) 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 (1947) and Winter in the Air (1955) 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. 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.
Many reviewers lauded Warner for her fine prose style, the incorporation of the fantastic in much of her work, and the diversity of her subject matter. 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 more political fiction has been 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, and her portrayal of female characters has garnered much critical attention.
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
*A Moral Ending, and Other Stories (short stories) 1931
Opus 7 (poetry) 1931
More Joy in Heaven, and Other Stories (short stories) 1935
Summer Will Show (novel) 1936
After the Death of Don Juan (novel) 1938
The Cat's Cradle Book (short stories) 1940
†A Garland of Straw, and Other Stories (short stories) 1943
The Museum of Cheats (short stories) 1947
The Corner That Held Them (novel) 1948
Jane Austen (criticism) 1951
The Flint Anchor (novel) 1954
Winter in the Air, and Other Stories (short stories) 1955
A Spirit Rises (short stories) 1962
‡A Stranger with a Bag, and Other Stories (short stories) 1966
T. H. White: A Biography (biography) 1967
King Duffus, and Other Poems (poetry) 1968
The Innocent and the Guilty (short stories) 1971
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SOURCE: Howard, Maureen. “What It Was Like.” Atlantic Monthly 249, no. 3 (3 March 1982): 83-5.
[In the following excerpted review, Howard contends that “though the individual pieces in Scenes of Childhood are charming, bright, and well-turned, I think that book as a whole does Miss Warner's memory a disservice.”]
Strictly speaking, neither Patrick White's Flaws in the Glass nor Sylvia Townsend Warner's Scenes of Childhood is an autobiography. In the one case, Patrick White, the Australian novelist who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973, insists on the constricting subtitle “A Self-Portrait.” In the other, Miss Warner, the British writer known to us primarily through her stories in The New Yorker, never intended to write an autobiography: her memoirs have been “ordered into sequence” by a doting editor after her death. But we've learned by now that there is no proper form, no set procedure, for autobiography. …
Through the individual pieces in Scenes of Childhood are charming, bright, and well turned, I think the book as a whole does Miss Warner's memory a disservice. As they read about the bizarre nanny, the intriguing French teacher, her mother's culinary innocence (all done in fairly short takes), those who followed Miss Warner's New Yorker stories will be reminded of an easy literary style, an anecdotal...
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SOURCE: Davis, Hope Hale. “Barricades and Gardens.” New Leader 65 (8 March 1982): 16-17.
[In the following review, Davis notes an uneven quality in the sketches in Scenes of Childhood and reflects on her meeting with the author.]
Reading this book [Scenes of Childhood], I gradually realized that almost everything that mattered to the author was either left out or skipped past or splashed over with a rather urgently whipped-up froth of spoofing. Almost, I have to emphasize: There are passages of sudden, seemingly involuntary spellweaving that match the best pages of her other works. That is saying a lot, both qualitatively and quantitatively. She published seven novels, 13 collections of short stories, six volumes of verse, and two biographies, besides her early political articles and literary studies, including a translation from Proust. She wrote a libretto for an opera based on the last days of Shelley, and when very young, having trained as a musicologist, was one of the editors of a 10-volume history of Tudor church music.
I had hoped to find in Scenes of Childhood the answers to some of the puzzles left by my acquaintance with the author. But I should have remembered the fashions that helped form the patterns of the New Yorker, where the pieces gathered here originally appeared. In the '20s stylish parents referred to their children as beasts...
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SOURCE: Feaver, Vicki. “Making a Stand against Habit.” Times Literary Supplement (18 March 1983): 278.
[In the following review, Feaver considers Warner's poetic output, contending that “more real cause of regret, however, considering the strangely compelling quality of her best work, is that poetry was for most of her life a peripheral and not a major concern.”]
In the course of Sylvia Townsend Warner's first novel Lolly Willowes it suddenly dawns on the heroine that she is a witch by vocation. It is a discovery that not only liberates her from a life as a much put-upon spinster-aunt but also enables her to view the world with the eyes of a poet: noticing for the first time “the sudden oblique movements of the water-drops that glistened on the cabbage-leaves, or the affinity between the dishevelled brown hearts of the sun flowers and Mrs Leak's scrubbing-brush, propped up on the kitchen window-sill”. The novel is not exactly a self-portrait—Warner's fiction is never overtly autobiographical—but it is possible to connect Lolly's stand against “habit and the cowardice of compunction”, her imaginative awakening and growing awareness of being “different”, with Warner's recognition both of her gift as a poet and, possibly, of her homosexuality. She made the “discovery that it was possible to write poetry” in 1922 during a month spent exploring the Essex marshes; so when, a...
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SOURCE: Howard, Richard. “The Wise Woman of Dorset.” Nation 236 (19 March 1983): 343-45.
[In the following review, Howard provides a positive review of Warner's collected letters and poetry and addresses the lack of critical attention to her oeuvre.]
She has no critical cachet whatever, this writer. Her fifteen volumes of fiction are not examined in studies of the modern English novel—even Mr. Fortune's Maggot (1927) fails to appear in bibliographies of gay writing, though it is, with Stein's Things As They Are, the most passionate homosexual novel I know. She is not “taught,” and I have never heard her mentioned on those occasions when poets are “ranked.” Women's studies have neglected her, too, though her status among the serenely Sapphic householders is irreproachable: whenever she and Valentine Ackland were separated, William Maxwell tells us in his tactful but explicit introduction, they wrote each other at the beginning and end of every day, and “these letters, love letters, were preserved. After Ackland's death, Warner put them in the proper sequence and had them transcribed and wrote an introduction and connecting narratives, all with the idea that they should some day be published.” That day has not come, and we must wait as well for the untranscribed journal which runs, Maxwell says—though brims is surely the word—through forty notebooks. The letters...
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SOURCE: Panter-Downes, Mollie. “All Things Both Great and Small.” New Yorker 59 (30 May 1983): 98-102.
[In the following review, Panter-Downes offers a laudatory review of Warner's collected letters as well as an overview of the author's life and work.]
Some years before she died, in 1978, Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote to her friend and literary executor William Maxwell saying that she would try to leave her papers in shipshape order for him. She added, as an afterthought, that “the people who were attached to me might … like a collected volume of my letters. I love reading Letters myself, and I can imagine enjoying my own.” It was clearly in her mind, she admitted later, that Mr. Maxwell, her editor at The New Yorker for many years, should edit any such collection, and here is the result: fifty-seven years' pick of her Letters which he has assembled—sometimes with difficulty where correspondents have died or homes have vanished—and arranged with love and just the right amount of annotation to keep our hold on the autobiographical thread. Love is clearly what she gave back in abundance to him and his family and to the other close friends she wrote to regularly—thousands of letters, poured out effortlessly between the stories, the novels, the poetry, the endless daily chores of life in a country cottage—with whom she carried on marvellous conversations “about anything and...
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SOURCE: Perényi, Eleanor. “The Good Witch of the West.” New York Review of Books 32 (18 July 1985): 27-30.
[In the following review, Perényi asserts that Warner's work is difficult to categorize and has resulted in a lack of sufficient critical attention to her oeuvre.]
The death of Sylvia Townsend Warner in 1978 at the age of eighty-five was unmourned by any major critic in this country. “Noted for her graceful style and ironic wit,” said The New York Times in one of those obituaries that read like a passport to respectable oblivion. Though not exactly neglected (her short fiction appeared for decades in The New Yorker and was regularly collected into book form: eight volumes in all), she somehow missed the gold ring on the literary merry-go-round without, on the other hand, acquiring that underground status that has proved so valuable to Jean Rhys's reputation, or a champion with the distinction of Philip Larkin, who more or less single-handedly rescued Barbara Pym from obscurity. Rather she was that anomaly, the well-known writer who isn't talked about, whose work was too original to be very popular yet who failed to attract a cult audience. The short stories apart, most people who could identify her as the author of Lolly Willowes and Mr. Fortune's Maggot, two novels published half a century ago and famous in their day, would be hard put to it to name the other...
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SOURCE: Vannatta, Dennis. “The English Short Story, 1945-1950.” In The English Short Story 1945-1980: A Critical History, pp. 12-13. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1985.
[In the following excerpt, Vannatta provides a positive assessment of The Museum of Cheats.]
Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978) should best be remembered as a short story writer, although she was a prolific writer who produced, in addition to twelve volumes of short stories, novels, poetry, biographies, and authoritative studies of Tudor church music. Warner was already fairly well known to some American readers when The Museum of Cheats appeared in 1947. Eight of the stories in this volume had, in fact, appeared previously in the pages of the New Yorker, another reminder of that magazine's contribution as an international outlet for superior short fiction.
The Museum of Cheats contains twenty-two stories of several types, the longest being the thirty-seven-page title story. Many of them achieve rather subtle effects through graceful stylistic turns. Warner reveals herself to be a skilled fantasist in some of the stories, and in all, she achieves verisimilitude and compression through her exact rendering of the minutiae of her characters' daily existence. Having created full-dimensional worlds and situations alive with nuance and possibility, Warner is content to let her readers do a great deal of...
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SOURCE: Vannatta, Dennis. “The English Short Story in the Fifties.” In The English Short Story 1945-1980: A Critical History, pp. 44-6. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1985.
[In the following excerpt, Vannatta deems Warner's short fiction pure and economical.]
Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978) never published a representative collection of her short fiction, which is unfortunate, for she deserves such a monument to her position in the honor roll of the century's storytellers. Like Bates, Pritchett, and Davies, she has enormous reservoirs of sympathy and understanding, and like them she never allows herself to become sentimental with her characters. They are presented, revealed, even judged and found wanting, but neither despised nor excused. Above all is the quality of her style, elusive to describe or analyze, yet unmistakably Warner. Consider, for example, the opening sentences from the title story of her only 1950s collection, Winter in the Air (1956):
The furniture, assembled once more under the high ceiling of a London room, seemed to be wearing a look of quiet satisfaction, as though, slightly shrugging their polished shoulders, the desk had remarked to the bookcase, the Regency armchair to the Chippendale mirror, “Well, here we are again.” And then, after a creak or two, silence had fallen on the dustless room.
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SOURCE: Yardley, Jonathan. “Of Love's Fortunes and Misfortunes.” Washington Post Book World 18, no. 51 (18 December 1988): 3.
[In the following favorable review of Selected Stories, Yardley maintains that however diverse Warner's stories “may be in tone and settings, her stories are all noteworthy for their graceful, witty prose and their tough, uncompromising intelligence.”]
The stories of Sylvia Townsend Warner, as collected in this generous volume [Selected Stories], defy categorization if not description. Warner, who died a decade ago at the age of 85, was a British writer whose styles and subjects varied widely; she seems to have been intimidated by nothing and to have been willing to attempt anything. Though the fortunes and misfortunes of love are principal themes in her work, she treats them in everything from realistic stories about middle-class British life to fairy tales set in a realm of her own imagining, the Kingdoms of Elfin; but however diverse they may be in tone and settings, her stories are all noteworthy for their graceful, witty prose and their tough, uncompromising intelligence.
For many years, but particularly during the 1950s, Warner's stories appeared with frequency and regularity in The New Yorker. This was the golden age for fiction in that magazine and Warner clearly was one of its stars, but at the time I was too young to have...
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SOURCE: Mulford, Wendy. “Sylvia: The Novels of the 1930s.” In This Narrow Place: Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland: Life, Letters and Politics, 1930-1951, pp. 104-34. Kitchener, Ontario: Pandora Press, 1988.
[In the following essay, Mulford traces Warner's literary development throughout the 1930s.]
THE TWENTIES' NOVELS: LINKS AND PREFIGURATIONS
Writing a review of Stephen Spender and John Lehmann's anthology Poems for Spain in Life and Letters Today, Sylvia said that those who went out to fight in Spain, unlike those who had, in Owen's famous words, ‘died like cattle’ in the senseless slaughter of the First World War, died as individuals, and as ‘self-willed individuals at that. … They presented their lives … they did not offer up their opinions or their intellects.’1 It is a statement that applies equally to the way she and Valentine lived their lives during these years.
The meaning of the individual's part in the national struggle was to be something which preoccupied her through her two major 1930s novels, and in Summer Will Show (1936) the situation of her heroine, Sophia Willougby, prefigures something of the Spanish predicament for British volunteers: Sophia also finds herself caught up in a struggle not her own, in the Paris Revolution of 1948. Only she has not gone there for a cause but to find...
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SOURCE: Castle, Terry. “Sylvia Townsend Warner and the Counterplot of Lesbian Fiction.” In Sexual Sameness: Textual Differences in Lesbian and Gay Writing, edited by Joseph Bristow, pp. 128-47. London: Routledge, 1992.
[In the following essay, Castle discusses Warner's Summer Will Show as a lesbian novel.]
What is a lesbian fiction? According to what we might call the ‘Queen Victoria Principle’ of cultural analysis, no such entity, of course, should even exist. In 1885, after the passage of the Criminal Law Amendment Act outlawing homosexual acts in Great Britain, it was pointed out to Queen Victoria that the amendment only dealt with ‘acts of gross indecency’ between men; women, alas, were not covered. The queen responded—as if to a non sequitur—‘No woman would ever do that.’ Desire between men was conceivable, indeed could be pictured vividly enough to require policing. Desire between women was not.1 The love of woman for woman, along with whatever ‘indecency’ it might entail, simply could not be represented. According to this primal (il)logic, it would follow, therefore, that ‘lesbian fiction’ is also inconceivable: a non-concept, a nothingness, a gap in the meaning of things—anything but a story there to be read.
We pride ourselves nowadays on having made some intellectual advances on the Victorian position. We know that lesbian...
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SOURCE: Knoll, Bruce. “‘An Existence Doled Out’: Passive Resistance as a Dead End in Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willowes.” Twentieth Century Literature 39, no. 3 (fall 1993): 344-63.
[In the following essay, Knoll perceives Lolly Willowes as a novel that explores the dualism between male aggression and female passivity.]
Sylvia Townsend Warner begins with her first novel, Lolly Willowes, or The Loving Huntsman, written in 1926, to break down the dualism between aggressiveness and passivity. This dualism is couched in terms of a masculine versus a feminine approach to life, neither of which Townsend Warner accepts, because the masculine/feminine opposition in the novel is a creation of patriarchal society. J. Lawrence Mitchell notes, “As a group, men do not fare very well in Lolly Willowes” (54), and neither do any masculine values. Townsend Warner extends this duality to the prevailing social structure of London in and around the time of World War I. London society is centered on the masculine ideal, which is portrayed as an aggressive, destructive force. Such an arrangement allows only a passive role for the female characters of the novel. Townsend Warner does not accept this as the only possible social organization, and through Laura Willowes, her protagonist, she works out a solution which is neither a feminine passivity nor a masculine aggressiveness, but an...
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SOURCE: Chisholm, Anne. A review of The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner, by Sylvia Townsend Warner. Observer (19 June 1994): 18.
[In the following review, Chisholm offers a favorable review of The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner.]
In 1929 Sylvia Townsend Warner described in her diary how she held a friend's baby on her lap. It felt, she wrote, ‘like a short stout salmon. It is not a person one feels moving when one holds a baby: it is life, compact, darting, incalculable.’ Some of her most characteristic and admirable qualities are instantly apparent: the unsentimental eye, the speed of perception, and the zest for life in all its oddity.
For all her brilliance, there was something elusive about her. Her life was full of discontinuities: at first a musicologist, she became a poet and novelist; her first love was a middle-aged man, but the love of her life was a younger woman; a deeply English writer, she was more esteemed in New York than in London; averse to self exposure and confessional writing, she left behind a huge intimate archive. Clare Harman, who has served Sylvia Townsend Warner well, first by editing her poetry and then by writing an exemplary biography, has now skillfully reduced 38 notebooks to a single volume, The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner.
Sylvia Townsend Warner was 34 and had just published her first, best-known novel,...
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SOURCE: Kermode, Frank. “Breeding.” London Review of Books 16, no. 14 (21 July 1994): 15-16.
[In the following review, Kermode notes the insights that Warner's diaries provide into her life.]
Sylvia Townsend Warner died in 1978, aged 84. Her first novel, Lolly Willowes, appeared in 1926, and none of her later works quite matched its success. In her later years she was probably better known to most people as a name that appeared under rather than above story after story in the New Yorker; that journal published about fifty over a period of some forty years. She was a copious, elegant and witty writer, and since she produced these stories rather easily, she came to think of the New Yorker, for a long time an indispensable financial support, as a generous old admirer whom she could please fairly easily when she needed to.
In addition to the stories and novels she wrote poetry, and a biography of T. H. White. She also translated Proust's Contre Sainte-Beuve, was a devoted correspondent, and kept a diary running to 38 volumes. More surprisingly, she was a musicologist of considerable importance, as well as a knowledgeable gardener and a resourceful cook. Since she also seems to have been a good and sensitive friend it is fair to conclude that she was altogether a rare and admirable person.
Many pages of the diaries now published [The...
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SOURCE: Steinman, Michael. Introduction to The Elements of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978, edited by Michael Steinman, pp. xv-xxvii. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 2001.
[In the following essay, Steinman considers The Elements of Lavishness a testament to the true friendship between Warner and editor William Maxwell.]
Between 1938 and 1978, the inimitable writers Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell exchanged more than thirteen hundred affectionate and witty letters. Their at first formal relationship—he was Mr. Maxwell, the New Yorker fiction editor; she was Miss Warner, the distinguished contributor from Dorset—soon deepened into “a real, unshakable love.” Twenty years after Warner's death Maxwell told me, “I still remember the pleasure of walking into the apartment and finding a letter from her on the hall table.” The Element of Lavishness celebrates that pleasure, part of the larger pleasure both writers shared equally—the pleasure of writing well for a friend, one whose every reply was a gift in turn.
A forty-year friendship seems a monument to constancy, but it is easy to imagine an alternate universe in which Warner and Maxwell admire each other's work but never meet. In 1970, she said as much to him: “Suppose I had been in the hands of some eminently worthy and painstaking person called...
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Ackland, Victoria. For Sylvia: An Honest Account. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1985, 135 p.
Recollections of her life with Warner.
Harman, Claire. Sylvia Townsend Warner: A Biography. London: Chatto & Windus, 1989, 358 p.
Biography of Warner. Harman includes a primary bibliography.
Levinsohn, Florence. “Early Sketches from a Writer's Family Life.” Chicago Tribune Book World (7 February 1982): 6.
Praises the wit and charm in Scenes of Childhood.
Additional coverage of Warner's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: British Writers Supplement, Vol. 7; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61-64, 77-80; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 16, 60, 104; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 7, 19; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 34, 139; Feminist Writers; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 23; and 20th Century Romance and Historical Writers.
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