Sylvia Townsend Warner Warner, Sylvia Townsend (Short Story Criticism) - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Warner, Sylvia Townsend 1893-1978

English novelist, short story writer, poet, translator, editor, and biographer.

Warner's stories present variations on a number of overlapping themes revolving around the attempt to understand human nature in all its complexity. Her fiction variously addresses the relationship between art and life, the contrast between appearance and reality, and the sordidness, follies, and extraordinary moments of everyday life. While often thematically linked, Warner's stories range from lengthy, full narratives to sketch-like treatments in which considerations of plot have been replaced by a concern for conveying the intensity and ambiguousness that typify many human experiences.

Biographical Information

Warner was born to a schoolmaster and his wife in Harrow borough, Middlesex county, and educated at home. Her study of music was interrupted by the outbreak of World War I, at which time she helped raise money for the Red Cross and assisted in the settling of Belgian refugees in Harrow. In 1915 Warner went to work in a munitions factory. A few years later she moved to London, where she pursued a career as a musicologist, serving on the editorial committee for Tudor Church Music, a ten-volume project. Appearing in 1925, her first collection of poetry was followed by best-selling novels in the next two years. From 1927 on Warner supported herself by her writing. Her first short story, "The Maze," was published in 1928 and two more were included in the same volume as her third novel, The True Heart. Warner's books were even more popular in America than in England. She was treated like a celebrity during a visit to New York in 1929 and formed friendships with prominent women in American literary circles, including Dorothy Parker, Elinor Wylie, Anne Parrish, and Jean Untermeyer. In the mid-1930s Warner joined the Communist party and began to write for the Left Review. Supporting the Republican side in the Spanish civil war, she led appeals for the Committee for Spanish Medical Aid, visited Spain for the committee, and participated in rallies and demonstrations. During her literary career, Warner compiled ten collections of short stories, many of which originally appeared in The New Yorker, and one more volume was published posthumously. Warner died in 1978.

Major Works of Short Fiction

The stories of The Salutation are essentially plotless evocations of character and place. Warner's characters, commonly from the working class, are either failures or unhappy individuals. She depicts their flaws without judgment and avoids sentimentality. Written in a vein similar to that of The Salutation, More Joy in Heaven, and Other Stories satirizes the upper class and organized religion, while offering more portraits of people lost in the shuffle of society, such as the elderly and poor. Evincing Warner's political sympathies and commitment, A Garland of Straw, and Other Stories shows the hideousness of war, the smugness of bourgeois and chauvinistic individuals, the innocence of the young and uninformed, and the anti-Semitism of the Fascists. Here Warner also protests England's noninterventionist policy regarding the Spanish civil war and its failure to respond to the threat of Nazism. Similarly, in The Museum of Cheats she portrays the effects of war on the people of England, but also emphasizes the betrayals to which women are particularly vulnerable, living in fear of the men in their lives. The stories of Winter in the Air, and Other Stories are character studies featuring, for example, a soldier returned from the war, a mother tending to children left fatherless by the war, and a woman who moves to London seeking anonymity in the wake of abandonment by her husband. Demonstrating Warner's knack for the absurd and whimsical, "But at the Stroke of Midnight" from The Innocent and the Guilty tells of a man who is so insensitive and oblivious that he realizes that his wife is gone only because dinner has not been set out. It never crosses his mind that his wife, who has assumed a new identity, intends never to return to him. His wife is eventually forced back to her old life, but only long enough for her and her husband to be carried off in a flood. Toward the end of her career, Warner wrote tales set in Elfland—a world of fairies, elves, werewolves, and other fantastical creatures—using this imaginary realm to comment indirectly on human behavior and society.

Critical Reception

Though Warner's short stories have generally been well received by readers, they have not attracted the longer, in-depth analyses that her novels have garnered. Commentators have observed that Warner successfully ennobles lowly protagonists rather than pitying or idealizing them. Similarly, critics note that Warner expressed compassion for unfortunate characters without becoming maudlin. In contrast, some of her stories with political content are perceived to be heavy-handed, and reviewers have objected to Warner's single-minded emphasis on social consequences at the expense of commentary about the morality of behavior such as adultery or prostitution. Nevertheless, feminist critics have generally been drawn to the satirical and political content of her work. Reviewing The Museum of Cheats, but summing up the sentiments of many readers, a commentator in The Times Literary Supplement stated: "Miss Warner is highly skilled as a writer in this medium [the short story], equally graceful and expert in handling farce or tragedy, the sordid or the purely funny. Her wit is delicate and precise, and her observation acute, so that a few lines are sufficient to create a character, whether it be an odious child, an obstinate lover, or a dreadful old woman who was popularly supposed to have eaten her husband. There is nothing portentous or bludgeoning about the style; and .. . the author is at her best when she is most absurd or fantastic."

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

*A Moral Ending, and Other Stories 1931

More Joy in Heaven, and Other Stories 1935

The Cat's Cradle Book 1940

†A Garland of Straw, and Other Stories 1943

The Museum of Cheats 1947

Winter in the Air, and Other Stories 1955

A Spirit Rises 1962

‡A Stranger with a Bag, and Other Stories 1966

The Innocent and the Guilty: Stories 1971

The Kingdoms of Elfin 1977

One Thing Leading to Another, and Other Stories 1984

*Enlarged as The Salutation (1932).

‡Republished as A Garland of Straw: Twenty-Eight Stories (1943).

‡Republished as Swans on an Autumn River (1966).

Other Major Works

The Espalier (poetry) 1925

Lolly Willowes; or, The Loving Huntsman (novel) 1926

Mr. Fortune's Maggot (novel) 1927

Time Importuned (poetry) 1928

The True Heart (novel) 1929

Opus 7 (poetry) 1931

Summer Will Show (novel) 1936

After the Death of Don Juan (novel) 1938

The Corner That Held Them (novel) 1948

Jane Austen (criticism) 1951

The Flint Anchor (novel) 1954

"Women as Writers" (lecture) February, 1959; published in Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, May, 1959

T. H. White: A Biography (biography) 1967

King Duffus, and Other Poems (poetry) 1968

§Azrael, and Other Poems (poetry) 1978

Scenes of Childhood (semiautobiographical sketches) 1981

Collected Poems (poetry) 1983

Letters (correspondence) 1983

§Republished as Twelve Poems (1980).

Jane Spence Southron (essay date 1940)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Catabasis," in The New York Times Book Review, October 20, 1940, p. 24.

[In the following review, Southron claims that in The Cat's Cradle Warner is "at her most beguiling best. " ]

"Our unhappiness transcended our egoism, and by degrees by a complicated process of advances and withdrawals, exchange of looks, fusion of silences, we fell deeply in love with each other. After that she lived with me . . . and now my whole life was transfigured, full of entertainment and delight. . . . Naturally, there was a good deal of talk about it—embassies always gossip." Which tells the story.

To begin with, you could hardly fail, even were no name...

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The Times Literary Supplement (essay date 1943)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of A Garland of Straw, in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 2165, July 31, 1943, p. 365.

[The critic offers a mixed assessment of the stories in A Garland of Straw.]

There have been several unusually interesting volumes of short stories in recent months. In most of them the stories represented the output of a longer period of time than that following the outbreak of war, so the war itself, while it has for obvious practical reasons given a fillip to the short-story form (and to verse) as a relatively unleisured means of expression, cannot alone account for the frequency of such volumes of late. But the fact is that, in this matter of types and...

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Diana Trilling (essay date 1943)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of A Garland of Straw, in The Nation, New York, Vol. 157, No. 15, October 9, 1943, pp. 414-15.

[In the following excerpt, Trilling claims Warner is "an accomplished practitioner of her craft," but finds fault with artistic practices of the generation of writers to which Warner belongs.]

In writing last week about Eudora Welty's latest volume of short stories I said that somewhere between Chekhov and Katherine Mansfield the short story had got off its trolley, and I suggested that it was Miss Mansfield who was in large part responsible for the exaggerated subjectivity which has so variously corrupted modern short fiction. The line of descent from...

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James Hilton (essay date 1947)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Stories to Be Long Remembered: Sylvia Townsend Warner, a Deceptively Blithe Spirit," in New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review, March 23, 1947, p. 4.

[In the following review, Hilton praises The Museum of Cheats, adding that, to fully enjoy the stories, "one must listen as well as read. " ]

Sylvia Townsend Warner, still best known as the author of Lolly Willowes and Mr. Fortune's Maggot, has collected a score or so of stories into a volume called, after prevalent fashion, from one of them, The Museum of Cheats. The title is also of a fashion: it puzzles rather than explains, incites more than invites, and in a literary world...

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Eunice S. Holsaert (essay date 1947)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Tidbits in Acid," in The New York Times, Section 7, March 23, 1947, p. 16.

[In the review below, Holsaert gives a favorable assessment of the stories in The Museum of Cheats, saying that Warner's "skilled guidance" allows ordinary characters to be "unexpectedly entertaining. "]

Miss Warner is one of that handful of English and American women writers who manage to be by turns compassionate and scathing without their syntax becoming ruffled or their taste affected by the moral climate of which they write. Less vibrant and evocative than Elizabeth Bïwen, and not such a reformer at heart as Elizabeth Parsons, the touchstone of Miss Warner's gifts seems to...

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Elizabeth Jennings (essay date 1955)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Winter in the Air, and Other Stories, in The Spectator, Vol. 195, No. 6652, December 23, 1955, p. 877.

[In the following excerpt, Jennings finds that the stories in Winter in the Air reflect Warner's perceptivity about people and her strong sense of place.]

Winter in the Air, by Sylvia Townsend Warner, is a very impressive book indeed. Every story shows sensitiveness in the good sense—that is, awareness of all the possibilities of a character or a situation, swiftness in reaching the honest conclusion. Miss Townsend Warner is, above all, interested in what people feel when they find themselves in certain situations—a...

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Sara Henderson Hay (essay date 1956)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Brief, Poetic, Probing Stories," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review, February 26, 1956, p. 1.

[In the following review, Hay praises Winter in the Air, and Other Stories, calling it "rewarding and stimulating."]

Charlton Mackrell, impaled on the shaft of Sylvia Townsend Warner's fine irony, was a gentleman who, "in seeing both sides of a question, giving the Devil his due, stating the other man's case, allowing that to err is human, and never committing himself to any opinion till he had made quite sure there were no signs of error or prejudice about it . . . had attained eminence both as a judge of Shorthorn cattle and as a literary critic." This...

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Dachine Rainer (essay date 1956)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Humor and Irony," in Commonweal, Vol. LXIV, No. 1, April 6, 1956, pp. 33-4.

[In the following review, Rainer acknowledges Warner's technical skills but finds Winter in the Air, and Other Stories lacking in imagination.]

A great deal has happened to both literary taste and to Miss Warner's talent since 1926 when her Lolly Willowes was the first Book-of-the-Month Club selection. Not only have standards for the minor novelist fallen into a grave decline, and Gresham's Law seen them give way to the sentimentality of Rumer Godden or the pretentious trash of Wouk, but the exciting experimentation or relative daring of writers has, with little...

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William Arrowsmith (essay date 1956)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "News from Mojave," in The Hudson Review, Vol. IX, No. 3, Autumn, 1956, pp. 479-80.

[In the following excerpt from a review of Winter in the Air, Arrowsmith describes Warner as being "an almost flawless writer" within a narrow range of fiction. ]

Within severe limits, Miss Sylvia Townsend Warner is an almost flawless writer, and Winter in the Air is an astonishingly sustained collection of a score of short stories. It is rare to find delicacy so untroubled by the fear of preciousness, and fastidiousness so capable of emotional, rather than verbal or atmospheric, precision. She is incapable of real power and these stories are innocent of ideas, but...

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Frederic E. Faverty (essay date 1962)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Stories with Mood and a Sense of Place," in Chicago Sunday Tribune Magazine of Books, March 18, 1962, p. 5.

[In the following review of A Spirit Rises, Faverty appreciates Warner's ability to create an atmosphere in which the elements of her story seem believable. ]

In the title story of this collection [A Spirit Rises] a little girl is held enchanted as her father reads poetry to her on a rainy afternoon. Readers will be similarly held by some of these 14 stories, for Sylvia Warner is a practiced craftsman.

She is skilled first of all in evoking an atmosphere. The cadenced language of the title story fits the mood of reverie...

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Hallie Burnett (essay date 1962)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Indecisive Denouement," in The Saturday Review, (New York), Vol. 45, No. 16, April 21, 1962, p. 30.

[In the following review, Burnett pronounces Warner's style in the stories of A Spirit Rises lucid and graceful. ]

Since it is the sharpest and briefest form in dramatic literature, and since there is room in the short story for humor or pathos, realism or symbolism, it has, as shown by Sylvia Townsend Warner in A Spirit Rises, something for everyone.

Take the story "Barnby Robinson," where the wrongdoer in a triangle becomes the victim in an unforeseen way. At the beginning the situation is conventional enough: a playwright...

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John Updike (essay date 1966)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Swans on an Autumn River, in The Critic as Artist: Essays on Books 1920-1970, edited by Gilbert A. Harrison, Liveright Publishing, 1972, pp. 333-39.

[In the following review, which was originally published in The New Republic in 1966, Updike comments on the "genius" of Warner's writing. ]

The stories of Sylvia Townsend Warner stick up from The New Yorker's fluent fiction-stream with a certain stony air of mastery. They are granular and adamant and irregular in shape. The prose has a much-worked yet abrasive texture of minute juxtaposition and compounded accuracies. Candles are lit in an antique shop, and "The polished surfaces...

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Robert Emmet Long (essay date 1971)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Innocent and the Guilty, in The Saturday Review (New York), Vol. 54, No. 18, May 1, 1971, pp. 41-2.

[In the following excerpt, Long comments on the "sophistication" and "imagination" of Warner's stories in The Innocent and the Guilty.]

Sylvia Townsend Warner, who is now in her late seventies, has had a long, distinguished career. Her stories practically glisten with craftsmanship, and her imagination has a quality of urbanity that is present in all the tales in The Innocent and the Guilty, regardless of how different the scenes and characters are.

In "The Perfect Setting" Miss Warner has an opportunity for satire...

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Sylvia Townsend Warner with Val Warner and Michael Schmidt (interview date 1975)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Sylvia Townsend Warner: 1893-1978: A Celebration," edited by Claire Harman, in PN Review, Vol. 8, No. 3, 1981, pp. 35-7.

[In the following interview, which was conducted in 1975, Warner discusses her writing career and political views. ]

[Sylvia Townsend Warner]: When did I begin to write? I was led away by paper. I'm always led away by blank paper. We had a great many photographs in our work, black and white photographs of manuscripts, and there were always some throw-aways. And the white was the most beautiful smooth white photographic paper and nobody wanted it, and I wanted it, and having collected it by degrees I thought, ''I must do something about all...

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Gabriele Annan (essay date 1977)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Not So Little People," in The Times Literary Supplement, January 14, 1977, p. 25.

[In this review, Annan describes Warner's prose as "poetic and . . . mystical. " ]

What is named on the label is found in the jar: [the stories in Kingdoms of Elfin] really are fairy stories and fourteen of the sixteen have appeared in The New Yorker where they must have glittered with a strange unearthly light among the wife-swappings on Martha's Vineyard, the examinations of social diseases, and the advertisements for Bergdorf Goodman. The elfin kingdoms over or underlie (mostly under, because they tend to be subterranean) Europe, and their inhabitants...

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William Jay Smith (essay date 1977)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Kingdoms of Elfin, in The New York Times Book Review, March 27, 1977, pp. 6-7.

[In the following review, Smith says that while Warner is dextrous and sharp in her presentation of the elfin world to the reader, behind it all "the reader senses the author's fundamental skepticism. "]

This collection of tales [Kingdoms of Elfin] by Sylvia Townsend Warner is, to say the least, cause for celebration. Issued on the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of her novel Lolly Willowes, the first book ever chosen by the Book-of-the-Month Club, it has all the freshness, wit, originality of perception and clarity of insight that have won...

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David Williams (essay date 1979)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Your Elf," in Punch, Vol. 277, August 1, 1979, p. 181.

[In the following excerpt from a review of The Kingdoms of Elfin, Williams praises Warner's prose as "a delight. "]

Sylvia Townsend Warner was variously gifted. In The Corner that Held Them she wrote one of the finest novels to appear in this country since the war. She wrote also a magnificent biography of T. H. White, tragic author of The Once and Future King. But primarily she was, like White himself, a fantasist.

I'm not a Hobbit-man, not a Watership-down-man, not even a Narnia-man. These fantastics are too long, too self-important, too axe-grinding. But Sylvia...

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Glen Cavaliero (essay date 1981)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Short Stories," in "Sylvia Townsend Warner 1893-1978: A Celebration," edited by Claire Harman, in PN Review, Vol. 8, No. 3, 1981, p. 45.

[In the following essay, Cavaliero lauds Warner's literary skill and "ability to celebrate the singular without declining into singularity. " ]

Sylvia Townsend Warner may have been neglected by the critics, but her work was not unread. For over forty years her short stories appeared in The New Yorker, giving her a world-wide reputation; over one hundred and fifty of them appeared in published collections. Clearly she found them an appropriate medium for her gifts.

Those gifts included a talent for...

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Shirley Toulson (essay date 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of One Thing Leading to Another, and Other Stories, in British Book News, July, 1984, p. 427.

[In the following review, Toulson calls One Thing Leading to Another, and Other Stories "a good collection" that includes some characters who showcase Warner "at her sharpest and funniest. "]

Sylvia Townsend Warner, a prolific poet and novelist, was at her best in the sympathetic creation of eccentric and slightly dotty characters. She is probably most widely known for Lolly Willowes, first published in 1925 and reissued by The Women's Press in 1978, the year of her death. Lolly is a sad, wispy, lonely person, the conventional maiden aunt,...

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Anne Duchêne (essay date 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Witty and Well-Mannered," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4247, August 24, 1984, p. 953.

[In the following review, Duchêne describes Warner's prose as "witty, warmhearted, [and] well-mannered," but questions the selection and editing of the stories in One Thing Leading to Another.]

"There's been another horrid murder by Teddy Bears": a well-bred female voice disturbs the Sunday quiet ("as though the words had been etched in dry-point on the silence") of a hotel lounge, and thus the little joke, heard or imagined, becomes the nucleus of another story by Sylvia Townsend Warner. As, in the uncharacteristically laborious title story here, does a cook's...

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Robert Crossley (essay date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Long Day's Dying: The Elves of J. R. R. Tolkien and Sylvia Townsend Warner," in Death and the Serpent: Immortality in Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Carl B. Yoke and Donald M. Hassler, Greenwood Press, 1985, pp. 57-70.

[In the excerpt below, Crossley compares the elfin worlds of Warner and J. R. R. Tolkien.]

Among the folklore traditions on the origin of elves is the notion that they are the lost children of Adam and Lilith, born before the fall in Eden and therefore exempt from the punishment of death, but born as well outside the framework of redemption and therefore also disenfranchised from the promise of a life beyond the end of the world. One...

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Barbara Brothers (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Writing against the Grain: Sylvia Townsend Warner and the Spanish Civil War," in Women's Writing in Exile, edited by Mary Lynn Broe and Angela Ingram, University of North Carolina Press, 1989, pp. 351-68.

[In the following excerpt, Brothers examines Warner's contributions to the body of literature inspired by the Spanish Civil War.]

Sylvia Townsend Warner is an exile from the pages of literary history, her contributions unmarked even in Gilbert and Gubar's Norton Anthology of Literature by Women. Her politics labeled radical in the social text of the twentieth century and her poetic and fictional forms conservative in the Modernist canonical text, she...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Forbes, Nancy. A review of One Thing Leads to Another. The New York Times Book Review (11 November 1984): 32.

Positive assessment of Warner's posthumous collection.

Kiely, Benedict. "The Sky and the River and Man." The New York Times Book Review (6 February 1966): 4, 28.

Enthusiastic endorsement of Warner's literary skills. Observing that Warner had published quite a bit to-date, Kiely states: "This is reason to be grateful. Whether she writes on the putting-to sleep of a favorite cat or on a case of quite respectable middle-class incest, she displays always that irony, that ruthless coolness, that clear sight, that...

(The entire section is 204 words.)