Form and Content
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 of a Lady” both feature old women who have been neglected and forgotten in some way; the eccentric Finch family, featuring the hilarious Mrs. Finch (“As a conversationalist Mrs. Finch was considered hard to follow. Not that she was obscure: she was clear as the cuckoo; but like the cuckoo it was hard to follow her, for one could never be sure into what tree she had flown”), appears in two stories.
Although most of the stories are set in England, two exceptions are “The Apprentice,” which is set in Poland during the Nazi Occupation, and “A Red Carnation,” which is set in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. These are the only two stories that might properly be called political, although two adjacent stories (“The Level-Crossing” and “A Speaker from London”) are also set in World War II and deal with close relationships between people which are disrupted by war.
Three stories are included from Scenes of Childhood (1981), a collection of sketches published posthumously describing Warner’s upper-middle-class Edwardian upbringing. In these stories, she introduces an assortment of odd characters ranging from her parents to great aunts, nannies, and retired majors. “I can always appease my craving for the improbable,” she wrote, “by recording with perfect truth my own childhood.” The volume concludes with a selection of seven stories from Kingdoms of Elfin (1977), a collection of fantasies about fairy kingdoms which were written in the last phase of Warner’s creative life. Some reviewers believed that these stories were among her finest work, but others saw them as a trivial indulgence on Warner’s part. The fairy kingdoms she describes are not mythical or otherworldly; they closely parallel human institutions and present Warner with many opportunities for satire on religious superstitions and social snobbery of all kinds.
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...
(The entire section is 930 words.)