Sylvia Townsend Warner

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Warner, Sylvia Townsend 1893–1978

Warner was a British novelist, short story writer, poet, translator, editor, and biographer. She was perhaps best known for her short stories, many of which first appeared in The New Yorker, and which, according to John Updike, "stick up" from that magazine's "fluent fiction-stream with a certain stony air of mastery." The combination of fantasy and realism that marked Lolly Willowes, her first novel, established a pattern that was to prevail through most of her fiction. (See also CLC, Vol. 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 61-64; obituary, Vols. 77-80.)

Gabriele Annan

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[The stories in Kingdoms of Elfin] are fairy stories…. The elfin kingdoms over or underlie (mostly under, because they tend to be subterranean) Europe, and their inhabitants share the traditionally accepted characteristics of their human counterparts. Thus the elfins of the Kingdom of Wirre Gedanken … are given to metaphysical speculation; on the English side of the Scottish border the fairies are comparatively uncouth and deplorably indifferent to physical comfort; in Elfhame on the Scottish side they are natural theologians; in Ireland they see ghosts, and so on. These are not accidental clichés. You might not think them clichés at all, because they are handled so wittily and unexpectedly: but I think they are and are meant to be, and that the whole book is an attack on accepted thinking….

The Peris of Persia, the stones of Carnac, the Greek gods, Morgan le Fay and King Arthur are part of elfin history. Their present is a picturesque past, set somewhere between the twelfth and seventeenth centuries: a feudal time with many small courts. All the fairies are princes, or courtiers, or their servants; there is no fairy bourgeoisie, and Miss Townsend Warner is not much interested in social criticism. Nor is she interested in the occult, as some modern writers of supernatural tales are. She turns the supernatural upside down: her fairies are not merely sweetly reasonable but sweetly rational, and her jokes—ironical, dry and sly—are jokes against religion, against superstition, gullibility, clericalism and priggishness.

Yet her book is not a dry Voltairian satire. It is poetic, and the poetry comes not only from the fastidious elfin magic of her prose, but also from a feeling for nature which could, perhaps, be called mystical….

Gabriele Annan, "The Not So Little People," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3905, January 14, 1977, p. 25.

Paul Gray

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In Kingdoms of Elfin,… Sylvia Townsend Warner … never condescends to an ethereal race that views mortals as "unfailingly serious and unfailingly absurd." Instead, she talks about fairies without being fey and creates a texture for the intangible.

Each of the book's 16 stories … can fly on its own. Taken together, they form both a whimsical saga of invisible dynasties and an extended commentary on Homo sapiens. Warner's elves are in many ways mirror images of men. They cannot weep and do not hate. They reproduce with difficulty but live for centuries: "Fairies are constructed for longevity, not fertility." They are governed exclusively by women—the more capricious the better. Mocking the human dream of taking wing, elves aspire to a place in society so high that flying will be beneath them. (p. 73)

Warner's prose duplicates the iridescent beauty of elfin life. Her descriptions are brushed with an unsettling magic. Yet Kingdoms of Elfin also pays humanity a backhanded compliment. There is melancholy as well as joy in the fairy state. Suspended somewhere between the angels and man, fairies are dropouts from the cosmic school of hard knocks. Warner's elfin courts are doomed...

(This entire section contains 302 words.)

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to frivolity, to a tepid acceptance of beauty that does not die quite fast enough. In the book's last story, a mortal is given the last word. He is a passionate seeker of the fairies, who finds them, admires them and then compares them to a "swarm of mayflies, indivisibly borne aloft, lowering, shifting, veering, like a shaken impermeable gauze veil over the face of a stream." The fairies are free to laugh at this none-too-flattering description. The mortal response—sadness—is beyond them. (p. 74)

Paul Gray, "Long Looks at the Little People," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc. 1977), Vol. 109, No. 8, February 21, 1977, pp. 73-4.∗

William Jay Smith

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This collection of tales by Sylvia Townsend Warner is, to say the least, cause for celebration…. ["Kingdoms of Elfin"] has all the freshness, wit, originality of perception and clarity of insight that have won for her rhythmical prose so many admirers over so long a time. It offers us an unforgettable journey through time and space, a cast of truly fantastic characters and an impressive and seemingly unending display of verbal fireworks.

Sylvia Townsend Warner's fairyland kingdoms will no doubt be likened to the imaginary realms of J.R.R. Tolkien in "The Lord of the Rings." They may attract many of the same readers and even inspire a similar cult, but they are essentially different. (p. 6)

The stories in "Kingdoms of Elfin" are not genuine fairy tales, in the sense that the author chooses not to move through the looking-glass, but rather to hold that glass up over a long period of history to an imaginary world and to the real world beside it. She maneuvers the glass with such dexterity that the effect is at times dizzying. But the sharpness of detail offered is so great that the reader at the same time feels that he knows exactly where he is and where he will be going next.

Not everything is languorous and lovely in these elfin kingdoms; ugliness and cruelty exist "like dirt in the crevices of an artichoke," presented in the completely matter-of-fact manner of folk tales…. [Behind] all the occult learning that these stories demonstrate, the reader senses the author's fundamental skepticism.

In their intermingling of myth and everyday reality and their playful creation of imaginary worlds, these stories call to mind the moral tales of Jules Laforgue. And as with Laforgue, the moral is in the telling, in the music of language itself and in the perceptions of the human condition that are delivered in passing as from a flashing mirror. They will not be to everyone's liking. Their hothouse atmosphere, their lapidary sheen and their supreme artifice may be too much for those accustomed only to the rough tall tales of the American past or to the confessional alphabet-adventure soup of the moment. Some will find, as did Edwin Muir many years ago, that no matter how well Sylvia Townsend Warner does what she sets out to do, the finished work has a note of falsity to it. Others will delight in every aspect of her aphoristic style—beside which Tolkien seems the clumsiest of writers—and find her superbly wrought tales, however indirect their approach, the achievement of a fine writer and a wise woman. (pp. 6-7)

William Jay Smith, "'Kingdoms of Elfin'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 27, 1977, pp. 6-7.

John Updike

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The late Miss Warner, whose more than half century of brilliantly varied and superbly self-possessed literary production never won her the flaming place in the heavens of reputation that she deserved, began as a poet … [and retained] magic and music in her prose. Her last book … was a series of vivacious matter-of-fact short stories about elves, collected a year before her death as "Kingdoms of Elfin."… Her first novel ["Lolly Willowes"] finds her already moving with sombre confidence into the realm of the supernatural, which she treats as a comfortable branch of the mundane. Her prose, in its simple, abrupt evocations, has something preternatural about it. (p. 99)

[In "Lolly Willowes" there is] an identification of the witch with Nature. Sylvia Townsend Warner was a great friend of Nature; she was one of the last bardic intimates of rural England and a witty, erudite explicator of those myths and sensations in which the agricultural underlay of civilization still makes itself felt. (p. 100)

John Updike, "Jake and Lolly Opt Out," in The New Yorker (© 1979 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LV, No. 27, August 20, 1979, pp. 97-102.∗

W. J. Strachan

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[Kingdoms of Elfin] was a return to the earlier fantasy modality of [Sylvia Townsend Warner's] first masterpiece, Lolly Willowes, published half a century previously. Re-reading it, I thought how well T. S. Eliot's 'The end is where we start from … where every word is at home' … applied both to her books and her informal letter-writing which captured the essence of her personality.

At first sight it seems strange that Lolly Willowes with its amiable witch-heroine, followed by the hardly less fanciful Mr Fortune's Maggot (1927), should have emanated from a hand that during World War I had been active in a munitions factory, but not to any one who has read her family chronicle The Flint Anchor (1954) which deals with the commercial fortunes of a family business…. Indeed, even in her idiosyncratic world, the 'plait', as she would say, always has a strong thread of realism interwoven with wit and satire. This is also true of her short stories…. They often start out from a banal enough domestic situation which suddenly takes a tense, ironic twist and ends in a dramatic explosion, macabre dénouement or anticlimax. Not for her the elaborate plot. Her most ambitious novel, The Corner that held them (1948), hardly follows the lines of a traditional historical narrative…. To me it evokes the image of a vast medieval tapestry, every detail of which—poetic, realistic, even earthy—contributes to the over-all effect. (pp. 41-2)

The wide range of her gifts, erudition and humour became unmistakably evident in her historical novel … The Corner that held them…. The narrative takes us through the horrors of the Black Death of 1349 and other disasters, natural and human…. All to an accompaniment of episodes of Chaucerian raciness and lyrical interludes…. (p. 47)

It will be apparent to the reader of The Corner that held them with its excursions into falconry, sidelights on many aspects of medieval life, that Sylvia Townsend Warner was the ideal choice for the Biography of T. H. White (1967). There was no one who could identify better with White in his obsession with Malory's Morte d'Arthur and its distillation in The Sword in the Stone or illuminate our understanding of a most complex person with such flashes of insight…. (pp. 47-8)

Sylvia Townsend Warner's contribution to literature … has been an enlargement of that peculiarly English world of the imagination, exemplified in [her] works of fantasy…. There, as in all her other work, reason is firmly in control. She has an intuitive feeling for words but she handles them with fastidious yet pleasurable care. If all her books are not at present in print, I am sure they will be again. They should not be neglected. Her faith in their worth is expressed perhaps—obliquely as usual—by a character in A Long Night: 'Art is long and tough and never loses a tooth.' (p. 50)

W. J. Strachan, "Sylvia Townsend Warner: A Memoir," in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1979), Vol. 19, No. 8, November, 1979, pp. 41-50.

Vicki Feaver

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Written, Peter Pears explains in his preface, during the last years of her life, most of the poems [in Sylvia Townsend Warner's Twelve Poems] are concerned with old age and death. They range from a defiant monologue delivered from the floor by Queen Elizabeth as she lies dying ("like a race of trees" her people "sway, sigh, nod heads, rustle" above her) to four lines of dry epigrammatic comment on the difference between first and second childhood.

Several of the poems return to subjects dealt with in her first collection The Espalier published in 1925. In "Country Churchyard", for instance, she had imagined the dead scrambling out of their graves and dancing promiscuously because "if a maidenhead / Or marriage vow, / Doesn't tally exactly with who's under which blanket, / 'Twon't matter now". It is a vision that could have come straight from one of Stanley Spencer's Cookham churchyard resurrections. "Graveyard in Norfolk" from Twelve Poems, presents a peaceful and reassuring contrast. The widows who come with their children to lay flowers on the graves find their time passes so tranquilly that they have an intimation of a place where there is "no Monday rising from warm bed … no sweeping or polishing": a sort of "heavenly park"….

"A Journey By Night" reveals a more disturbing glimpse of the everafter; "a wilderness where each successive horizon / Was another sand-dune"….

The most moving poem of the twelve, "Azrael", describes with equal clarity the approach of the poet's own death. It is as if she has been taken over by a spirit. She calls him first Sorrow, then Habit, and finally Azrael. He performs her daily tasks ("waters the geraniums on the windowledge" and "winds the trudging clock"), controls her movements ("impels my hither and thither") but also seems to care for her….

Vicki Feaver, "Fetched from the Dark," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1980; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4026, May 23, 1980, p. 586.

Gavin Ewart

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[Twelve Poems] is more in the nature of a pendant to [Sylvia Townsend Warner's] work and a memorial to her talent than of very great importance in a literary sense. The twelve short poems show an honest and admirable character, bearing the heavy weight of history and rural tradition, old age and the approach of death. Assonance and rhyme are used…. Some poems are epigrammatic, some are like Hardy ('Dorset Endearments'). The best is 'Graveyard in Norfolk', which is entirely in her own voice, using a complicated rhyming stanza. But 'Earl Cassillis's Lady' and 'December 31st St. Silvester' are also well written and satisfying.

Gavin Ewart, "English Poetry: 'Twelve Poems'," in British Book News (© The British Council, 1980), June, 1980, p. 371.


Warner, Sylvia Townsend (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Warner, Sylvia Townsend (Vol. 7)