Posted by: Lizzie Ross | March 4, 2011

Dealing with water

Winter in the Air (1955) and The Innocent and the Guilty (1971), by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Recently, a friend was raving about The Music at Long Verney, one of Townsend Warner’s collections of short stories. I’d read the title story online but none of the others, so decided to check what my library had available. I found three collections, most of which appeared first in The New Yorker. (The third book will be featured in a future post.)

I’ve read Townsend Warner’s fantasy stories collected in Kingdoms of Elfin, so I was prepared for writing that would mix spry humor with pitiless tragedy. I was right about the humor being very dry, but it appears rarely, and the tragedy contains hints of pity and understanding that make the stories more touching.

The twenty years that separate these two collections are evident in the changes in Townsend Warner’s style. The stories in the later collection seem more cruel, more filled with coincidences and choices that lead characters to unhappy ends. It may mean nothing, but the earlier collection is titled after one of the stories, but the second one isn’t.

In The Innocent and the Guilty, we find a brother and sister arguing about whether to visit the heath or the shore (“Two Children”), a woman who discards her self-hood, only to be forced back into it by the death of a stray cat (“But at the Stroke of Midnight”), a man with a disfigured face hoping to use a green dressmaker’s dummy to gain approval of a messianic young man (“The Green Torso”).

My favorite in this collection is “Oxenhope”, which is full of yearning for an idyllic past seasoned by the realization that the past cannot be revisited. Of course this is a well-used trope, but what gives Townsend Warner’s story its strength is her lovely writing, including the voices and scenes that float in the main character’s mind as he returns to Oxenhope. For instance, some sheep block his route, and he hears a lonely shepherd again:

… Jimmie, because of his solitary calling, was like an uncorked bottle when he came on a hearer. He talked about sheep, and hard winters, and a black dog that dragged a coffin over Cold Face on Old Year’s Night, and a sheepfold that moved with the solstice, so that every time you came to it the opening was a little farther round; and of wildcats, and the Covenanters, and the lights hovering above the water, moving and staying as the current carried the drowned body, lodged it against an obstacle, worked it free again; and of cholera, and the itch, and an ash tree that cured rickets.

It’s an unusual concatenation of topics, and I can almost hear Jimmie, as he rambles on, happy to have a hearer after all his hours and days with only sheep, up on the moors, unloading all his thoughts in no particular order.

Drowning, or the threat of drowning, appears frequently in this collection, giving everything a somber tone. I won’t be able to visit a beach again without thinking about those two children running on the sand and the body lying further along, surrounded by a group of men; or of the man in “Truth in the Cup” who hears strange noises during a party and leaves the coastal house, only to find the sea rising dangerously. He runs to high ground without warning the others, and is too drunk to phone for help.

In both collections, there are many dead or separated spouses (as ways to get characters to move in with family members). Winter in the Air includes “The Children’s Grandmother,” about a woman who, with her four children, moves in with her mother-in-law after her husband dies. The grandmother seems stand-offish, explained perhaps by the deaths of six of her seven children while they were still young. But in the end, just as she is dying, the grandmother says something odd to the woman, whose children have all grown and left home by now.

‘Heh! You poor creature!’ she said, taking hold of my chin in a violent, shaking grasp. ‘Heh! You poor luckless creature! You have not lost one of your children, not one!’

I thought she was raving, but her tone steadied, and there was the force of years of rational consideration in her voice as she continued, ‘So when you are old, you will not have a single child left you. Nothing but strangers!’

Not a happy concept for a parent to mull over. Yet a great tale as the woman tries to understand her mother-in-law and the relationship that develops between them over the years of living together.

You won’t find happy characters in these stories, but you will find anxious plot twists and frustrating endings that help you see the complexities that underlie the calm surfaces most of us present to the world.

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