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Sylvia Townsend Warner: Don't Miss Elphenor & Weasel

Filed under: The Katharine Wheel: On Fiction   Tagged: , , ,

Benjamin writes:

“Sylvia Townsend Warner” is one of those triple-barreled, aristocratic names reminiscent of an era: it’s the name of an imperious (and rich) great-aunt, loyal to her own relations, who takes care never to mix with yours. It’s also the name of an author who published 164 pieces in multiple genres in The New Yorker between 1936-1977. Forty-one years of publication in TNY is a formidable track record for anyone, and at least 150 of Warner’s contributions to the magazine were fiction, so I determined to look her up. I’m glad I did.

The problem with such a prolific writer, of course, is where to start. Looking over her work in the index to the The Complete New Yorker, however, I noticed that her work appeared in an unusual number of departments: Fiction, Poetry, Comment, The Air, Family Life, and Easel. Curious to see what she contributed that would qualify for “The Air,” “Family Life,” and—was she, I wondered, a painter, too?— “Easel”, I found the following:

Too Cool the Air”, from September 16, 1939, is one of those airy portraits TNY used to specialize in. Narrated in first-person by an unidentified narrator, it’s impossible to say for certain if it’s fiction or creative non-fiction, though it’s likely the former. The narrator relates a chance meeting, after a lacuna of 10 years, with “a crony of my Aunt Angel’s,” the chatty Miss Filleul, who, it transpires, is most probably a “brazen and accomplished thief.”

Fast-forward three years to July 11, 1942, and we find “The Family Revived,” a lightly humorous piece (again with a first-person narrator indistinguishable from a witnessing reporter) about a Mrs. Bogle, who has gathered a group of people in her Dorsetshire cottage for a “Sunday Salvage Afternoon.” It’s wartime, of course, so the guests have gathered to slice the metal butts off old cartridge cases and the like. Mrs. Bogle, a woman full of “predatory good intentions,” sees the war as an opportunity to revive her vision of home life in the old days, when the family would gather around the fire. Her enthusiastic plan is torpedoed, however, by reasonable objections, her husband’s brute practicality, and the embarrassed resistance of her guests. Complicated, for so short a piece, it’s difficult at this distance to be certain one has caught all the ironies.

“Too Cool the Air” and “The Family Revived,” though pleasing, are dated trifles, easily forgotten. The same cannot be said of the gem of the lot, “Elphenor and Weasel,” from the December 16, 1974 issue, which also features Woody Allen’s classic, not-to-be missed story, “The Whore of Mensa.” (Presumably, it’s the word “Weasel” that accounts for Warner’s story being classified in the CNY index under “Easel”.)

Tartly written, “Elphenor and Weasel” tells the story, surprisingly whimsical (though not, ultimately, happy) of Elphenor, a fairy destined to live among human beings, who bumbles along as a necromancer’s assistant until he meets his green-skinned, frivolous love, Weasel. Together, they enjoy a summer of love and breakfasts, and then, when the necromancer makes plans to sell them, they run off together, alternately working and stealing food until they fetch up in a church in the winter time. They choose the belfry as their sanctuary, but sadly, they misunderstand the purpose of churches, and more particularly the power of bells, and a bell-ringers’ practice proves the end of them.

But oh!, the deft compression with which Warner tells the story. Here’s an example, describing why Elphenor, shipwrecked in England and discovered by the necromancer, seems meant to be the man’s assistant: “To tease public opinion, he had studied English as his second language; he was penniless, purposeless, and breakfastless and the wind had blown his shoes off.” I love everything about that sentence, from the idea that fairies might learn English to “tease public opinion,” to the precise hammer-blows of the words, “penniless, purposeless, and breakfastless”—and then, Warner switches rhythm to say he was also shoeless.

Here’s another, fairly random example. Elphenor hails from Zuy, where English elves and fairies—such as his green-skinned, hill-dwelling lover Weasel—are known only by reputation.

At Zuy, the English Elfindom was spoken of with admiring reprehension: its magnificence, wastefulness, and misrule, its bravado and eccentricity. The eccentricity of being green and living under a hill was not included. A hill, yes. Antiquarians talked of hill dwellings, and found evidence of them in potsherds and beads. But never, at any time, green. The beauties of Zuy, all of them white as bolsters, would have swooned at the hypothesis. Repudiating the memory of his particular bolsters, [Elphenor] looked at Weasel, curled against him like a caterpillar in a rose leaf, green as spring, fresh as spring, and completely contemporary.

But you must read it yourself. And if you’re already a fan of Warner, what other works of hers do you recommend?


One of Miss Warner’s closest and most admiring readers was none other than John Updike. See his “Mastery of Miss Warner,” originally published in The New Yorker, and later collected in his magnificent “Picked-Up Pieces.”

Thanks, driedchar, I sure will. What a timely suggestion.

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