Once upon a time, when the century was very young and grapefruit and popcorn balls were exotic novelties in England, the young daughter of a British schoolmaster busied herself with apparent aimlessness (perhaps the only way it can be done) acquiring the skills of a writer. Under the indulgent care of her nurse, who liked to visit with other nurses, she played in the cemetery of a nearby church and her young imagination infused strange new life into the tokens of death. She went picnicking in Wales and stored away vivid memories of the sudden, dramatic storms in the mountains: "anvil-shaped clouds would rise behind the crags, and a low rumble would be heard . . . and the first heavy drops of rain would fall, spotting the sandwiches, and a minute later everything would be wincing under flashes of lightning and then obliterated in a grey fury of rain."
She observed the curious habits of the large people around her: a butler who was discharged and got his revenge later when he came back to the house as the leader of a volunteer fire company; a mysterious woman who visited the house occasionally, radiating espionage, mystery and gossip about the crowned heads of Europe; Aunt Angel, who told with horror of what happens to women who allow the full moon to touch their sleeping faces in India.
She learned to read and marveled that the letters "St. John" spelled "Sinjohn," but that was a relatively late development. Being a schoolmaster, she explains, her father "doubted . . . the benefit of learning to read. From the moment a child discovers that information can be got out of books, he averred, it desists from exercising its faculties of observation, memory, and thinking for itself. So, long after my contemporaries had become literate, I was left to be observant, retentive, and rational. When my formal education began, with an illustrated spelling book, my faculties of observation, etc., prompted me to glance at the picture before saying that the Ox was Fat, the Ap-ple Ro-sy; and I was thought a promising scholar till the day when I maintained that NAG spelled 'horse,' or at least 'pony.' "
Her father's theories contrasted sharply with those of the Scottish philosopher James Mill, whose son, John Stuart, was reading Greek at age 3. But it worked out quite well, because in these reminiscences (published mostly in The New Yorker between 1936 and 1975), the late Sylvia Townsend Warner shares with us a childhood that was extraordinarily observant, retentive and rational. Sometimes too rational, perhaps. She recalls once scolding the family dog with "Thou shalt not commit adultery" after it stole a piece of meat because her mother had told her that "adultery" meant "sins of the flesh."
In the long run, observation and retention probably were more useful than pure reason operating outside of concrete experience. Her memories of those early years are sharply focused, precisely detailed, full of life and color and as vivid as if they had happened yesterday. As for her writing style, it argues eloquently for the virtues of prolonged illiteracy in early childhood -- provided, naturally, that this lack is later well compensated. Her words leap from the page with the energy and inflection of a speaking voice, perhaps because speech was for so long her only way of using words.
It may have been beneficial, too, that her first prolonged reading after the illustrated speller was the Old Testament in the King James version. This did not taint her vocabulary unduly, because she learned quickly (as in the "adultery" incident) which words work and which don't in modern communication. But it seems to have given her a sense of the rhythms words can and should have on paper, of the flexibility with which they can be linked together, of the ways in which the marks of writing can and should approximate the sounds of speech.
Whatever may have been involved in the process (and surely a large part of it was ability inherited from her slightly odd but intelligent and lively parents), Sylvia Townsend Warner was one of that magic and sadly dwindling class: people who write beautifully. There are still a few, but our educational system no longer seems geared to produce them and publishers no longer seek them out, nourish and develop them; readers, apparently, no longer flock to them in large numbers and with a special fervor. Perhaps we are losing the taste, or the ability, to tell the difference -- just as there must be some young people who have never known the taste of a natural, fresh tomato. Perhaps a certain numbing of the senses is helpful (or even necessary) for getting on in the world today. Whatever the reason, among the 40,000 or so variously interesting, informative, exciting, absorbing, stimulating (or, of course, utterly deplorable) books pouring off the presses each year in this country, barely one in a thousand (even among the poets) can be called beautifully written. That number is probably high; it would mean 40 in a year -- one a week with three months time out for summer -- and there are hardly that many.
In its quiet, unobtrusive way, "Scenes of Childhood" is one of that small number. It is sometimes funny and often thoughtful, and it traces in fragmentary splendor scattered episodes in the author's life from early childhood until she set out on her own, shopping for a flat in London and engaging in a Socratic dialogue with a chance acquaintance. Some of the episodes have the neatness of fiction -- the story of the butler, for example, or the epic tale of how her mother won a battle about buttons on Red Cross pajamas during World War I. But if some of the details may involve invention rushing to the aid of memory, if some of the details seem too precise for a child who (being illiterate) was obviously not taking notes, these are small matters in a book so finely written.