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Distant Harmonies

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Recently I was given a copy of The Music at Long Verney: Twenty Stories by Sylvia Townsend Warner. It was a revelation. Years ago, when I was a struggling art student, I read and loved her novels, but I somehow failed to discover the short stories. Many had first appeared in The New Yorker, and eight collections in all were published. I began to read, and there was the gracious world of the mind that I remembered from her novels, the lush sentences with their ravishing, tumbling clauses, delicious rhythms, exquisite imagery, painterly detail, the fantastic sense of place.

At art school, language was strangled and empty. Every other word, drawled in tones of affected boredom, was ‘brilliant’. But here I found a writer who used words like ‘famished’ and ‘balderdash’ , whose vocabulary was extravagant and witty; here was a world where characters  didn’t necessarily ‘behave’ but had impeccable manners and cared about the delicate business of living.

Reading her now, I’m struck by the extraordinary tricks she manages to pull off, the technical brilliance. In ‘A Brief Ownership’, the narrator, planning a trip to Inverness, browses through the pages of a gazetteer of Scotland. Her eye falls on the word ‘Dull’ and, within a few sentences, the reader is whisked away and has grown to love Dull, ‘a small unvisited town in East Fife’, and is spending a delightful retirement there with ‘July gooseberries and potatoes and turnips and tinned pineapple at all times of the year’, is ensconced in Dull Lodge, ‘a stone-built, slate-roofed, three-storied house’, pursuing researches into nineteenth-century Church of England bishops, is living in contentment and satisfaction, ‘admiring the snowdrops, eating quantities of ripe figs, tapping the barometer, strolling out in the wistful autumnal dusk’. So it comes as a shock to  discover, in the next paragraph, that we are still turning the pages of the gaze

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Recently I was given a copy of The Music at Long Verney: Twenty Stories by Sylvia Townsend Warner. It was a revelation. Years ago, when I was a struggling art student, I read and loved her novels, but I somehow failed to discover the short stories. Many had first appeared in The New Yorker, and eight collections in all were published. I began to read, and there was the gracious world of the mind that I remembered from her novels, the lush sentences with their ravishing, tumbling clauses, delicious rhythms, exquisite imagery, painterly detail, the fantastic sense of place.

At art school, language was strangled and empty. Every other word, drawled in tones of affected boredom, was ‘brilliant’. But here I found a writer who used words like ‘famished’ and ‘balderdash’ , whose vocabulary was extravagant and witty; here was a world where characters  didn’t necessarily ‘behave’ but had impeccable manners and cared about the delicate business of living. Reading her now, I’m struck by the extraordinary tricks she manages to pull off, the technical brilliance. In ‘A Brief Ownership’, the narrator, planning a trip to Inverness, browses through the pages of a gazetteer of Scotland. Her eye falls on the word ‘Dull’ and, within a few sentences, the reader is whisked away and has grown to love Dull, ‘a small unvisited town in East Fife’, and is spending a delightful retirement there with ‘July gooseberries and potatoes and turnips and tinned pineapple at all times of the year’, is ensconced in Dull Lodge, ‘a stone-built, slate-roofed, three-storied house’, pursuing researches into nineteenth-century Church of England bishops, is living in contentment and satisfaction, ‘admiring the snowdrops, eating quantities of ripe figs, tapping the barometer, strolling out in the wistful autumnal dusk’. So it comes as a shock to  discover, in the next paragraph, that we are still turning the pages of the gazetteer, that there is no Dull Lodge, no house of modest proportions, no ‘large sash windows, put in by the hand of a master’. We have, in fact, occupied the narrator’s daydream so successfully we took it for ‘real’. There is often a drearily self-indulgent tone in stories depicting the writer’s struggle; not so here. In ‘QWERTYUIOP’ a 12-year-old girl who knows she will be a poet, yearns for a typewriter. It’s her birthday, 31 December – a day on which ‘no one would give her a typewriter so soon after Christmas’. But, in the evening, at the end of a long, dull day, her father does give her one. ‘There’s always work for a typist, especially if she can spell and punctuate. Not so many can nowadays. Even if you don’t learn shorthand and take an office j o b, there’ll always be stuff you can do at home – typing people’s novels and poems and so forth,’ he remarks. ‘He was bound to talk like that, she thought, being a parent. She knew better.’ In the Seventies, still struggling with painting and drawing, I remember impulse-buying my first typewriter in a junk shop, then lugging it home with enormous excitement, a black enamelled beast that had to be pounded to make it perform, that left a neat round hole in the paper when you typed the letters O, P, B, R or Q. I didn’t know what I was going to do with it, but I had to have it. Of course, it’s the writing that counts, not the life, though sometimes life and writing blur. In his memoir The Familiar Faces, David Garnett describes what it was like to talk to Warner: ‘I sometimes speak slowly, waiting for the right word to come . . . She quivers with eagerness as though I were really going to say something good and then dashes in and transforms my sentence and my meaning into a brilliance I should have been the last person to have thought of.’ In ‘Maternal Devotion’, Cordelia Finch arranges for an unwanted suitor to take tea with her mother, whose conversational talents first baffle, then exhaust him, and finally ensure his early depart u re, while entrancing us – a headlong rush that begins: ‘I was taught how to make tea by Professor Abernethy in Dresden. He always used an egg cup. Not that his name was Abernethy, or anything like it . . . ’ For over thirty years, Warner lived in a ‘plain-faced house on a very small island’ on the River Frome in Dorset. Music, always a great love of hers, laps and flows like water through her stories, and houses seem to be a starting-point for many of them: empty houses, grand houses, inherited houses, lost houses. Long Verney, in the title story of this collection, is all of these by turn, an ancestral house, first burden, then let to strangers, then mysterious and withdrawn. The Furnivals, turned out of their house, are drawn back to it and, standing in front of the illuminated windows, they watch a concert take place inside – ‘The music flourished like a wren and left off.’ The new occupants of the house have acquired their wealth by manufacturing a weed killer that poisons nightingales. Describing the origin of the story, Warner said: ‘I saw this couple standing outside their own house and had to know how they got there.’ In her work,  houses with walls that keep us safe from the outside world are often menacing, entrapping or curiously exposing, making visible their inhabitants’ fears, their longing for lost worlds, bravery in the face of change. ‘Flora’ is Warner’s last New Yorker story, published in 1977. (She died in 1978, aged 85.) Here a young couple visit a recluse.
Before us was a neat red brick cottage with a single chimney and a water butt. In front of it was a plot of dug ground, with some cabbages growing unwillingly in the peaty soil, fenced with wire netting against rabbits. The cottage looked unwilling, too – as if, being so up to date and rectangular, it felt demeaned by its situation and wanted neighbours.
A deceptively simple little paragraph that hangs ominously over the whole story. At the end the house is revisited, but the narrator is not allowed back inside. Four stories are set in the Abbey Antique Galleries and dazzle with their erudition and insider information. Like Warner’s houses, this shop is a magical space where transformations can and do occur, where other people’s treasured objects and cast-off furniture are invested with trademark painterly resonance, where layer after layer of meaning is opened up and one person’s possession is always another’s loss. Here she is in ‘The Candles’ describing the antique shop during a power-cut when the assistant, Mr Collins, has rushed out to buy candles and they are duly lit.
The polished surfaces reflected the little flames with an intensification of their various colours – amber in satinwood, audit ale in mahogany, dragon’s blood in tortoiseshell. Glass flashed, silver asserted its contours, a tapestry bloomed into life. The depth of the room seemed to be asleep. The candlelight was an acceptance of darkness; the hideous daylight beyond the window was a blue dusk, the driven snow a flicker of mayflies.
In both ‘Flora’ and ‘The Candles’ and all the other wonderful stories in this collection, Warner’s descriptions evoke a powerful mood; lean and drab or fantastically resplendent, they point the way, often infused with nostalgia, but determinedly pressing forward. It is passages like these that will stay with me. She wrote: ‘I am a realist and constantly facing the unexplained.’ I’m thankful that she went on doing so for so long.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 3 © Linda Leatherbarrow 2004


About the contributor

Linda Leatherbarrow writes short stories and teaches at Middlesex University. Her collection Essential Kit was published by Maia Press in October 2004.

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