Thursday, November 8, 2018

Kingdoms of Elfin - Sylvia Townsend Warner

I am literally surrounded by excellent books at the moment (they're at my feet, piled on both arms of the chair I'm sitting on, there are more by my bed, in my work bag, piled up on every surface...) so much so that it's hard to know where to start, or to stop myself trying to start 3 things at once. The books I feel most enthusiasm for are also the hardest to write about; they demand both more thought, and work, in direct relation to how good I think they are.

Which is a long way of saying that I've put off writing about 'Kngdoms of Elfin' for the best part of a week whilst I try and expand on my over riding thought that it's one of the most perfect collections of short stories I've ever read. Which came as a bit of a surprise really, because until now I've not been overly interested in Sylvia Townsend-Warner.

I have collected quite a few of her books though, I know I bought Lolly Willows because it sounded interesting. I also know I never finished it. Since then I've picked up as many of the old Virago editions of her books as I've ever seen with genuinely good intentions of reading them one day. In the end it took committing to a review copy of Handheld Press new edition of 'Kingdoms of Elfin' to make me actually get in with one of her books.

It's hard to define 'Kingdoms of Elfin', a collection of 16 short stories more or less about fairies written in the 1970's towards the end of Warner's life. They were first published in The New Yorker before being collected into a book, I'm not at all sure how they fit with the rest of her work, but they feel like something that might be both a conclusion and a departure from what's gone before it.

There's a disconcerting quality about these stories which I think is heightened by Warner's own timeline. No dates are given, but there's a general sense that they're set sometime earlyish in the 19th century, a time about as distant from Warner's own youth (she was born in 1893) as the 1970's in which she was writing. They really feel like they've got a foot both in the past and the present, and make a specific sort of sense out of Elfin longevity in relation to her own age when writing and the changes she'd seen.

There's something dream like about these stories too, especially the later ones, were things make sense in exactly the same way they do in dreams. These fairies aren't particularly magical, they can fly, although it's considered vulgar to do so, and occasionally other gifts are hinted at, but for the most part everything seems normal enough, until it isn't which makes them work wonderfully as weird tales. Especially at this time of year - autumn makes it easy to half believe strange things, and I found I particularly reading something a little odd, but not designed to be frightening in any way.

More than anything though, I loved the humour, sly and sometimes a little wicked, mixed with a master story tellers turn of phrase. I am profoundly grateful to have read this book, it's an absolute jewel of a thing that I look forward to reading again and again.


  1. I love this book too! Great review. I know absolutely nothing about the context in which they were written, though it does seem to me that she was trying to reclaim fairies from the sentimentalising of them which had gone on in the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries and reinstate their wildness. But I don't know what her purpose in doing that might have been. They seem almost like us, as you say, until they aren't.

    I'm going to reread it as soon as I've finished my current book (I think you might like that too, it's The Unforgiving by Charlotte Cory). And I do like the choice of illustration for the cover of that reprint, very apt. :)

  2. I know next to nothing about ST-W so am only guessing, but it feels like she was having fun - especially at the expense of the church, and conventional morality. There's something about the way she has her changelings abandoned when they reach much the age she must have been when she wrote these that's interesting as well. It makes me think of Alice Thomas Ellis' 'Fairy Tale' too, she must have been familiar with Warner's stories. I just think they're great every which way you look at them.