I pounced on this short story collection in a second-hand bookshop in the Lanes in Brighton, silently crying ‘Why have I never heard of you before?’ (and on typing that I realised that I really must, MUST join the Sylvia Townsend Warner Society, and did so.) I hadn’t paid enough attention to STW’s short story collections until now, being content to reply on the Virago edition of her Selected Short Stories. But now that I’m editing Kingdoms of Elfin for publication in October, I’m much more aware of the sheer volume of the stories that STW wrote, and published, and need to get to know them better, especially in the collections that she assembled herself.
The Music at Long Verney: Twenty Stories (2001) is not one of these, as it is a posthumous collection assembled from long-forgotten stories from The New Yorker. They range in date from the 1920s to 1977, the year before STW’s death, and ought thus to be eclectic, but they’re not. This is a strikingly coherent collection, presented with her signature assurance, and very distinct voice. It’s her voice that rings the same note throughout, and is so individual that it is very hard to disassociate the stories’ narrators from the author herself.
Her voice disperses fog, and yet revels in ambiguity, relying on the reader to keep up, to understand her allusions. The sense of fog dispersal is strongest in stories like ‘An Ageing Head’, in which a convalescing middle-aged woman refuses the cossetting of an irritating niece, eagerly invites the attentions of an old lover, and is not so much affronted when the two of them go off together, as relieved with a tone of surprise. The sense of tying up loose ends whether she likes it or not comes from the stern and unsentimental voice of logic. The gorgeous stories of Mr Edom and the Abbey Antiques Gallery are problem solvers, in which people come to the shop in some indecision or turmoil, and leave resolved, occasionally with portable property.
Not all the stories are warm. ‘Stay Corydon, Thou Swain’ (written around the time of Lolly Willowes) is a chilly piece of fantasy in which a dryad (though called here a nymph) does something inhuman in front of her unwanted lover. ‘Four Figures In A Room. A Distant Figure’ is entirely about music by a musician and for musicians: the rest of us can jolly well wait outside. ‘Flora’ is about the misogyny of a man who will have nothing to do with women. ‘The Inside-Out’ is about the misery and cruelty of uprooted children.
There is also much joy to be had. ‘A Brief Ownership’ is a whimsical squib of invention and extrapolation, so like the inventions in Rose Macaulay’s Personal Pleasures that the one could easily have been inspired by a rereading of the other. ‘Maternal Devotion’ reads so stunningly like one of STW’s letters in which she describes chasing away the unwanted suitor of one of her friends with intellectual prattle, that it was a relief to read in Michael Steinman’s notes that she considered this to be the nearest thing to a self-portrait that she had written.
This is a glorious collection, filled with treasures.
Sylvia Townsend Warner, The Music at Long Verney. Twenty Stories (The Harvill Press, 2001).