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Warner's stories range from lengthy, full narratives to sketch-like treatments in which considerations of plot have been replaced by a concern for conveying the intensity and ambiguity that typify many human experiences.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