Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

This selection by Sylvia Townsend Warner’s literary executors of forty-five of her short stories is taken from a period of forty-five years of her work, from 1932 to 1977. It represents only a small fraction of Warner’s output of short stories, which runs to fifteen volumes. At least one story is included from each of her volumes, starting with The Salutation (1932) and concluding with the posthumously published One Thing Leading to Another (1984).

According to William Maxwell—who was Warner’s editor at the The New Yorker, where many of her stories were first published—and Susanna Pinney, who jointly edited this selection, the stories are arranged thematically rather than chronologically. Pride of place is given to Warner’s finest story, “A Love Match,” which was awarded the Katherine Mansfield Menton Prize in 1968. This story and the five that follow (“Winter in the Air,” “Idenborough,” “The Foregone Conclusion,” “An Act of Reparation,” and “Lay a Garland on My Hearse”) all deal, in very different ways, with romantic relationships between men and women.

Thematic groupings are apparent in many of the remaining stories, which are notable for their diversity. There is a group of four stories (“Absolom, My Son,” “Boors Carousing,” “On Living for Others,” and “Plutarco Roo”) that have artists, composers, and writers as their protagonists. “Shadwell” and “Property...

(The entire section is 516 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Like her own character Matthew Bateman, the writer in “Absolom, My Son,” Warner was well known without ever being popular, despite the small and loyal following that she developed as a result of her New Yorker stories. Her influence, whether as novelist, poet, or short-story writer, has therefore been negligible, but it is doubtful whether this would have distressed her. She was not in her work a crusader for causes, and her comments about the nineteenth century novelist Elizabeth Gaskell might serve equally well to describe her own work: “She attacked no abuses, she preached no remedies, she supplied no answers, she barely questioned. She presented her characters and told their story.”

On one occasion, however, Warner did comment on the place of women writers in society. That was in 1959, when she gave a Royal Society of Arts lecture on “Women as Writers.” In that address, Warner made some tart observations about the alarm with which a woman writer is regarded in a patriarchal society, and she illustrated her comments with a number of historical examples that have since become a standard part of feminist arguments. Warner thought that to succeed as writers women must be “obstinate and sly,” but she also remarked that it was easier for a woman to attain what she regarded as the writer’s greatest virtue, self-effacement, in the sense that the reader does not feel the presence of the writer at all—a comment that does not apply to her own stories.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Harmon, Claire. Sylvia Townsend Warner: A Biography. London: Chatto & Windus, 1989. A carefully researched, full-length biography that makes use of many unpublished sources, including Warner’s diaries, which extended over a period of fifty years. Includes a complete bibliography of works by Warner.

Maxwell, William, ed. Letters: Sylvia Townsend Warner. London: Chatto & Windus, 1982. Includes hundreds of letters, covering the period from 1921 to 1978, many of them exhibiting the same literary qualities that illuminate Warner’s stories. Warner offers a number of comments on her work, but unfortunately there is no subject index with which to locate them, although there is an index of recipients.

Mulford, Wendy. This Narrow Place: Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland: Life, Letters, and Politics, 1930-1951. London: Pandora Press, 1988. Focuses on the middle years of Warner’s relationship with her lifelong friend Valentine Ackland, the period when they were most politically active. The emphasis is on Warner, the more successful writer, and on her novels rather than her poems or short stories.