The New Yorker magazine published 144 of Sylvia Townsend Warner's stories or autobiographical pieces between 1936 and 1976; she died in 1978. Born in 1893, she was the only child of a house master at Harrow School and his rather formidable wife; she grew up into a person of lively, independent mind and an agreeable sense of humor. She lived most of her life with another woman, whom she loved steadfastly through successive vicissitudes of heart and health. Her first enthusiasm was for music; she was about to set off for Vienna to pursue her studies under Arnold Schonberg when World War I broke out.
After her father's death in 1916 -- his heart was broken, she suggested, by seeing his best boys filling the casualty lists of that year on the Somme -- she found her mother's personality too strong for comfort and left home rather than quarrel. Through her friendship with the music master at Harrow, she spent many years helping to edit the Oxford University Press 10-volume edition of Tudor church music, and living in London in fairly penurious circumstances. In due course she was introduced to David Garnett, who encouraged her to find a publisher for her first book of poetry and then for her first novel, "Lolly Willowes," which was published by Chatto and Windus in 1926. It contains many of the elements to be found in her later stories -- the interference on a thoroughly down-to-earth basis of supernatural powers; the quirky sense of humor; the impatience with every kind of pompousness and pretension; the fierce spirit of independence; the sympathy with the unconventional, the neglected and the scorned. Lolly Willowes becomes a witch, selling her soul to the devil in the process, and remains well satisfied with her bargain.
Through the same person who had introduced her to David Garnett -- sculptor Stephen Tomlin, whom she had known as a boy at Harrow -- she met Theodore Powys, the strangest of the strange Powys brothers who, with his wife Violet, was living and writing in a Dorset village. Sylvia Townsend Warner and her friend Valentine Ackland became their neighbors, and Theodore's dark, funny, frightening and curiously self-contained world certainly had an influence on Sylvia's imagination. Many of their stories are concerned with the same part of Dorset, and they shared a gleeful appreciation of its oddities.
Theodore's imagination had a religious dimension: Sylvia's did not. He could write, "I see the awful Majesty of the Creator come into our own Grange mead, and lie down amid a joyous crowd of buttercups and red clover"; that vision was not granted to Sylvia, nor would she have sought it. She was against God on the whole, and certainly against His Church. The merest hint of organized religion, as of snobbery or English conservatism (let alone foreign fascism), would arouse instant indignation. She and Valentine Ackland joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1935, though early fervor soon faded.
Most of her best stories were published in book form in her lifetime. "One Thing Leading to Another" is the second posthumous volume, and there are moments when the light of her invention seems to be burning lower than usual. Where she uses recurring characters -- the meticulous Mr. Edom of the Abbey Antique Galleries and his eager assistant Mr. Collins, or the inconsequential Mrs. Finch, whose flights of conversational fancy lead to bizarre misunderstandings -- there are indications that they may be beginning to bore her, and her treatment of them is sometimes a little perfunctory. In her eighties she discovered a new source of material; the last four stories in this volume are concerned with the Kingdom of Eflin. "It is such a relief to escape from the human heart," she wrote in a letter; and again, "I have been back in Elfhame again . . . This one is about the death of Tiphaine and establishes that it was she who beguiled Thomas of Ercildowne, though for the purposes of my story the beguiling is fifty-fifty. It is rather beautiful and has a great deal of information about Elfhame and unknown till now as I have just invented it. Oh, how I long to give it learned footnotes, and references. There is such heartless happiness in scholarship."
Everything that she wrote bears the firm imprint of her personality, and is conveyed in the clean, clear prose of a true lover of good writing and good reading. It is good to have these stories gathered together, and to be able to hope that they will not only please Sylvia Townsend Warner's old admirers, but also attract new readers.