This week, Helen at a gaullimaufry is celebrating Sylvia Townsend Warner, a 20th century British novelist, poet, and short story writer.
Since Townsend Warner is one of my favorite authors, I’m joining Helen and others in trying to convince everyone to read more of this little-known author’s work — in my case, I’m pushing her short stories (although her novel, The Corner that Held Them, is really really good). In the past, I’ve posted reviews of Townsend Warner’s short stories here, here, and here. For this week’s celebration, I located a fourth collection, A Stranger with a Bag (1966/2011), and found myself back in familiar Townsend Warner territory: unsettling glimpses into the lives of people who, even half a century later, I feel I could probably meet on the next corner. In other words, no one particularly special — just everyday folks, facing everyday events.
But each with a slight twist. For instance, the middle-aged brother and sister in a small town passionately in love with each other. Or the 10-year-old boy who asks a traveling salesman to kill his father. Or the young wife who leaves her oppressive husband and mother stranded on a moor when she drives off in their car but runs out of gas just as she calms down enough to go back for them.
These stories all date from the early 1960s. Most are set in England, and only two feature child characters. In the rest, adults, usually middle-aged, struggle through their daily lives, negotiating relationships with family members, lovers, acquaintances — and themselves. Townsend Warner doesn’t write cheerful stories (although there are funny moments), and few of her characters end up happy.* Yet the insights into why people do what they do are so powerful, that I find myself, story after story, drawn in.
“Swans on an Autumn River”, for instance, starts out on a sour note:
As he quitted the Aer Lingus plane from Liverpool and set foot for the first time in his life on Irish soil, he was already a disappointed man.
28 words in, and I dislike the protagonist. Who could be disappointed on first setting foot in Ireland? Townsend Warner explains: Norman Repton, “aged sixty-nine, hearty as ever though overweight”, is disappointed that the Aer Lingus stewardess has become a block of ice in response to his uninvited caress along her leg. Then, with the ending of this same first paragraph, Townsend Warner arouses my sympathy for this despicable man:
At his age, such disappointments are serious. You are only young once. At the time it seems endless, and is gone in a flash; and then for a very long time you are old.
Ah, recognition. I know old age is no excuse for bad behavior (in fact, absolutely nothing excuses bad behavior), but I at least understand this man. He wants to be young again.
Later, Norman almost redeems himself when, from his hotel window, he spots several swans on the river and rushes down to see the beauties up close, grabbing bread for them from the hotel restaurant on his way out. Then seagulls horn in, crowding out the lovely swans, and Norman, in his attempt to shoo the marauders away, manages to knock himself unconscious on the pavement. The story ends as some locals run to the hotel to call for an ambulance.
Nope, no happy ending for Norman.
The most beautiful story in this group, “A Love Match”, shows us what a good marriage should look like. In their small English village, Justin and Celia Tizard live publicly as proper brother and sister, but they’re actually involved in an incestuous relationship that began during WWI and will last for decades.
I can hear the questions: How can a story about a taboo relationship be “beautiful”? How can any writer make sympathetic characters out of such people?
Well, I can only say, we’re talking about Townsend Warner, who herself lived for decades with her lesbian lover. If anyone knows the beauty of a loving, devoted, loyal — yet forbidden — relationship, she does, and she’s a great writer who is willing to tackle topics that others generally avoid.
If you’re unfamiliar with Townsend Warner’s writing, do try to find something by her and read it. You can start with “A Love Match”, which is available here. Go ahead. I dare you.
*See Lory’s discussion, Do I Have to Read Depressing Books, at The Emerald City Book Review for an exploration of this business of unhappy endings.