Short stories are not my genre of choice. I rarely read them unless collections come to me for review, and I don't actually remember ever buying one for pure reading pleasure. Until now. A few weeks ago I read Simon's review of this 1961 collection and felt immediately impelled to order a copy. It arrived with commendable speed and it didn't take me long to start reading it. I don't think I've read anything by Warner before - I thought I'd read Summer Will Show but can't find a review of it - but if this collection is anything to go by I've really been missing out.
There are thirteen stories in this volume, varying considerably in subject and tone. Some are serious, some are satirical. But I think they nearly all have one theme in common: their protagonists learn something about themselves and their attitude to the world they live in. For example, in 'Johnnie Brewer', a young man returns from Australia and visits his grandmother and great-aunt for the first time in nine years. He's been looking forward to it tremendously, and has romantic ideas about the idyllic cottage and the two adorable old ladies. But he is disturbed by their constant bickering, finds his grandmother's overblown sweetness hard to take, and cuts his visit short, rejoicing that 'The day was before him, and his own'. In 'A Jump Ahead', a divorced couple who have remained friends meet for the first time for several years. Gilbert is shocked by Mary's reaction to his appearance:
To what extent I had grown old I did not realise until I saw Mary's start of surprise and her immediate assumption of a kind encouraging manner. In her I saw no change.
When he complains to her about the pains of ageing, her reaction irritates him: 'You're lucky to have the time to do it in'. He sees her positive view of old age as an attempt to soothe him into accepting the state of affairs, but as the story ends we discover the real reason for her attitude. In 'Fenella' a ten-year-old girl on holiday in Italy persuades her mother to let her accompany a lady painter, who she admires tremendously, to what she thinks is a romantic church on top of a hill. But the journey is hot and exhausting, the landscape unappealing, the church dirty and smelly. She's appalled when the woman says she wants to paint her portrait: 'Her painting was grisly....she's positively extinct. She's a living corpse, she's...".
When the story requires it, Warner is capable of witty, perceptive satire. This is most evident in 'Heathy Landscape with Dormouse'. Here a recently, unhappily, married couple go on a picnic with the girl's mother. Leo is annoyed by the endless reminiscences of his mother-in-law and aware of Belinda's irritation with him, and remembers the start of their relationship: 'Belinda's eyes had the fatalistic melancholy of the eyes of hunting cats....she had snatched at his offer of marriage as if it were a warm partridge'. Flying into a sudden rage ('Belinda was one of those fortunate persons who fly into a rage as though into a refrigerator') she walks off to the car, gets into it and drives away. But what starts out as a thoughtless bid for freedom turns very sour on her as everything goes wrong. Hours later, she is reunited with Leo, but there's little evidence that their marriage will be a happy one.
There are many more, each one a delight. But the star of the volume has to be 'A Love Match' - I read somewhere that this is a very famous story and I'm not surprised. The story starts with a middle-aged schoolmaster, Mr Pilkington, on holiday in Brittany. He meets the Tizards, Justin and Celia, a brother and sister who have taken up temporary residence there, and persuades them to leave their rather basic chalet and move back to England, to the small town of Hallowby. He's sorted out several houses for them to look at, but is rather surprised by their choice of what he thinks is the least attractive - away from the town centre, it's a plain, even ugly, house surrounded by a high wall. Once Warner has got them settled there, she moves back in time to Justin's return on leave from the war to a flat Celia has prepared for them both. Shell-shocked by the horrors he has seen, Justin has terrible nightmares, and Celia eventually goes to his room to comfort him. And so begins their love affair, which lasts the whole of their lives. Indeed, what the world would perceive as a shocking incestuous relationship is depicted like the happiest, most successful marriage imaginable:
Returning from their sober junketings Justin and Celia, safe within their brick wall, cast off their weeds of middle age, laughed, chattered and kissed with an intensified delight in their scandalous immunity from blame. They were a model couple, the most respectable couple in Hallowby, treading hand in hand the thornless path to fogydom.
I can't help wondering if this heart-warming, wholly non-judgmental story might have been a way for Warner to write obliquely about her own unconventional life style - she lived for nearly forty years in a relationship with another woman, the poet Valentine Ackland. Whatever the case, it was a bold move and a wonderfully successful one to take such a taboo subject and turn it on its head. I'd say it was worth buying the volume just for this story - you can probably find it online, but then you'd miss the intense pleasure of the rest of the stories. Hooray for Sylvia Townsend Warner - I'm greedy for more - any suggestions?