Sylvia Townsend Warner Critical Essays


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

One of the notable features of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s short stories is her elegant, precise, epigrammatic, and witty prose. These qualities are particularly noticeable when she focuses on what she knows best: the niceties of English middle-and upper-class life as they reveal themselves in day-to-day domestic and social routines, and the sudden disruption of those routines. As in the novels of her British contemporary, Barbara Pym, her detached and humorous observance of the oddities of humanity is one of the chief pleasures to be gained from her stories. She has a sharp but sympathetic eye for eccentricity of all kinds, and her stories cover a wide range of situations and points of view.

Perhaps because of the variety of her fiction, it would be misleading to pinpoint specific themes or leading ideas. Warner’s stories do not reveal a consistent or dominant mood or atmosphere. She does not espouse a philosophy or champion a cause. Her subject matter is the infinite variety of human nature: its follies, regrets, hopes, deceits, compromises, its small defeats and victories, the tidy chaos of the average human life. The stories frequently develop out of an apparently insignificant event or chance encounter or an incident or memory from the protagonist’s past, which resurfaces to affect the present. A sudden rift is produced in the otherwise smooth fabric of daily life, and often an ironic twist at the end will reveal a new dimension to a relationship or to the inner life of the protagonist.

Warner is a traditionalist. She does not experiment with modern techniques (her chief technical device is the flashback); her stories succeed through strong characterization and plotting. There is an old-fashioned quality about her and her fictional world. Almost all of her stories are set in England, with a carefully evoked spirit of place (perhaps this accounts in part for her success in The New Yorker, since she usually portrays a timeless, civilized England that popular American culture has tended to idealize).


Warner has a Thomas Hardy-like awareness of the ironies of fate (Hardy was a major influence on her early poetry) and of the tricks that time plays. Many of her stories (for example, “The Sea Is Always the Same,” “Johnnie Brewer,” and “A Second Visit”) center on the protagonist’s return, after a gap of many years, to a former home or place of memories. In “Hee-Haw!” from Winter in the Air, and Other Stories, Mrs. Vincent returns to the village in Cornwall, where for three years, thirty years previously, she had lived turbulently with her first husband, Ludovick, a young artist who was later to gain eminence. The first sound she hears on her return is the unchanging, regular sound of the foghorn from the lightship (Hee Haw! Hee Haw!), which seems to span the thirty years of her absence, giving a sense of permanence and familiarity to the external environment. What of her internal environment? She is introduced to an old man in the hotel bar, who needs little prompting to recall the famous artist. His recollections, however, shock her. He tells her that Ludovick and his wife (or girlfriend, he did not know which) were the happiest couple he had ever seen, and he relates several incidents in which they were playing and laughing together. Mrs. Vincent, however, knowing how stormy her relationship with Ludovick was, assumes without question that the old man must be referring to another woman. In a wave of jealousy, she realizes that she has discovered, thirty years after the event, her husband’s infidelity. She is left to her anger and her melancholy; an old wound has been reopened in a way that she would not have imagined possible.

The strength of “Hee-Haw!” is in the contrast between the ease with which the reader guesses the truth (although the truth is never overtly established) and the inability of Mrs. Vincent to recognize that her relationship with Ludovick might have looked quite different from the outside. It is at once a poignant tale of reminiscence and a reminder of the subjectivity of the experience of life. Appearances are not what they seem, and memory is only shifting sand.

“Winter in the Air”

“Winter in the Air” also focuses on a return. A middle-aged woman, Barbara, returns to live in London after a twelve-year absence, following the breakup of her marriage. The story consists of a series of flashbacks to the final stages of her marriage two months previously, interspersed with Barbara’s thoughts as she arranges the furniture in her new apartment. The reader is given a minimum of clues regarding the reasons for the divorce, and the chief interest of this otherwise slight, although typical story, lies in the fact that nine-tenths of its emotional force lies below the surface. Deep emotions surface only momentarily.

What Barbara really feels, though, is contained in the half-remembered snatches of a quotation from William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (1623) which flash into her mind: the dignified, despairing speech of Hermione, the wronged wife, whose chief comfort in life, the favor of her husband, has gone, though she does not know how or why it went. As Barbara sits down to write to Willie, she knows that in real life one does not say such things, and all she is prepared to commit to paper is a platitude about her new charwoman; this, however, is as unsatisfactory to her as confessing her true feelings and she tears up the letter and throws it away. Neither truth nor platitude can be uttered, and the deeper emotional terrain of her life must remain as silent as the silence which she notices enveloping her new apartment. Silence will hide secrets and heal pain, and life will go on. The story finishes with Barbara projecting herself into the mundane thoughts of the charwoman about the weather: Winter is in the air. This final thought has a slightly ominous connotation; whether it hints at Barbara’s future loneliness, old age, or simply the demise of emotional honesty and communication, Warner rightly leaves it to the reader to decide.

“A Love Match”

Swans on an Autumn River contains what is often regarded as Warner’s finest story, “A Love Match.” It centers on a quiet conservative couple, Justin Tizard and his elder sister Celia. Justin returns on leave after the Battle of the Somme in 1916, in which Celia’s fiancé has been killed. He stays at her apartment in London, but during his sleep he relives the terrible scenes of battle, raving incoherently. Celia, sleepless, listens in horror in the adjoining room. The following day, as they stroll casually around London, an old woman mistakes them for man and wife. The incident is one of several foreshadowings of what is to come. Two nights later, Celia is again awakened by Justin’s ravings. She goes to his side to comfort him, and the combination of her compassion and his distress drives them into the physical expression of love.

Afterward, they feel no regret, and as the years go by they find happiness together. They possess an intuitive insight into each other’s feelings, feel no need to impress each other, and are not particularly concerned with each other’s likes and dislikes. Their common childhood memories act as a bond between them. They also become practiced at shielding their true relationship from their neighbors in Hallowby, the English village to which they move in 1923, and soon become one of the most respectable of couples.

Their lives are upset in the 1930’s when Celia, who has become bored with local society and has developed a reputation for supporting unusual causes, receives a series of anonymous letters which claim that her secret is common knowledge in the village. The letters turn out to be only idle gossip from one of Justin’s disappointed female admirers, and he soon puts a stop to them. Nothing has changed, and the secret remains intact.

The final outcome is carefully developed to produce the maximum effect. During World War II, Hallowby is bombed. Rescue workers entering a bombed house find a bedroom floor deep in rubble. Slates from the roof have fallen on the bed, crushing the two bodies that lay there. One of the villagers at the scene offers the opinion that Justin went into Celia’s bedroom to comfort her....

(The entire section is 3433 words.)