Scenes of Childhood by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Book shopping is lovely, of course it is, but when time or money is short browsing the library catalogue is an excellent alternative. And that is how I came to type in the name of Sylvia Townsend Warner one day, hoping that the library might have a title or two that I hadn’t come across.

I spotted ‘Scenes of Childhood.’ I knew nothing about the it, but I placed my order anyway.

The book that arrived had been published in 1981, but it held a collection of short, nostalgic pieces, written for the New Yorker between the 1930s and 1950s.

They lie somewhere between fact and fiction. My feeling is that all of the characters and incidents are real, but they have maybe been embellished just a little. In the way that you might slightly exaggerate or streamline a story to convey its fundamental truth to a listener.

The pieces – twenty-eight of them in total – vary from just a few paragraphs recalling a character or event to much longer pieces with a real tale to tell.

I was smitten from the very first – a wonderful childhood holiday escapade. ‘Wild Wales’ the title said, and it was right. A story so vivid, so well told, so memorable, that it just had to be true.

As I read on a picture began to emerge. A picture of a bright and observant girl, who was loved, secure and happy. A girl who grew up to love the world around her.

There are lovely doggy tales: a poodle’s response to a supposedly haunted house, and a chow fiercely guarding a church from its own vicar.

If I had to pick a favourite it might be the family scene painted in ‘Fried Eggs are Mediterranean.’

“When my father came back with a Bible, he inquired with controlled curiosity, ‘Nora, what are we going to try the fifty-first Psalm for?’

‘Boiling the next lot of eggs by. I remembered last night when I was thinking about it, that I had read in some old miscellany book or other that in the days before watches when people had only those worthless hourglasses to depend on, they used a psalm for boiling eggs – but I couldn’t remember which. Now I’ve remembered. It was the fifty-first, for I thought at the time, what a gloomy proceeding.

My father handed over the Bible, put the eggs in, and said ‘Go.’ My mother replied with, ‘Have mercy on me , O God according to Thy loving kindness …’ She was overhauling the seventh verse when there came a knock at the back door. Saying in a rapid parenthesis, ‘They’re all we have left, my mother went reading and after another knock the postman opened the door. Without comment he put down some parcels and went away, shutting the door unobtrusively. The eggs were the best we’s achieved, but even so they were a trifle overcooked.”

Or it might be the brilliantly observed account of ‘Stanley Sherwood’, an impeccable butler with a sinister smile, who would later reappear as a fireman.

“My mother’s butler was named Stanley Sherwood. He was a slender, sallow man. His expression was at once ravenous and demure; he had a profile as accurate as though it had been snipped out of a piece of paper; his tread was noiseless; he had a tendency to fold his hands. His memory was as accurate as his profile, he was punctual to the minute, he never forgot a duty or a commission; his closed were always brushed, his demeanour was always correct. he was like some baleful drug, which, once you have imbibed it, you cannot do without. My father referred to him as Ignatius Loyola.”

The observation, the wit, the charm are pitch perfect. Times and places are evoked beautifully.

One or two stories don’t quite hit the mark, but the majority do more than make up for that, with fine writing and storytelling that is utterly compelling.

The book has to go back to the library, but I shall remember it fondly, and hope that it isn’t too long before somebody else summons it from the fiction reserve.

And before it goes I shall finish by seconding Hilary Spurling’s cover quote:

“All in all, one can’t be too thankful  that Miss Townsend Warner has lived to discover the alchemist’s secret of transmuting the past and the possible, and even the impossible now and again, into pure gold.”

6 responses

  1. So glad that you enjoyed most of these stories!! I love browsing the shelves at libraries!!

    • If you ever find anything by Sylvia Townsend Warner on the shelves, do pick it up Staci. She writes beautifully.

    • Hello Jane! I’ve only read one novel, Lolly Willowes, and I liked it but I think short stories are her forte. I haven’t read a bad one, and there is a very good Virago anothology out there. I’m looking forward to the diaries one day too.

  2. I have many volumes of her short stories, and yet I still haven’t read any of them. I can’t remember if this is or isn’t one of the ones I own – I think I’ll start with The Swan in the Evening, though.

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