November 8th, 2011


The Music at Long Verney, Sylvia Townsend Warner

I don’t usually get on with short stories but these I loved. Edited by Michael Steinman, it’s the first time these twenty of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s stories have been collected together. Many of them feature houses and their inhabitants; often they are strangely inconclusive but that’s exactly how they should be. My favourites are the series about Mr Edom and his antique shop Abbey Antique Galleries. Mr Edom himself, his assistant, his stock and his customers seem absolutely real and it’s astonishing how much a short story can reveal when the right person is telling it. I especially liked The Candles. A power cut on a bleak January afternoon inspires the assistant to light up the shop with candles placed in all the candle sticks and candelabra. Everything is transformed, the day quite changed.

One story set me off following a trail and will lead, I hope, to further reading. In Item, One Empty House an unnamed narrator is travelling in Connecticut. Her idea of New England has come from the writing of Mary Wilkins and she is disappointed when told that ‘she wasn’t much thought of now.’ Staying in a house full of bohemian, intellectual types she thinks that she should have said to the people ‘talking about Joyce and Pound and melting pots, “Why don’t you think more of Mary Wilkins?”’ When young, she had read a book called A New England Nun and ‘from the moment when Louisa Ellis tied on a green apron and went out with a little blue crockery bowl to pick some currants for her tea … I knew it was what I wanted. It was something I had already found in nature and in certain teapots – something akin to the precision with which the green ruff fits the white strawberry blossom, or to the airy spacing of a Worcester sprig.’

I was intrigued. Did Mary Wilkins exist, or was she a perfect writer imagined by Warner? Oh the joy of the Kindle. I was in bed when these wonderings began yet I was able at once to look her up and find that yes indeed, Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman existed and was a prolific writer. Better still, I downloaded a sample of A New England Nun and other Stories and was able to read the title story. I was as enchanted as STW was by the aprons, the tea china, the precise descriptions of a ‘maidenly’ life of housekeeping; solitary but never lonely. Almost every sentence in Item, one Empty House demanded to be quoted and all the stories are quite beautifully written. Simply lovely and highly recommended.

Kindle hint. The sample I downloaded was in print so small I could barely read it and I couldn’t alter the font size. It may just be that changing font size, like highlighting or searching, is a feature not available with a sample. Even so I’m unwilling to pay for the whole book, just in case.