Sunday, February 2, 2020

Of Cats and Elfins - Sylvia Townsend Warner

It's hard to fathom how I got through so many years without discovering Sylvia Townsend Warner's short stories, I blame 'Lolly Willows' which for whatever reason I didn't click with (or finish). It's the S T-W book that everybody seems to love so I spent a long time assuming she wasn't really for me.

It might be that I'd appreciate 'Lolly Willows' much more now and maybe I'll give it a go for the Sylvia Townsend Warner Reading Week later this year. Meanwhile I'm completely in love with the two collections of short stories that Handheld Press have published, particularly 'Of Cats and Elfins' which is a remarkable collection.

I should have finished this weeks ago, but had held out against doing so for two reasons. One, I didn't want to be done with this book, but also short as they are these stories have a way of getting under my skin and they didn't want to be rushed.

The six Elfin tales are excellent, and very much along the lines of the first collection Kingdoms of Elfin. They're quite a bit longer than the Cat's Cradle collection, and are characterised by a melancholy air that underpins everything about them. The Arthur Rackham images Handheld have chosen for the covers are a perfect expression of that mood. Both stories and cover image share a playfulness and beauty, along with something a little unsettling (uncanny?).

'The duke of Orkney's Leonardo' (the 5th in this collection) is easily one of my personal favourites of all time. Reading it gave me that magical feeling of finding something that could have been written just to amuse me. It's a sense of recognition within a book that I associate more with childhood and teen years than being an adult reader so finding it here was a real gift.

'The Cat's Cradle Book' which makes up the second half of this collection is different in mood. The gentleness of the Elfin stories has gone. This collection opens with a framing introduction. A woman has stopped to admire a pretty house, and finds herself admiring a handsome young man and communing with his many cats. A dreamy interlude follows where they discuss the history and charm of cats along with their language which our narrator understands better than she speaks.

The young man has been collecting the cats stories with a view to publication, our narrator takes them away, returns after a distraught call from the young man telling her all the cats are dying. We can infer that the young man also dies, but who can say for sure. Catlike, these stories play with the reader - making up to you before revealing claws.

The first one, 'Odin's Birds' is The Twa Corbies from Scottish folklore, which makes me wonder if some of the others are so explicitly based on stories that I'm unfamiliar with, or if that just the impression that S T-W wants me to have. The collection was first published in 1940 which I only looked up because one tale, 'Bluebeard's Daughter' feels like it belongs with Angela Carter's 'The Bloody Chamber' but it came 40 years earlier. 'The Castle of Carabas' also plays with a well known fairy tale and feels unexpectedly contemporary with it.

Now I know the date was 1940 I'm speculating that part of the reason this collection seems so contemporary, and chimes so hard with my current mood, is because of a shared uncertainty about the future. Mostly though its because Warner is a brilliant short story writer.

The Cat's Cradle collection never pulls it's punches. The stories are frequently funny, they're beautifully and seemingly effortlessly poetic in places, and time after time they pull the rug from under you at the end with a stinging lack of sentimentality. They're just brilliant.


  1. I'm really looking forward to reading this! I've ordered a copy to be delivered to my parents' house in the UK and have to wait until half-term to read it. If one of the stories was one of your favourites of all time - well, that's the perfect recommendation.

    1. I didn’t read the introduction until after I’d written about the book, but it turns out I’m not alone in my love for The Duke Of Orkney’s Leonardo. She’s a remarkable writer.