In 2011, probably around the time I was writing my doctoral chapter on Sylvia Townsend Warner, I madly bought up all her collections of short stories. And, let me tell you, some of them are not easy to find affordably – but I wanted to stock up my shelves. Fast forward five years and I’ve read… none of these collections. And possibly none of the stories, thinking about it. So hearty cheers for the 1947 Club sending The Museum of Cheats up my tbr pile – it’s absolutely brilliant.
Warner tends towards the brief, with short stories, which is exactly how I like them – presumably because she had to fill certain spaces in the New Yorker, and anywhere else that housed these. The only exception is the title story – and I’m actually going to gloss over that one, as I found it much my least favourite story in the collection; it is on the model of The Corner That Held Them (a Warner novel I found intolerably dull, though it has many devoted fans), concentrating on the history of a building rather than the details of people’s everyday lives.
But, setting that one aside, Warner has an expertly observant eye. I was reminded a little of Katherine Mansfield – in terms of the searing through to the centre of a matter, and the potentially life-altering moments among the banal; indeed, how the banal can be life-changing. We see a hostess curious about the unkind caricature she finds on a notepad by the telephone; a woman show paintings to an uninterested visitor; a returning solider discover his books have been given away. The most striking story, perhaps, is ‘Step This Way’ – about abortion.
Warner opens each story with confident finesse, immediately taking the reader into her unusual view of the world. Here is the opening of ‘A Pigeon’:
The two large windows of the room on the first floor looked straight out into the trees of Lincoln’s Inn Fields. A pigeon was cooing among the greenery. Tears rushed into Irene’s eyes. She had a sentimental character, and how sad it was, really, a girl of her age, as innocent as that bird, and all by herself, sitting opposite a solicitor called Mr. Winander and having an interview about her divorce.
The balance of that sentence and those clauses, ending on the word ‘divorce’, strikes me as so cleverly done. And she is not simply concerned with drama; I love the way Warner finds a gentle humour in the curious patterns of normal speech. This is in the same story:
“Mrs. Johnston, you must forgive me asking this. Are you quite sure that you wish to go forward with a divorce?”
“Oh yes, definitely. I never was one to stay where I wasn’t welcome.”
I suppose we have to acknowledge that these stories were probably written and published in 1946, at least some of them, but the collection certainly came out in 1947 – and, yes, the war looms large. I wasn’t expecting it to, actually. It seemed the sort of thing that would pass Warner by in her concentration on the minute. Having said that, she still looks at the war as it affects individual relationships and minds – nothing so dramatic as a world stage. This, from ‘To Come So Far’, is representative of the way Warner uses the war for her own quirky angle:
She was worn out with getting on her husband’s nerves, being alternately too strong or too weak – like tea. If he were a returned soldier, all this would be natural. Magazines were full of stories about manly nerves unable to face the return of civilian life or articles on How to Re-Acclimatise Your Man, and newspapers were full of accounts of murdered wives. But throughout the war Arnold had been an indispensable civilian, jamming enemy broadcasts, and throughout the war they had got on together perfectly, complaining of the discomforts of living and giving each other expensive presents because to-morrow we die. Now, in 1946, Arnold was mysteriously as indispensable as ever and they hadn’t died.
She has such a great turn of phrase. It’s there throughout Lolly Willowes and, twenty years later, her style remains unmistakably hers – and these sorts of unexpected stylistic quirks seem to me to be even more appropriate in a short story. It’s the sort of context that can carry the weight of something slightly bizarre, without it distorting a full-length character study. For example, in ‘Story of a Patron’ – all about the discovery of a ‘primitive artist’ – she includes this:
Mr. Haberdone asked to see more examples of Mr. Rump’s art, and Mr. Rump produced a portrait of Mrs. Rump. It was a remarkable likeness, quite as accurate as the portrait of the cactus but more dispassionate, as though Mrs. Rump had been grown by a rival seedsman.
One of my favourite stories in the collection was also one of the most curious – ‘The House with the Lilacs’. Most of the stories in The Museum of Cheats capture moments in ordinary lives, showing how extraordinary they can seem to the people experiencing them. In ‘The House with the Lilacs’, the reader is left uncertain – Mrs Finch reminds her family of a house they looked at when choosing where to live, and recalls it in perfect detail, but not where it was. The rest of the family know that neither they nor she have ever seen such a house. And that is more or less where we leave it. Even more intriguingly, in a letter Warner wrote to William Maxwell, she describes Mrs Finch as ‘my only essay at a self-portrait; her conversation and her ineffability’.
Sadly, The Museum of Cheats is pretty scarce – though more copies seem to be available in the US than in England; despite living in Dorset, Warner’s stories always found a more appreciative audience in New York. I can only imagine that her other stories would be equally rewardingly tracked down (if not as appropriate for the 1947 Club). I’ll certainly be making sure I read more from my Warner shelf before too long.