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Dipping into Sylvia Townsend Warner’s short stories

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“Dipping” is a word I’m trying to introduce into my reading vocabulary at the moment, as I seem to have got myself into a mindset of having to finish a book at a time, regardless of what it is. And when it comes to poetry and short stories, this isn’t necessarily the best way to read, so I’m going to attempt to be a little more flexible, picking up volumes of poems and shorter works when the mood takes me and not fretting about when I finish them. And I was gifted with some lovely volumes at Christmas, so this would be the ideal way to start exploring them.

A book I’ve been keen on getting for a long time is Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Selected Stories in a lovely Virago volume, and my Secret Santa Trish kindly came up trumps with this one. The stories are chosen by Susanna Pinney and William Maxwell, STW’s literary executors, and having only read one of her books before (“Mr. Fortune’s Maggot”) I was interested to see what her other work was like.

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So far, I’ve read a few stories and they really are good. In particular, “The Love Match”, the first story in the collection, is a real gem and a wonderful way to open the book. Telling the story of Celia and Justin Tizard, a brother and sister who come to live in the little town of Hallowby, it initially seems that Mr Pilkington, who brings them there, might be the focus of the story or heavily involved. In fact, he plays a minor part, and STW twists and subverts your expectations with a dark little tale about a very strange relationship between the wars and how it plays out. I was left with a *lot* of questions about Celia and Justin, about what really *had* been going on in the town, and also thinking about what happens behind closed doors and beneath the surface.

I shall carry on dipping into this book whenever the fancy takes me, as it seems that I’m going to be guaranteed something interesting. Now I just have to get myself into this mindset as regards poetry: should I read chronologically? Open the book at random? Search for titles that are recommended or highly thought of? Any suggestions gratefully received…

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All Virago/All August (not): Mr. Fortune’s Maggot by Sylvia Townsend Warner

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Sylvia Townsend Warner is an author that, up until recently, I knew nothing about except that there were a lot of VMC titles by her. However, Simon has enlightened me a lot and several of the quotes I’ve read from her are quite lovely. Mr. Fortune’s Maggot was the first STW book I managed to find, albeit in a modern version, and it’s been sitting on my tbr for a while. However, when Youngest Child came back from town with a nice old green version, I figured I really must read it rather than hide it away.

I have to say I approached this book with a little trepidation – I wasn’t sure if the subject matter was really something I would normally choose, but then all STW’s stories seem to be a little outre, so I set off! The book tells the tale of Mr. Fortune, who starts life as a bank clerk with an aptitude for figures, until a legacy enables him to train as a missionary and head off to the South Seas to convert the heathen. His ‘maggot’, defined as a “whimsical or perverse fancy”, is to go off on a solo venture to the island of Fanua where white men are virtually unknown, and attempt to bring Christianity to the natives. Mr. Fortune spends three years on the island, loses his faith and goes through a number of crises before finally leaving for we know not where.

The crux of the story is the relationship between Fortune and the young native boy Lueli, who becomes his friend, what he thinks is his first convert, and his pupil in all things Mr. Fortune thinks fit to impart. The two love each other in what seems to be a pure way, though Lueli wants nothing from Fortune but that love, although Fortune is desperate to civilise Lueli.

The book is beautifully written, as I would expect from those parts of STW’s prose I’ve read before, and I found myself sucked in and gripped by her narrative in a way I didn’t expect. She conjures up the island, its people and their way of life vividly and the descriptions are remarkable. The sequence with the earthquake and volcano had me on the edge of my seat and I ended up reading the book rapidly in a couple of sittings.

“Mr. Fortune’s Maggot” is a very thought-provoking book – our hero comes to the island convinced of the righteousness of his mission, but is powerless to covert the islanders from their wooden idols and their way of life. Although some of their stories have roots in the same kind of tales he knows from the bible, their way of life is too entrenched, dictated by the climate and the surroundings, for him to make any impact on them. Fortune’s attempts to teach Lueli mathematics are hilarious and sad at the same time – there is a total cultural gap between them that can never be bridged and Lueli is incapable of grasping any of what his teacher is attempting to convey. In the end, the islanders help, care for and tolerate the white man in their midst but will never really understand his beliefs. It is they who will retain their way of life intact and Mr. Fortune who changes. He loses his faith quite dramatically (and in fact ends up wondering quite how strong it was in the first place) and eventually comes to an understanding of how important the islanders’ beliefs are to them – to such an extent that he creates a new wooden idol for Lueli.

Once he has given Lueli a new god, which perhaps replaces the kind of god Fortune had become to the boy, the missionary realises it is time to leave Fanua. What happens to him after that, we will never know – and it seems from her “Envoy” that STW did not know what would happen to her character either. This is a remarkable book, striking and memorable, and I understand now why STW is rated so highly by many.

The best laid plans…

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As the tbr is getting to be a bit of a mountain, teetering on the point of collapse, I had rather resolved that I must not make any more purchases before shrinking it a little. Why did I bother? It’s always when I’ve made that sort of resolution that things go pear-shaped!

The first chink in the armour was on Wednesday. Middle Child was home for a few days as Youngest Child was due for A level results and they popped into the nearest Big Town for a shop (as girls do!) Hence a phone call to me (I have them well-trained!) while they ran through every Virago in the Samaritans charity bookshop. They came home with one green Virago I didn’t have, which I’m almost afraid to admit to owning as it gets such bad press on LibraryThing:

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Oh dear. But I will give it a try myself as I’m willing to try most books once.

Next day, Youngest Child went off into town with some friends to celebrate good A Level results – yet another phone call followed and she came home clutching a nice green copy of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s “Mr. Fortune’s Maggot” – at only £1 it was nice to have this to replace my later copy. So nothing to get too guilty about really.

On Friday, after doing a good Samaritan act and escorting an Aged Relative to a hospital appointment, I was dropped in a different part of town and visited a newly-revamped charity shop. The local branches seem to be cottoning on to the appeal of many books, and they had a separate book section at the back which held “The Virago Book of Women Gardeners” and the second volume of Storm Jameson’s autobiography. Since they were 90p each and in lovely condition I didn’t feel it would be right to resist. I was particularly intrigued by the gardening collection – it does seem that Virago have put out a lot of themed collections (of which I have a few!) Of course, this does mean that I’ll now have to track down volume 1 of the Storm Jameson!

So to Saturday. Youngest Child, who normally accompanies me on book hunts, had gone off to visit friends so for a change I visited a Proper Secondhand Bookshop I hadn’t been in for a while and did a good trawl of all the charity shops. This was despite her warning me that I Did Not Need Any More Books until I had  read some of the ones I’ve acquired recently.  Somehow, I wasn’t expecting to find much – how wrong I was.

First up, a couple of lovely vintage Penguins – “Pigeon Pie” by Nancy Mitford and “The Pumpkin Eater” by Penelope Mortimer (which I think ended up as a Virago). Pigeon Pie was a bit of a bargain at £1 so I was quite happy with that!

Next, a couple of volumes I already have – “Invisible Cities” by Calvino and “To The Lighthouse”. The Calvino is one I want to re-read and I don’t want to mess up my old and fragile copy. Likewise the Woolf – this copy claims to be the definitve edition and as mine is very, very old I thought it was worth 95p for a newer one (and how the various shops decide on their prices, I have no idea!!):

On LibraryThing, one of the discussion threads has centred on Joyce Carol Oates and her name has come up on quite a few blogs I read recently, so a couple of bargains didn’t go amiss:

And finally, I headed for the Oxfam bookshop, somewhat weighed down and thinking that Youngest Child would be a little stunned. Even more so after the Oxfam, which had just restocked their Modern Classics shelf so it contained four – yes, four! – Sylvia Townsend Warner titles. Since I enjoyed “Mr. Fortune’s Maggot” so much and since STW books never seen to turn up I’m afraid I didn’t resist.

Bearing in mind that yesterday was one of the hottest days of the year, getting them home was no fun. But I’m not sorry, really – the cheapest was 90p, the most expensive (only one of them) £4 and as YC points out, bookaholism is a fairly harmless vice!!

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