Selected Stories of Sylvia Townsend Warner Analysis
Perhaps what the reader notices most consistently about Warner’s stories is their quiet, subtly mocking humor. Warner’s usually omniscient narrators possess an ironic detachment from their subjects, but the humor that results is never malicious. Warner rarely creates a character whom one dislikes intensely, although one may pity many of them who live lonely or otherwise circumscribed lives. Warner certainly knows her characters well; she knows what they think and the context in which they think, and only rarely does she strike a false note. These are characters who for the most part hold their emotions in check—as is proper for stories featuring so many middle-class English characters—but their inner lives carry subterranean force.
Warner also seems to relish creating the most authentic settings, as one can see in the infinite care with which the physical details and the atmosphere of the interior of an English church are evoked (“The Fifth of November”) or in the way that every small element that goes into the making of a nosegay is carefully described (“The Nosegay”). Social settings are evoked with equal care. “A Love Match,” for example, is a realistic portrayal of English village life and the changes it undergoes between the two world wars.
Warner’s stories exhibit such a range of characters and plots that it would be a distortion to claim that she possesses any special concern with the lot of women. Women in her stories may sometimes be timid and long-suffering and lead restricted lives, but they can just as often be assertive, capable, and even overbearing. Warner’s stories are told as often from the male point of view as from the female. The kind of female experience depicted in “A Widow’s Quilt,” however, is not untypical. Emma, who is married to dull, respectable, but self-involved Everard (the kind of boring husband who turns up with some frequency in Warner’s fiction), is fascinated by a widow’s quilt she sees in a museum. Told that they are made when a husband dies, she starts to make one herself. Fed up with the demands of looking after Everard, she finds in the quilt her “one assertion of a life of her own” and looks forward to the day when she will be able to sleep under it. Yet there is an ironic twist in this tale—a frequent device of Warner’s. Running out of thread one day, Emma goes out in bad weather. On her return she has a heart attack and dies. Everard, of course, lives on. This quirk of fate is close to what Thomas Hardy, who was an early influence on Warner, called “time’s laughingstocks.” In Warner’s universe, people often decline to die in the correct order or at the correct time—a device that gives punch to another story in this collection, “Their Quiet Lives.”
Another story that shows a woman breaking free from the restrictions of an unsatisfying marriage is “But at the Stroke of Midnight.” It is an ambitious although not entirely successful story in which the protagonist, according to Warner, “achieve[s] total innocence . . . only by going mad.” Lucy Ridpath creates a new life for herself in London and for a while seems to have found a mysterious, almost spiritual power. As the title of the story suggests, however, her rebirth does not last, and the story ends with her death by drowning.
“A Love Match” is remarkable for its sympathetic portrayal of an incestuous relationship between a brother and sister. Justin Tizzard returns on leave to England after fighting in the Battle of the Somme in World War I. He stays with his sister Celia, whose fiancé was killed in the same battle. At night, Celia is horrified when she hears Justin, asleep in the adjoining room, babbling constantly, reliving the horrors of the war. On the third night, his cry awakens her, and without knowing what she is doing, she goes to his bed to comfort him. The combination of his distress and her compassion drives them to the physical act of love.
Five years after the...
(The entire section is 1,141 words.)