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Warner's stories range from lengthy, full narratives to sketch-like treatments in which considerations of plot have been replaced by a concern for conveying the intensity and ambiguousness that typify many human experiences.
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.
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."