Scenes of Childhood and Other Stories
Sylvia Townsend Warner was born on December 6, 1893, at Harrow-on-the-Hill, where her father was a master at the celebrated English public school. She was educated at home, taught by her mother and then by a governess, but with free access to her father’s library, she read widely on her own. A bright and spirited child, she absorbed the Edwardian world of servants, gentility, and precise manners, together with a love for the English countryside that shaped so many writers and artists of her generation. Her first artistic interest was music, and had World War I not prevented it, she would have studied composition with Arnold Schönberg. Instead, she was drawn to musicology and for six years was part of the editorial board that produced the monumental Tudor Church Music (c. 19251930). As a consequence, she came to writing rather late, producing a book of poems in 1925. Her first novel, Lolly Willowes (1926), was a fantasy which had the distinction of being the first Book of the Month in the United States. Her masterpiece is generally considered to be The Corner That Held Them (1948), a novel about life in a medieval convent, but since the 1930’s, she has become better-known as a writer of short stories, a great number of which have appeared in The New Yorker. Although she embraced Communism in the 1930’s, she is seldom a polemical writer, preferring to investigate human behavior and emotions for their own sake, often from an ironic but always a sympathetic standpoint. She excelled in other forms as well, being a prolific and engaging letter-writer, witty essayist, and brilliant biographer of (her excellent biography of T. H. White was published in 1967). She died in 1978. Scenes of Childhood and Other Stories is solely Warner’s work and was published posthumously.
The casual reader picking up Scenes of Childhood and Other Stories might well wonder whether he was reading fiction or autobiography. Indeed, the acknowledgments point out that all but two of the “stories” collected in this volume first appeared in The New Yorker between 1936 and 1973. These are, however, autobiographical sketches, arranged in rough chronological order and forming an engaging though incomplete record of Warner’s childhood and adolescence from age seven until she set out on her own to become an editor of Tudor Church Music. One of the last chapters, “Troublemaker,” is out of sequence, and the last four sketches contain miscellaneous reminiscences from her mature years, though the last of these, “A Queen Remembered,” forms a fitting coda to these delightful tone poems. The form Warner has chosen constitutes both the strength and the weakness of this volume. Freed from the restraints of strict autobiography and the necessity of names, dates, and places, she is able to choose those moments which best lend themselves to revelations about herself, her parents, her acquaintances, and her times. Each chapter reads, in fact, like finely crafted fiction, a self-contained and independent artifact, often with the reverberation and moral reflection of a story. Read in the order presented here, however, the collection gains by developing its characters from chapter to chapter, particularly so in the case of Warner’s extraordinary mother. The same is true for the picture she is able to assemble of the years 1900 to 1910, those last years of a dying era which have figured so prominently in the reminiscences of writers as varied as William Plomer, V. S. Pritchett, H. E. Bates, and Laurie Lee. On the other hand, the reader curious to know the details of Warner’s life, the inspiration for her art, the influences on her thinking, the nature of her activities and friendships will be disappointed, for this is hardly autobiography in the conventional sense. It is not merely the absence of a coherent narrative or the usual details and confessions which make this an unusual memoir; rather, it is the essentially fictional technique that is brought to each chapter.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the author’s portrayal of herself. The writer of autobiography normally looks back on himself when young with a certain ironic detachment, and the novelist-autobiographer in particular may employ fictional techniques in re-creating scenes or people long departed, perhaps even shaping the narrative along well-defined thematic lines. Nevertheless, the reader is usually aware of the author in the dual role of writer and subject. Both are simultaneously present. The narrator of this work, however, is more a persona or presence, an objective observer seeing herself as a character about whom she happens to know a great deal. There are, to be sure,...
(The entire section is 1923 words.)