Two more short stories by Sylvia Townsend Warner who is not only accomplished in the art of understatement but is also such a fey writer I am often not sure what I think or am meant to think when I finish my weekend reading. Then again more often than not I have the tendency to want to read more into what I am reading than is either actually there or even intended by the author. The stories in this collection are not presented chronologically by the year they were written or published, so I am not sure if the order has any significance. The first of the two stories "Love" was written in 1976 and the second "Stay Corydon, Thou Swain" came out much earlier, in 1929. It's interesting to try and understand how Townsend Warner changed in the ensuing decades either in subject matter or in style.
"Love" is about marital felicity. It is told from the perspective of an older couple who are looking to rent a little cottage. The wife looks about the cottage on offer and thinks how it smells of woodsmoke, which always makes her sentimental. The current owners, a young couple, are getting ready to move to Rhode Island. The most curious thing happens when the couples are chatting. A fire breaks out and throws everyone into a frenzy as they try and remove as many belongings as they can. The fire is brought under control by two men in a passing lorry, so it was a frenzy that was all for nought.
Later the older couple are in their hotel room the husband muses over his "strange wife" and how even such a long life together doesn't make him know her any better. She will be as "unknown" as ever. Whatever house they end up in will become familiar-he will know the light switches and come to know all the little creaks and noises, yet this woman sleeping beside him will remain unknowable. I understand that familiarity and also that lack of familiarity, too. The story seems sort of random yet I think Townsend Warner was very calculated in the writing--from choosing woodsmoke as the smell from the wife's memory to the search for this unknown new home that will be known and familiar at some point while his wife will remain just slightly out of reach. There is a nicely interesting balance to the story though it is presented in a quiet--understated manner.
"Stay Corydon, Thou Swain" was written more than forty years earlier. The title is taken from a madrigal by by John Wilbye that is a rif on classical metamorphoses. This is a story that would be perfect either as a 'Once Upon a Time' read or even for RIP reading later this fall. Very fey and even a little eerie if you let your imagination run away just a bit. Mr. Mulready, a draper by trade, with two daughters and the ability to read music at sight has an active imagination indeed.
"The moon was at her full, and the Choral Society of Wells in Somerset was holding a practice. Moonshine had to be consulted, for many of the singers lived outside the town and would not venture from their homes by night unless they could see the ruts and puddles. Mr. Mulready, however, was independent of the moon; he lived in the market place, and a gas lamp shown in at his bedroom window until 10:30 P.M., when all the street lamps gave a little jump and died."
So, the choral society is practicing the madrigal which shares the the title of this story. It is a song he knows well but that never dims in pleasure no matter how many times it is sung. One of the lines reads "thy nymph is light and shadowlike".
"He wished to see a nymph again: not from motives of curiosity, not because he thought a nymph would be a pretty sight to gaze at, not for any reasonable, pleasure-seeking reason--for how could anyone entertain a rational wish about mythological fancy? What he felt was more than a whim; it was an earnest desire, a mental craving somehow to re-create a bright image that Time had once timelessly given, and then by course of time effaced."
So, what does a nymph, a real one that is, look like? Apparently like one of the young women who works in his drapers shop. The same one he invites to go cycling with him, who he looks upon with pleasure--not in a lustful way, but simple appreciation. They stop by a wood and decide to take a walk inside. A wood that palpably seems to breath and upon entering seems to darken and make Mr. Mulready a trifle sick . . .
I'll only say that Townsend Warner practices more of that understatement here. Left up to your own imagination it could be a frightening and malicious outcome or hints of something dark happening after this encounter. She leaves it up to the reader to finish the story . . .
(Cue scary music!).
Next weekend: "Afternoon in Summer" and "A Scent of Roses". By the way I ordered a biography of Sylvia Townsend Warner by Claire Harman, which I am hoping might shed some light on her stories, or her writing in general.