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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