This is a very slim volume, it holds just nine short stories, and it is a little gem. Because Sylvia Warner was so very good at short stories; a mistress of the art. She brought such imagination to stories set in a very real world; she crafted, she distilled, to produce perfect miniatures.
These stories – seven written for the New Yorker and two specially written for this book – are diverse, but they all spin around the theme of innocence and guilt. Not in such black and white terms of course; Sylvia Townsend Warner was much more subtle and much more clever than that. She wrote with such lovely irony and understatement.
That worked so well for ‘Bruno’, the story of an elderly Scotsman with a very handsome younger companion. He thought that when they went home to his family estate his companion would play nicely, but that wasn’t in his nature.
“Where did Cousin Gilbert find you?”
“He picked me up on a beach.”
“Like a shell?”
“Like a beautiful shell. And sometimes he puts an ear against my ribs and listens to the noise of the sea.”
‘The Perfect Setting’ is a lovely social satire. The widow of a poet is sure that she has uncovered important documents that will enhance his reputation, but the three interested parties who visit her all have very different ideas.
There’s a short story that plays out like a scene from ‘Play for Today.’ ‘The Quality of Mercy’ has two roughly-hewn young men help home a young woman who had had far too much to drink. They are kind, she is grateful, but her family blame them for the state she is in and hurl abuse. It’s simple and its perfectly executed.
So is ‘The Truth in the Cup’. A middle-aged group of hotel guests in putting the world to rights while a storm rages. One man steps outside and finds himself in the eye of the storm, until he finds sanctuary in a phone box. His experience is so vividly captured that this conclusion feels entirely right:
“I’m Crichellow 626,” he said. “Can you hear me?”
The voice encouraged him to go ahead. After a pause, it offered him the alternatives of the Fire Brigade, the Police, the Ambulance Service. None of those seemed perfectly to apply. But it wouldn’t so to sound unappreciative.
“It’s hard to say. You see, the sea’s broken in.”
It’s a fragment – several of these stories are – but fragments that must have been broken away from a whole that was exquisite.
One story though is exceptional, and I think it is one of the finest short stories I have ever read.
‘But at the Stroke of Midnight’ moves from formality to wildness; from domesticity to freedom; from safety to danger. It’s beautifully observed and understood by its author. Some authors would have turns the material into a whole novel – and it could be ‘Lolly Willowes’, reimagained when the author was thinking about the world rather differently – but here it is the perfect miniature.
I can’t explain it – I shouldn’t try to explain it – what I should do is tell you to read it. Don’t look it up; go in cold and be dazzled as I was.
This volume is out of print I’m afraid, but Open Library has it, and I’m told that it’s in the volume of collected short stories that Virago has in print.
I struggle to write about short stories, but I do know that Sylvia Townsend wrote them very, very well.