Warner, Sylvia Townsend (Vol. 7)
Warner, Sylvia Townsend 1893–
Sylvia Townsend Warner is a British author of short stories, many of which have appeared in The New Yorker, of novels—Lolly Willowes was the first selection of The Book-of-the-Month Club—and of poetry. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61-64.)
The Museum of Cheats is one of those modest little books that come unheralded but will linger on the shelf of well-loved books long after its noisier contemporaries have landed out on the street in the ten cent book box. Miss Warner's publishers recommend her "felicitous writing, spiced with an astringent satire" and for once a jacket tells a truth. There is something deeper than satire in these varied but absorbing stories of members of our own species in situations that assay their values. Under the satire are things that range sometimes from a slightly rowdy humor to ominous warnings of the thin ice on which we travel psychologically and the narrow margins by which we sometimes lose the incomparable treasures of love and companionship and self-respect; and the equally small pennyweights by which we acquire or sacrifice the insights on which freedom and integrity depend. Apart from all that there is sheer entertainment in these stories, so that the most preposterous situation has a great air of reality, and the simple real sometimes becomes the preposterous. This is the art of short story writing in durable and significant form. (p. 286)
B. D. in Canadian Forum, March, 1948.
Miss Townsend Warner has been criticised and is likely to be criticised again for the fact that in her new novel, The Corner That Held Them, she views her fourteenth-century nuns through twentieth-century eyes. I can only feel thankful that she does. How bitter this mediaeval concoction would be without the jam of modern wit and irony! The age she covers—one that as a result of the Black Death of 1358 and the Great Plague of 1374 became so obsessed by death that it produced the Dance of Death, an hysteria possessing whole communities, sending them into the church-yards to dig up bones and skulls, and dance until everyone fell exhausted—is not an easy one to humanise. Viewed from this distance, its quality is so macabre that it appears more alien than the heydays of Greece, Rome or even Egypt. It is, therefore, unlikely that any attempt by the writer to fit out her nuns with archaic language and thoughts would produce figures any nearer to our understanding than those of the Bayeux Tapestry.
In literature reality is relative only to our willingness to believe, and, because I can believe in them, Miss Warner's nuns are for me much more like fourteenth-century nuns than could be any tedious puppets talking pseudo-Chaucerian. As far as period details are concerned I do not know whether the novel is accurate or not but it is something more—it is entertaining. Miss Warner's survey of thirty-three years of life in the convent of Oby is from start to finish a mild, sustained delight, never during its three hundred and ten pages jarring one by any obvious error in the drawing of her long pageant of characters. She treats them all with equal insight and interest so that, as far as importance is concerned, they are all much of a size and rouse the same sympathy. The resulting effect is slightly flat but one of complete realism. (p. 744)
Olivia Manning, in The Spectator (© 1948 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), December 3, 1948.
In outline [The Flint Anchor] is the kind of novel that used to be a staple of English fiction—a chronicle of family life over a long period of years—though in some other respects it betrays its contemporary composition. (p. XIV)
As usual in a novel of this sort, much of the charm lies in the minor characters—the tippling Mrs. Barnard, various neighbors and family friends, relatives and retainers. Less usual is the highly finished style—witty, precise, unhurried—in which Miss Townsend Warner tells her story.
If one were to offer any criticism of...
(The entire section is 2,394 words.)