Reading short stories randomly, the way I've been reading them, is a little like choosing a chocolate from a box assortment. You never quite know what you're going to get. This week I decided to try Sylvia Townsend Warner, a name I've come across in my other reading. She has been published by Virago and is an interwar author, so it's not surprising she's on my radar (considering how much I've been focusing on this era lately). "The Phoenix" is included in 50 Great Short Stories edited by Milton Crane.
I wish this book had some sort of brief biographical information about the authors or introductory material on the stories, as I know nothing about Sylvia Townsend Warner (found something here) or her writing. I was surprised by this story, a witty little satire, where the annoying characters get their comeuppance in the end. This is a very short story, so beware of plot spoilers to follow.
A phoenix is a mythological creature, of which there exists only one at a time. It has beautiful feathers and lives a very long time. When it nears the end of its life it builds a nest and eventually bursts into flames, and from the ashes arises a new phoenix. You would think its presence in a story would herald a theme of rebirth and regeneration, but Townsend Warner takes the reader in a different direction entirely. Although it's a story that can fit in any time and place (sadly some things never change), I do wish I knew what this story was a response to in Townsend Warner's life.
The phoenix was the jewel in Lord Strawberry's crown, so to speak. He had long been collecting birds and had the premier aviary in all of Europe. His phoenix was remarkably fine "with a charming character--affable to the other birds in the aviary and much attached to Lord Strawberry." Keeping his collection up, feeding the birds and providing for their upkeep left him penniless upon his death. Had it not been for a war, which left everyone bankrupt, his collection might have been sold off to a responsible zoological society or another private collector. Instead the birds were sold off. It was hoped that at least the phoenix might be bought for the London Zoo, so a fund was set up and everyone gave what they could. It wasn't enough, however. The best offer came from Mr Tancred Poldero, the owner and proprietor of Poldero's Wizard Wonderworld. And yes, the whole set up was as repellant as it sounds. The phoenix ended up as an exhibit in what appears to be a sideshow carnival.
Beautiful as the phoenix was, it didn't do much. It just sat there, unlike Poldero's amusing baboons who drew many spectators thanks to their silly antics, or the fearsome crocodile who had eaten a woman. It couldn't just be appreciated for its uniqueness and rarity. Since it didn't earn its keep, Poldero and his assistant decided to make a spectacle of things in order to bring in a crowd of appreciative consumers. Now I've mentioned that the phonix enjoys a very long life, but Poldero made the life of this phonix as miserable as he could in order to hurry matters along. It was deprived of food, space, warmth and any sort of companionship save the most annoying birds he could find.
When the phoenix was nearing its end, it built its nest, and Poldero announced what would be the most thrilling moment anyone had seen. Sure to be a huge moneymaker. Well, things did go off with a bang. I won't reveal what happened, though I'm sure you can imagine things didn't go well for Poldero. I wondered if the last bit wasn't a bit heavy handed (sheesh, I thought to myself when reading), but I wasn't terribly disappointed to see the Polderos of the world "get theirs" so to speak, since often times it's the reverse. It was an interesting story, and I'll be curious to see what else I come across by this author.