So in the end I have settled on Sylvia Townsend Warner as my next short story writer to tackle. And she wasn't even in the running, but isn't that how it goes so often. I have yet to read any of her novels, though she is a Virago Modern Classics author and I have more than one of her novels on my shelves. I have, however, dabbled in her short stories. I saw a lovely, cloth copy of The Music at Long Verney just sitting very unobtrusively and with some dignity on a pile of short story collections and decided it was calling out in its own quiet way. Besides the collection is twenty stories mostly published by the New Yorker during the William Maxwell years and decided she surely must rank up there with Elizabeth Taylor in terms of style and quality. I love New Yorker stories in general and particularly those published during the William Maxwell years (to say nothing of his writing, too). I will only try and do my reading of her justice.
The stories span the years from 1929 to 1977 and a little teaser from the book blurb of what I can expect:
"They are crowded with irrepressible, living characters and equally animated objects and incidents. There are stories of romantic love and the mysteries of marriage; of artists who speak the truth even as they distort reality; of gardens and houses and very find things and of those who fancy themselves the owners. The centerpiece of the collection is a series of five linked comic episodes concerning an eccentric London establishment, the Abbey Antique Galleries, and its singular proprietor, the urbane Mr. Edom--not to mention its uncontrollable inventory, staff and clientele."
The first and titular story, "The Music at Long Verney" is one of those houses and it is indeed peopled with those who fancy themselves the owners. It is one of her later stories published in 1971 and according to William Maxwell she told him "I saw this couple standing outside their own house and had to know how they got there." So this must be her imagining of it.
Long Verney is a great house on one of those great estates entailed to its roof. The only son of the Furnival family has decided he won't go on there as "England's sinking under lovely old houses with lovely old paupers creeping about in them like maggots in nutshells too large for them." No matter since two years later he is to die in Cyprus and the heir next in line decides to break the entail as he doesn't want it either. So seventy and sixty-eight respectively Oliver and Sibyl find themselves unquestionably in possession of Long Verney. Living frugally they might just manage ("their chief pleasure was reading and Oliver was a lifetime member of the London Library"), but when Sibyl cracks her knee in a automobile accident, all bets are off and to the gamekeeper's lodge it is. A tenant being much more preferable to selling. "Less abrupt."
It's the characterization of this story that makes it so memorable. Townsend Warner turns a razor sharp eye towards Long Verney's residents. None show to the best light really. There is certainly a feel of age and class but it's not as though in the end one is better or more worthy than the other. It's certainly most entertaining for the reader however.
"With their move, Oliver and Sibyl suddenly became a matter for public concern. It was as if they had been brought out into the light of day and revealed as much older, thinner, dimmer, than was supposed; as if Long Verney were an attic in which they had been stored--inventoried, known to be there, hereditary objects on their way to becoming family portraits."
Their tenants, the Simpsons, one gets the feel that they are 'new' money perhaps. Certainly a younger crowd and decidedly uncouth. They aren't nature lovers and not walkers. Worse, the husband is a director of one of those firms that makes weed killer (no wonder there are not as many nightingales as there used to be).
"Anthony Simpson was hand in glove with the Labour Party. He was not a Jew but his wife was. They bought nothing locally; they had sent away old Jules the onion man. Their son drove through the village at a hundred miles an hour, wore bracelets, had been sent down from Cambridge for peddling cannabis. They filled the house with ballet dancers, opera singers, photographers, and intellectuals. They were never at home for two weeks running."
As for the music at Long Verney? Well, it is a night of music, of finding just the right music for the space that brings them all together--a clash of orbits you might say.
Next weekend: "The Inside-Out". I think I am going to like this collection of stories very much.