It was the evocative title that first drew me to Winter in the Air, a shimmering collection of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s short stories, recently published by Faber & Faber. Many of these pieces first appeared in the New Yorker between the late 1930s and mid-‘50s, and it’s fascinating to read them together here. When viewed as a whole, the collection paints a compelling picture of middle-class life in the mid-20th century, replete with individuals buffeted by the fallout of war with all its attendant losses. Here is a world of abandoned wives and widowed mothers, of bitterness and melancholy, all portrayed in Warner’s wonderfully lucid prose. There’s also something rather subversive about this collection, too – a sinister tone that inhabits some of these pieces, giving these stories a macabre or surreal edge.
As ever with short story collections, I’m not planning to cover every story in detail; instead, my aim is to give you a flavour of the highlights and what to expect from the book as a whole. Luckily there are some real standouts here, well worth the entry price alone.
The collection starts strongly with the titular story, in which a woman has returned to London after several years in the country. I love how Warner illustrates the difference between these two environments through her descriptions of charladies, neatly capturing the gossipy nature of village life.
A London charwoman does her work, takes her money and goes away, sterile as the wind of the desert. She does not spongily, greedily, absorb your concerns, study your nose to see if you have been crying again, count the greying hairs of your head, proffer sympathetic sighs and vacuum pauses and then hurry off to wring herself out, spongily, all over the village, with news of what’s going on between those two at Pond House. (pp. 1–2)
As the woman reflects on recent events, it becomes clear that she has been supplanted by her husband’s lover, forcing the move to London, which she handles with equanimity. Just like the furniture she must now fit into her city flat, the woman knows she will soon settle into this new arrangement. The silence of the room will not be intimidating for long…
A broken marriage also plays a central role in Hee-Haw!, another excellent story with a chilly, melancholy air. In this tale, a woman returns to the village where she once lived with her former husband, Ludovick, a successful painter who has since passed away. Their marriage was a turbulent one, ultimately lasting for three tumultuous years.
In a whisk, in a glancing blow of recognition, she had seen it again, the place where she had lived for three years—in turmoil, in rapture, in drudgery, in fury, in the bitter patience of disillusionment; there, at the close of those three years, she had her last quarrel with Ludovick and walked for the last time down the steep path. (p. 13)
The woman is staying at the village pub where some of Ludovick’s work is on display – and during this visit, a local man starts telling her about the artist, not realising they used to be married to one another. Perhaps unsurprisingly, certain details about Ludovick’s colourful love life are revealed, accentuating the woman’s resentment of her philandering former husband.
In Idenborough – one of my favourite stories in the collection – an impromptu visit to a village near Oxford prompts memories of a long-forgotten love affair, a fleeting relationship that lasted little more than a day. The central protagonist here is Amabel, a middle-aged woman who is now married to her second husband, Winter (her first, Thomas, having died during the war). Again, this is an excellent story, beautifully told.
…and [Amabal] remembered how, earlier in the day, Winter had praised her for her sincerity. But now it was too late. Deceit must accumulate on deceit, and with her second husband she would visit Idenborough, where she had cuckolded her first one. (p. 197)
Other, more surprising relationships also feature here. In Evan – another highlight – Warner gives us a chance encounter on a train, the kind of set-up that feels ripe with possibility. A teenage schoolboy on the cusp of adulthood gets chatting with the only other traveller in his compartment, a woman returning from a spell in the country. Despite their lives being poles apart, an easy conversation quickly develops between the pair as the journey progresses. However, when the woman must change trains to catch her connection, something passes between the two of them – a spark of attraction charged with tension as the time comes to part. It’s a lovely story – surprising, evocative and lightly sketched – tinged with a touch of longing for the relationship to develop.
Nestling among these quietly compelling stories are sharper, more sinister pieces, shot through with an air of menace or a whiff of eccentricity. In A Priestess of Delphi, the brutal murder of a woman raises the threat of blackmail for a former lover from the victim’s distant past. As the protagonist – a writer named Charlton – embarks on a journey to recover his old love letters to the murdered woman, Warner gives her story a rather unsettling edge.
Tossing and swaying, the newly leaved ash trees in the hedgerows looked hysterically green. It seemed a landscape fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils, and, for that matter, murders. (p. 50)
If anything, Under New Management is even more unnerving, a subtle tale of malevolence in a seedy post-war setting. The story revolves around Miss St John, a longstanding resident at the Peacock Hotel. When the establishment changes hands, Miss St John is not entirely happy with certain developments. The new owners, Mr and Mrs Fry, start encroaching on the spinster’s territory, shunting her into a small sitting room to give the seasonal guests the full run of the lounge. Moreover, Miss St John soon finds herself at the mercy of the Frys’ adult son, Dennis, who proceeds to regale her with horrifying accounts of brutal crimes from the newspapers. Nevertheless, Warner’s protagonist is made of stern stuff, a quality that ultimately sees her through. This superb story finishes with a suitably ironic twist while also showcasing the author’s flair for darkly comic character descriptions – Mr and Mrs Fry being a prime case in point!
Mrs Fry was of the type known as bright. She walked briskly, she smiled often, her head was always bound up in a bright-patterned scarf, and from under the scarf jutted two careful tinted curls whose position never varied by a hair’s-breadth from day to day (pp. 93–94)
Striking pen portraits also feature prominently in A Funeral at Clovie, as a man drives his cousin’s widow to her estranged husband’s funeral. The woman in question is Veronica, who is dressed ‘as though for a religious Ascot’, complete with a white cloak and sombrero, all topped off with ‘a sky-blue enamel cross’.
No wonder she’s dressed up like a bride for her husband’s funeral, thought Archie. The whited sepulchre! Probably the next one will be some Bishop or other, and she’ll marry him in pink. (p. 209)
Other highlights include Shadwell, a brilliant story of a loyal servant who finds an ingenious way to supplement her meagre income, and Absolom My Son, an excellent story of a writer who discovers his work has been plagiarised by another author (now deceased). This is another tale with a surprising twist or two as it moves towards the end.
So, all in all, this excellent collection of stories ticks several boxes for me, from the evocative mid-20th century settings to Warner’s beautiful, evocative prose. There’s some lovely descriptive writing here, especially in the author’s portrayal of the English landscape, the trees heavy with autumn foliage and inlets of green moss, ‘hot velvet in the sun, cold as ermine in the shade’. Perhaps most impressive of all, though, is Warner’s command of the contrasts in tone, the flashes of malevolence and malice lurking in these tales of seemingly gentile ladies and the respectable middle classes. A terrific collection of pieces with much to recommend it – my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.