Sylvia Townsend Warner Analysis

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(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

In addition to the short stories for which Sylvia Townsend Warner is best known, she wrote seven novels: Lolly Willowes: Or, The Loving Huntsman (1926), Mr. Fortune’s Maggot (1927), The True Heart (1929), Summer Will Show (1936), After the Death of Don Juan (1938), The Corner That Held Them (1948), and The Flint Anchor (1954). She also wrote several collections of poetry, which were published as Collected Poems (1982), a biography, a travel guidebook, and a volume of literary criticism, and she translated two books from French into English.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

In 1926, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s first novel, Lolly Willowes, was the first Book-of-the-Month Club selection; her second novel, Mr. Fortune’s Maggot, was a selection of the newly formed Literary Guild. Her later novels did not attain the same popularity, but her short stories, 144 of which were published in The New Yorker over a period of four decades, gained for her a wide readership.

In 1967, she became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (she wryly commented that it was the first public acknowledgment she had received since she was expelled from kindergarten) and in 1972, an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her short story “The Love Match” was awarded the Prix Menton for 1968.

No full-length critical assessment of Warner’s achievement as novelist, short-story writer, and poet has been produced. John Updike noted in a favorable review that her “half century of brilliantly varied and superbly self-possessed literary production never won for her the flaming place in the heavens of reputation that she deserved.” As far as her achievement in the short story is concerned, however, she certainly ranks alongside H. E. Bates and V. S. Pritchett, her two British contemporaries, whose work most resembles her own.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Ackland, Valentine. For Sylvia: An Honest Account. New York: W. W. Norton, 1985. A brief but poignant autobiography by Warner’s lover, detailing the years with Warner and the painful separation caused by Ackland’s struggle with alcoholism. Bea Howe’s lengthy foreword discusses her firsthand understanding of the influence of Ackland on Warner’s personal and professional life.

Brothers, Barbara. “Through the ‘Pantry Window’: Sylvia Townsend Warner and the Spanish Civil War.” In Rewriting the Good Fight: Critical Essays on the Literature of the Spanish Civil War, edited by Frieda S. Brown et al. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1989. Places Warner in the context of her contemporaries regarding the period of the Spanish Civil War. Bibliography.

Dinnage, Rosemary. “An Affair to Remember.” The New York Times, March 7, 1999. A review of Selected Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland; comments on Warner’s offbeat short stories from The New Yorker, claiming the short story was well suited to her whimsy; discusses her lesbian relationship with Valentine Ackland.

Harmon, Claire. Sylvia Townsend Warner: A Biography. London: Chatto Windus, 1989. An even and thorough biography with illustrations, a bibliography, and an index. Deals openly and prominently with the relationship between Valentine Ackland and Warner. Gives a biographical and historical context of Warner’s work but with little critical detail.

Loeb, Marion C. “British to the Core.” St. Petersburg Times, August 6, 1989, p. 7D. A review of The Selected Stories of Sylvia Townsend Warner; notes that her stories deal with the world of civil servants, vicars’ wives, and pensioners; comments on her graceful, lyrical style.

Maxwell, William, ed. Introduction to Letters: Sylvia Townsend Warner. New York: Viking, 1982. The novelist and editor for The New Yorker and Warner’s longtime personal friend shows great admiration for Warner’s work. Maxwell notes her historical astuteness, her “ironic detachment,” and her graceful formalism of language. Maxwell also considers the letters in the light of their being a writer’s “left-over energy” and written without the inhibition of editorial or critical judgment. Includes a brief biographical sketch.

Perenyi, Eleanor. “The Good Witch of the West.” The New York Review of Books 32 (July 18, 1985): 27-30. Argues that Warner’s writing reputation has suffered from the inability of critics to categorize her writings, which include dozens of short stories and seven novels; notes that the publication of her letters has sparked new interest and that their talk of dreams and visitations suggests that Warner harbored “more than a touch of the witch.”

Strachan, W. J. “Sylvia Townsend Warner: A Memoir.” London Magazine 19, no. 8 (November, 1979): 41-50. An overview of Warner’s fiction, with a close look at the elements of fantasy and realism. Kingdoms of Elfin and Lolly Willowes, for example, seem incongruent given Warner’s activity during World War I, but such realistic works as The Flint Anchor demonstrate her earthy, pragmatic quality. Even her most fantastic works reveal reason “firmly in control.”

Tomalin, Claire. “Burning Happiness.” The New York Times, February 18, 1996. A review of The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner; discusses the nature of her feminism and her communism; notes the passion of her grief for Valentine Ackland after Ackland’s death.

Updike, John. “Jake and Olly Opt Out.” The New Yorker 55 (August 20, 1979): 97-102. In this comparative review of Kingsley Amis’s Jake’s Thing (1978) and Warner’s Lolly Willowes, Updike looks at the role of nature in Warner’s work and discerns a subtle strain of feminism. He argues that, unlike Amis and other former poets-turned-novelists, Warner’s poetic style retains elements of “magic and music” and that her talent merits a much greater recognition than she has received.