One Thing Leading to Another, and Other Stories
Scenes of Childhood
Lolly Willowes, or the Loving Huntsman
The True Heart
For Sylvia: An Honest Account
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 collected into book form: eight volumes in all), she somehow missed the gold ring on the literary merry-go-round without, on the other hand, acquiring that underground status that has proved so valuable to Jean Rhys’s reputation, or a champion with the distinction of Philip Larkin, who more or less single-handedly rescued Barbara Pym from obscurity. Rather she was that anomaly, the well-known writer who isn’t talked about, whose work was too original to be very popular yet who failed to attract a cult audience. The short stories apart, most people who could identify her as the author of Lolly Willowes and Mr. Fortune’s Maggot, two novels published half a century ago and famous in their day, would be hard put to it to name the other five she wrote. Proustians must know her elegant translation of Contre Sainte-Beuve; and T.H. White’s admirers no doubt snapped up her biography of him—to others a deplorable instance of a first-rate talent squandered on a mediocre one. Her four volumes of poetry have disappeared from view.
One reason for this relative neglect must be the sheer volume of her production (144 stories for The New Yorker alone, and only her literary executors know how many more), which automatically suggests that she wrote too much to be taken altogether seriously. That to be prolific is to be insufficiently obsessed with quality and le mot juste is an idea that has haunted us since Flaubert. Perhaps too we have the feeling that the career cut short by disease, drink, suicide, or simply the collapse of inspiration, is somehow emblematic of our times—hence of special value; while a long, active, and productive life like Warner’s could suggest insensitivity. That said, it must be admitted that Warner probably did write too much. Or more accurately, that although she never wrote badly she wasn’t always the best judge of what was worth writing about. The White biography is an example of this failing, and so are a number of short stories. On the other hand, the vitality that kept her going for close to half a century, and surged forth at the end of her life in some of her finest stories, is by itself a phenomenon that commands attention.
More serious from the critical point of view is the difficulty of placing her. Was she a historical novelist? Since all seven of her novels are set more or less remotely in time and space, she could be called that—except that they have…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.