It’s Sunday, so it’s short story time again, and this week I’ve abandoned Persephone for Virago and I’m dipping into Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Selected Short Stories, which are every bit as wonderful as I hoped they would be. These tales, written between 1932 and 1977, are as sharply subversive as her other work led me to expect, her prose is faultless, and the humour is as dark as ever. She’s the antithesis of Angela Thirkell, and the perfect restorative for those times when you feel you’ve had a tad too much light-hearted sweetness and a surfeit of happy endings – and even I reach that point sometimes. Actually, Sylvia Townsend Warner and Angela Thirkell are so very different that I find it hard to understand how I can like both of them so very much. I guess it just proves that variety is the spice of life.
In the first story, A Love Match, we meet brother and sister Justin and Celia Tizard, both damaged by the horrors of the First World War, who find comfort and healing in an incestuous relationship. They fall into it almost by accident. Left alone when her fiancé is killed, Celia welcomes her brother home on leave, but she cannot bear to listen to his night terrors as revisits the hellish scenes of the conflict. So she goes to him, to quiet him, and comfort him, and things go on from there.
After the war they live abroad for a time, but they return to England, and are accepted by the residents of Hallowby as a ‘disabled major’ and his ‘devoted maiden sister’ who seem middle-aged long before they are. They know their relationship is wrong, but they love each other, and I think they quite enjoy having a secret life, and the thrill of constantly watching what they do and say to ensure they are not discovered.
Returning from their sober junketings, Justin and Celia, safe within their brick wall, cast off their weeds of middle age, laughed, chattered and kissed with an intensified delight in their scandalous immunity from blame. They were a model couple.
Years pass, and life continues: they make friends and involve themselves in the community. Then Celia receives a series of poison pen letters from someone who obviously knows about the couple’s illicit relationship. The perpetrator turns out to be a young girl, who has made advances to Justin and been rejected (or so he says). He promises to ‘settle’ her, and we never know what happens, but the letters stop, and the girl is left unharmed (but bad tempered).
If anyone else has any suspicions they never mention the matter. It is death which finally exposes the brother and sister. They fall victim to a bomb which hits their house, and are discovered dead, in bed together, amid the wreckage of their home. Even then, their kindly neighbours either cannot, or do not want to, consider the truth of the situation, so they decide Justin must have gone to comfort Celia during the raid.
It’s a sad little tale and, like so many short stories, I feel there is a degree of ambivalence. Was Justin carrying on with pretty little Mary Semple? And do people realise just how close the major and his maiden sister really are, but choose to ignore it? And their death seems almost like some kind of retribution because they have broken a taboo, like something out of an ancient Greek play.