Sylvia Townsend Warner Warner, Sylvia Townsend (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Sylvia Townsend Warner 1893-1978

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

The following entry provides criticism on Warner's works from 1982 through 2001. For criticism prior to 1982, see CLC, Volumes 7 and 19.

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Warner's stories range from lengthy, full narratives to sketch-like treatments in which considerations of plot have been replaced by a concern for conveying the intensity and ambiguity that typify many human experiences.

Biographical Information

Warner was born on December 6, 1893, to a schoolmaster and his wife in Harrow, Middlesex county, England, 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, The Espalier, was followed by best-selling novels in the next two years. From 1927 on Warner supported herself with her writing. Her first short story, “The Maze,” was published in 1928 and two more were included in the same volume in her third novel, The True Heart (1929). 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 on May 1, 1978.

Major Works

A prolific writer, Warner published some thirty-five books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. One of her best-known novels, Lolly Willowes (1926) chronicles the story of Laura Willowes, an English spinster who rebels against her conventional life by making a pact with the devil and becoming a witch. In another of Warner's novels, Summer Will Show (1936) a spurned English wife falls in love with her husband's mistress, a French communist. The novel was set during the French Revolution. The stories of The Salutation (1932) 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 (1935) 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 (1943) 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 (1947) and Winter in the Air (1955) 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. 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

Many reviewers lauded Warner for her fine prose style, the incorporation of the fantastic in much of her work, and the diversity of her subject matter. 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 more political fiction has been 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, and her portrayal of female characters has garnered much critical attention.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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

*A Moral Ending, and Other Stories (short stories) 1931

Opus 7 (poetry) 1931

More Joy in Heaven, and Other Stories (short stories) 1935

Summer Will Show (novel) 1936

After the Death of Don Juan (novel) 1938

The Cat's Cradle Book (short stories) 1940

A Garland of Straw, and Other Stories (short stories) 1943

The Museum of Cheats (short stories) 1947

The Corner That Held Them (novel) 1948

Jane Austen (criticism) 1951

The Flint Anchor (novel) 1954

Winter in the Air, and Other Stories (short stories) 1955

A Spirit Rises (short stories) 1962

A Stranger with a Bag, and Other Stories (short stories) 1966

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

King Duffus, and Other Poems (poetry) 1968

The Innocent and the Guilty (short stories) 1971

The Kingdoms of Elfin (short stories) 1977

§Azrael, and Other Poems (poetry) 1978

Scenes of Childhood (sketches) 1981

Collected Poems (poetry) 1983

Letters (letters) 1983

One Thing Leading to Another, and Other Stories (short stories) 1984

The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner (diaries) 1994

The Music at Long Verney (short stories) 2001

*Enlarged as The Salutation (1932).

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

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

§Republished as Twelve Poems (1980).

Maureen Howard (review date 3 March 1982)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Howard, Maureen. “What It Was Like.” Atlantic Monthly 249, no. 3 (3 March 1982): 83-5.

[In the following excerpted review, Howard contends that “though the individual pieces in Scenes of Childhood are charming, bright, and well-turned, I think that book as a whole does Miss Warner's memory a disservice.”]

Strictly speaking, neither Patrick White's Flaws in the Glass nor Sylvia Townsend Warner's Scenes of Childhood is an autobiography. In the one case, Patrick White, the Australian novelist who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973, insists on the constricting subtitle “A Self-Portrait.” In the other, Miss Warner, the British writer known to us primarily through her stories in The New Yorker, never intended to write an autobiography: her memoirs have been “ordered into sequence” by a doting editor after her death. But we've learned by now that there is no proper form, no set procedure, for autobiography. …

Through the individual pieces in Scenes of Childhood are charming, bright, and well turned, I think the book as a whole does Miss Warner's memory a disservice. As they read about the bizarre nanny, the intriguing French teacher, her mother's culinary innocence (all done in fairly short takes), those who followed Miss Warner's New Yorker stories will be reminded of an easy literary style, an anecdotal manner, a tidy trans-Atlantic package of prose that, like a jar of special jam from Fortnum & Mason, is soon devoured, soon forgotten.

She was better than this in many ways, often writing stories that reflected upon English lives under the pressure of a changing social order. Her sense of place—the restored country house that has distracted its tenants from their failing marriage, the spiffy London flat without a history—can be as fine as Elizabeth Bowen's. But Miss Warner's method in sketching these memoirs is so hasty that she doesn't take time to set up a world. The point of an incident is that the butler was sinister or that her mother was imperious, and that point must be delivered with wit and a twist of delicate irony. The setting—an educated, upper-class household—is assumed; Miss Warner's father was a master at Harrow. The time, in twenty-four of the twenty-eight pieces, is Edwardian England as it maintained itself up to and including the romance of World War I. Sylvia Townsend Warner meant only to entertain, like the much-loved writers and actors who banded together to give up Upstairs, Downstairs, that elevated soap opera that...

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Hope Hale Davis (review date 8 March 1982)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Davis, Hope Hale. “Barricades and Gardens.” New Leader 65 (8 March 1982): 16-17.

[In the following review, Davis notes an uneven quality in the sketches in Scenes of Childhood and reflects on her meeting with the author.]

Reading this book [Scenes of Childhood], I gradually realized that almost everything that mattered to the author was either left out or skipped past or splashed over with a rather urgently whipped-up froth of spoofing. Almost, I have to emphasize: There are passages of sudden, seemingly involuntary spellweaving that match the best pages of her other works. That is saying a lot, both qualitatively and quantitatively....

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Vicki Feaver (review date 18 March 1983)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Feaver, Vicki. “Making a Stand against Habit.” Times Literary Supplement (18 March 1983): 278.

[In the following review, Feaver considers Warner's poetic output, contending that “more real cause of regret, however, considering the strangely compelling quality of her best work, is that poetry was for most of her life a peripheral and not a major concern.”]

In the course of Sylvia Townsend Warner's first novel Lolly Willowes it suddenly dawns on the heroine that she is a witch by vocation. It is a discovery that not only liberates her from a life as a much put-upon spinster-aunt but also enables her to view the world with the eyes of a poet:...

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Richard Howard (review date 19 March 1983)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Howard, Richard. “The Wise Woman of Dorset.” Nation 236 (19 March 1983): 343-45.

[In the following review, Howard provides a positive review of Warner's collected letters and poetry and addresses the lack of critical attention to her oeuvre.]

She has no critical cachet whatever, this writer. Her fifteen volumes of fiction are not examined in studies of the modern English novel—even Mr. Fortune's Maggot (1927) fails to appear in bibliographies of gay writing, though it is, with Stein's Things As They Are, the most passionate homosexual novel I know. She is not “taught,” and I have never heard her mentioned on those occasions when poets...

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Mollie Panter-Downes (review date 30 May 1983)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Panter-Downes, Mollie. “All Things Both Great and Small.” New Yorker 59 (30 May 1983): 98-102.

[In the following review, Panter-Downes offers a laudatory review of Warner's collected letters as well as an overview of the author's life and work.]

Some years before she died, in 1978, Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote to her friend and literary executor William Maxwell saying that she would try to leave her papers in shipshape order for him. She added, as an afterthought, that “the people who were attached to me might … like a collected volume of my letters. I love reading Letters myself, and I can imagine enjoying my own.” It was clearly in her mind, she...

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Eleanor Perényi (review date 18 July 1985)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Perényi, Eleanor. “The Good Witch of the West.” New York Review of Books 32 (18 July 1985): 27-30.

[In the following review, Perényi asserts that Warner's work is difficult to categorize and has resulted in a lack of sufficient critical attention to her oeuvre.]

The death of Sylvia Townsend Warner in 1978 at the age of eighty-five was unmourned by any major critic in this country. “Noted for her graceful style and ironic wit,” said The New York Times in one of those obituaries that read like a passport to respectable oblivion. Though not exactly neglected (her short fiction appeared for decades in The New Yorker and was regularly...

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Dennis Vannatta (essay date 1985)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Vannatta, Dennis. “The English Short Story, 1945-1950.” In The English Short Story 1945-1980: A Critical History, pp. 12-13. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1985.

[In the following excerpt, Vannatta provides a positive assessment of The Museum of Cheats.]

Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978) should best be remembered as a short story writer, although she was a prolific writer who produced, in addition to twelve volumes of short stories, novels, poetry, biographies, and authoritative studies of Tudor church music. Warner was already fairly well known to some American readers when The Museum of Cheats appeared in 1947. Eight of the stories in this volume had,...

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Dennis Vannatta (essay date 1985)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Vannatta, Dennis. “The English Short Story in the Fifties.” In The English Short Story 1945-1980: A Critical History, pp. 44-6. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1985.

[In the following excerpt, Vannatta deems Warner's short fiction pure and economical.]

Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978) never published a representative collection of her short fiction, which is unfortunate, for she deserves such a monument to her position in the honor roll of the century's storytellers. Like Bates, Pritchett, and Davies, she has enormous reservoirs of sympathy and understanding, and like them she never allows herself to become sentimental with her characters. They are presented,...

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Jonathan Yardley (review date 18 December 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Yardley, Jonathan. “Of Love's Fortunes and Misfortunes.” Washington Post Book World 18, no. 51 (18 December 1988): 3.

[In the following favorable review of Selected Stories, Yardley maintains that however diverse Warner's stories “may be in tone and settings, her stories are all noteworthy for their graceful, witty prose and their tough, uncompromising intelligence.”]

The stories of Sylvia Townsend Warner, as collected in this generous volume [Selected Stories], defy categorization if not description. Warner, who died a decade ago at the age of 85, was a British writer whose styles and subjects varied widely; she seems to have been...

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Wendy Mulford (essay date 1988)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mulford, Wendy. “Sylvia: The Novels of the 1930s.” In This Narrow Place: Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland: Life, Letters and Politics, 1930-1951, pp. 104-34. Kitchener, Ontario: Pandora Press, 1988.

[In the following essay, Mulford traces Warner's literary development throughout the 1930s.]


Writing a review of Stephen Spender and John Lehmann's anthology Poems for Spain in Life and Letters Today, Sylvia said that those who went out to fight in Spain, unlike those who had, in Owen's famous words, ‘died like cattle’ in the senseless slaughter of the First...

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Terry Castle (essay date 1992)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Castle, Terry. “Sylvia Townsend Warner and the Counterplot of Lesbian Fiction.” In Sexual Sameness: Textual Differences in Lesbian and Gay Writing, edited by Joseph Bristow, pp. 128-47. London: Routledge, 1992.

[In the following essay, Castle discusses Warner's Summer Will Show as a lesbian novel.]

What is a lesbian fiction? According to what we might call the ‘Queen Victoria Principle’ of cultural analysis, no such entity, of course, should even exist. In 1885, after the passage of the Criminal Law Amendment Act outlawing homosexual acts in Great Britain, it was pointed out to Queen Victoria that the amendment only dealt with ‘acts of gross...

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Bruce Knoll (essay date fall 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Knoll, Bruce. “‘An Existence Doled Out’: Passive Resistance as a Dead End in Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willowes.Twentieth Century Literature 39, no. 3 (fall 1993): 344-63.

[In the following essay, Knoll perceives Lolly Willowes as a novel that explores the dualism between male aggression and female passivity.]

Sylvia Townsend Warner begins with her first novel, Lolly Willowes, or The Loving Huntsman, written in 1926, to break down the dualism between aggressiveness and passivity. This dualism is couched in terms of a masculine versus a feminine approach to life, neither of which Townsend Warner accepts, because the...

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Anne Chisholm (review date 19 June 1994)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Chisholm, Anne. A review of The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner, by Sylvia Townsend Warner. Observer (19 June 1994): 18.

[In the following review, Chisholm offers a favorable review of The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner.]

In 1929 Sylvia Townsend Warner described in her diary how she held a friend's baby on her lap. It felt, she wrote, ‘like a short stout salmon. It is not a person one feels moving when one holds a baby: it is life, compact, darting, incalculable.’ Some of her most characteristic and admirable qualities are instantly apparent: the unsentimental eye, the speed of perception, and the zest for life in all its oddity.


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Frank Kermode (review date 21 July 1994)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kermode, Frank. “Breeding.” London Review of Books 16, no. 14 (21 July 1994): 15-16.

[In the following review, Kermode notes the insights that Warner's diaries provide into her life.]

Sylvia Townsend Warner died in 1978, aged 84. Her first novel, Lolly Willowes, appeared in 1926, and none of her later works quite matched its success. In her later years she was probably better known to most people as a name that appeared under rather than above story after story in the New Yorker; that journal published about fifty over a period of some forty years. She was a copious, elegant and witty writer, and since she produced these stories rather easily,...

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Michael Steinman (essay date 2001)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Steinman, Michael. Introduction to The Elements of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978, edited by Michael Steinman, pp. xv-xxvii. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 2001.

[In the following essay, Steinman considers The Elements of Lavishness a testament to the true friendship between Warner and editor William Maxwell.]

Between 1938 and 1978, the inimitable writers Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell exchanged more than thirteen hundred affectionate and witty letters. Their at first formal relationship—he was Mr. Maxwell, the New Yorker fiction editor; she was Miss Warner, the distinguished contributor...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Ackland, Victoria. For Sylvia: An Honest Account. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1985, 135 p.

Recollections of her life with Warner.

Harman, Claire. Sylvia Townsend Warner: A Biography. London: Chatto & Windus, 1989, 358 p.

Biography of Warner. Harman includes a primary bibliography.


Levinsohn, Florence. “Early Sketches from a Writer's Family Life.” Chicago Tribune Book World (7 February 1982): 6.

Praises the wit and charm in Scenes of Childhood.

Additional coverage of Warner's life and...

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