I fell in love with this collection of short stories. I confess I hadn’t heard of Sylvia Townsend Warner and hadn’t read any of her work, although she wrote numerous novels over a long life, and many of these stories were originally published in the New Yorker. I was introduced to the book at a conference, at the launch of a new edition by Handheld Press (it was originally published in 1977, the year before Warner died). I’m very glad I took the plunge and bought a copy as the book is a gem. It’s described as containing “sixteen sly and enchanting stories of Elfindom”, and that catches it perfectly: these are stories about the Elfin courts that are dotted around in our world, hidden away under hills and in woods: Brocéliande in Brittany, Elfhame in Scotland, the Kingdom of the Peris in Persia, Mynydd Preseli in Wales, Zuy in the Low Countries, Pomace near where I live in Herefordshire in England (haven’t found it yet), and so on.
They are aristocratic societies, with queens (never kings) and nobles - as well as those less lucky fairies who have to do all the work. The fairies can fly, but to do so is beneath the dignity of most higher-ranking Fay. The delight of the book is in the regional differences and quirks of the courts: each is a little world with its own oddities and eccentricities, so that the book reads a little like a travel guide written by an expert of Elfin cultures – although that makes them sound dry, when they breathe with wit and intrigue and conflict. No end of intriguing details of each distinct court are thrown in: the pack of hunting werewolves at Brocéliande, the rotating island of the Peris, the fairies’ various obsessions with birds, or singing four-part harmonies, or the use of larks for divination, or playing the flageolet, or whatever it may be.
The elves in Warner’s stories are capricious, self-obsessed and bordering on the sociopathic (from our perspective). Mortals - us - are their playthings, to be stolen at birth and then cast aside when they become boring or old. Fairies, too, are treated with utter cruelty when circumstance conspires: these are creatures capable of delicate gentleness and absolute brutality, like highly-cultured toddlers. In truth, apart from their longevity, and their wings, and their occasional magic use, there isn’t too much difference between the Elfin and us - not that they would see it that way. They call humans “mortals”, although, in fact, we have immortal souls, and the Fey do not. They are simply long-lived. They are equally fascinated and bemused by religion - although mostly indifferent, as they are to all aspects of humanity.
The stories are often slight in tone and literary in style. They perhaps have a tendency to peter out, to dazzle and delight and then stop. This is not the sort of fiction where you get a whizz-bang, twist ending. Several times I wanted to know more about certain characters, certain situations, but that gets left for the reader to think about on their own. You may like that, you may not. A common theme is the outcast: a fairy who leaves their Court for one reason or another (intrigued, bored, thrown out, left behind), or a mortal changeling within a Court (a baby stolen at birth or an adult who finds their way inside).
The writing is beautiful, full of subtle literary flourish. More than once I found myself rereading sentences simply in order to savour their perfectly-formed elegance, their economy. Towards the end of her long life of writing, Warner was clearly a fairy queen of sentence-weaving. Her style is sly, witty, beautifully-observed, luscious. As I say, a gem of a book.