Recently – last month in fact I read The True Heart by Sylvia Townsend Warner which I loved, it reminded me how much I enjoy her writing. I already knew that her short stories are highly thought of but it was this collection of all of them that I particularly liked the sound of.
“It is nothing to children to lose their illusions, tadpoles are much more put about when they lose their tails.”
Scenes of Childhood and other stories – as the title suggests draws heavily upon STW’s own life, especially that of her childhood. Throughout this wonderful collection – Sylvia Townsend Warner appears as herself, as do other members of her family. It is hard to remember sometimes that this a collection of stories – however autobiographical, it often feels more like a collection of memoirs. Therefore, I suppose we must assume that STW been a little creative here and there, bringing her own great gift of storytelling to the entertaining stories within her own family. Although STW never wrote an autobiography, these pieces which were written at periods throughout her life – compiled into this volume after her death – make for a fabulous alternative.
Scenes of Childhood contain a large number of pieces and it would be impossible I think to talk about each of them, many are very short. In its entirety, the collection leaves the reader with a wonderful sense of the woman behind the stories and the family she came from. Her father was a housemaster at Harrow (where she was born) her mother an artist. In this collection, they are re-created with huge affection and humour. The woman who emerges from this collection is one who grew up deeply loved, within a family which gave her the room to develop into the woman who wrote the glorious Lolly Willowes.
We accompany the Warners on holiday to Wild Wales, where Sylvia was reunited with Johnnie and Nanny Blount – “a monolith devoted to duty” as STW describes her. Taking very seriously the moral welfare of her young charges Nanny Blount is especially fond of morning and evening worship. Sylvia’s most joyous remembrance of her is seeing her chased by cows after an altercation in a country lane. This opening story gets us off to a fine start, introducing us to a family it becomes a pleasure to spend time with. Sylvia remembers her mother’s artistic preparations before they set off.
“Before our summer holiday in Wales, with mountains and hydrangeas in mind, she laid in so many tubes of cobalt, ultramarine, and cerulean that I too young to have any geographical notions as to where we were going, knew for a certainty that Wales would be blue.”
Other stories, bearing such titles as: My Father, My Mother, the Bentleys, the poodle, Lord Kitchener and the mouse – relate small eccentric goings on in the Warner household. Lord Kitchener is a cat, the poodle was always just called the poodle. When Mrs Warner is disturbed on several nights by a mouse ‘gnawing’ and shaking the foot of the bed, her husband, the poodle and the cat are each called in to lend a hand, much to the bewilderment of their house-guests who are woken by the ensuing chaos.
As an older child, Sylvia recalls in a story called How I left the Navy – that one day arriving home in her lovely dapper little sailor suit she wore while enjoying winter activities with the British Navy – her mother suddenly ripped the little hat off her head and banned all further association. It was years before she knew why – that Mrs Warner had learned from a local gossip that the ship depicted on her daughter’s little hat, had been turned into a hospital ship for sailors with venereal disease. Mrs Warner is wonderfully reproduced here –in Fried Eggs are Mediterranean we see her and the family holidaying in the Devon countryside – experimenting with self-sufficiency (no servant), she spends each day trying to perfect boiled eggs – eventually hitting on the idea of reciting the fifty-first psalm in Latin as a means to time the perfect boiled egg.
Then there’s Stanley Sherwood; the story of a dreadful butler, who having loomed over the family with his ghastly smile for years, too good to be sacked but universally loathed, he returns as a fireman and takes his own peculiar revenge.
“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 clothes 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.”
How much of these stories are strictly true, I suppose we can’t really know – but I sort of hope (and now firmly believe) that they are absolutely all true; Nanny chasing cows, bedstead gnawing mice – I believe. Happily, these stories don’t just stop at childhood, we see Sylvia Townsend Warner as a young woman, organising a home for Belgian refugees, exploring churches and their bell towers while her dog barks furiously at the vicar. She recalls with gentle humour, arguments which ensue as members of a Dorset village organise celebrations for a coronation, which in the wake of the abdication must be changed to celebrate a George instead of an Edward.
This is a glorious collection; one I am certain I will revisit. I really don’t think Sylvia Townsend Warner is capable of writing anything that is not brilliant, though I still have two novels and several collections of stories to read.