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English Climate: Wartime Stories

by Sylvia Townsend Warner
Persephone book no:

136 137 138

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A Well Full of Leaves
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240 pp
ISBN 9781910263273

Sylvia Townsend Warner was born in 1893; by the time war broke out she was an established novelist, and from 1936 onwards her short stories appeared mostly in The New Yorker (approaching 150 of them over the years, even more than Mollie Panter-Downes and Elizabeth Taylor, those other two British women writers who were promoted and revered by the New Yorker editors).

We have collected twenty-two stories dating from 1940 to 1946 and have republished them as English Climate (the title of one of the stories). Some were reprinted in two volumes, A Garland of Straw in 1943 and The Museum of Cheats in 1947, and one or two have appeared in anthologies since; but most Persephone readers will not have read the stories before and will find them something of a revelation. Lydia Fellgett writes in her Persephone Preface: ‘These stories show a writer seeking to understand what life was like in Britain at war. She worked quickly, without the haze of nostalgia, and (unlike her novels, which moved between the centuries) they were always contemporary, reflecting the texture of what was happening at that moment in time. Her wartime stories therefore epitomise what the historian Juliet Gardiner calls “fingertip history”: a telling of an age that is so close that you can still just about touch it.

‘Almost all the stories are set in the market towns and villages of Southern England’s countryside, with a few recurring characters providing snapshots of communities of women throughout the war. Occasionally a British reader senses a direct explanation of some quirk of specifically English culture for Warner’s American audience but, generally, the appeal they held for the New Yorker readership then carries over to the appeal they hold for a twenty-first century Persephone reader today. Funny, brilliantly written, at times utterly heart-breaking, delightfully sharp, dry, intelligent and full of memorable characters: they are stories that strike the reader as somehow true as only the best fiction can.

‘Persephone readers may have already encountered some of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s work for, compared to most other Persephone authors, she is “famous”. She was a bestseller in her lifetime, author of, for example Lolly Willowes (1926) and Mr Fortune’s Maggot (1927), and a recognisable name on the literary prize shortlists, and something of an eccentric public intellectual. She has also been recuperated as a “woman writer’, a “historical writer”, a “lesbian writer”, a “fantasy writer” etc. for forty years or so now. As with all other significant women writers of the twentieth century she has been compared to Virginia Woolf (shorthand for “good woman writer”) but, more often, her short stories in particular find her being compared to Jane Austen by readers and critics who understand them as amusing but essentially genteel sketches. There is an element of truth in this, yet it is far too reductive and misses the quite radical unconventionality of many of her mainly female characters.

The stories in English Climate are very much a companion to the other war stories published by Persephone Books. Like Mollie Panter- Downes, for example, author of Good Evening, Mrs Craven: the Wartime Stories (PB 8), Minnie’s Room (PB 34) and London War Notes (PB 111), all of which were also originally published in the New Yorker, Townsend Warner’s “concentration on the personal and the particular is well suited to the magnifying lens of the short story form” (Preface to Good Evening, Mrs Craven). Both of these writers excelled at small, everyday experiences: a woman’s angry hoovering when her pride is hurt; the terror of picking up a cold at a Mother’s Union Meeting; gossiping do-gooders in a knitting circle.

It is perhaps a combination of eccentricity and formality that best characterises Warner’s work, as well as her life: she was in some ways fiercely conservative, for example she was always a believer in excellent manners. But then in her sexuality and her politics she was a true radical – living openly with a woman as a Communist when both of those things were unheard of to most of British society. Hers was therefore an exceptional life. And yet it was also full of all the everyday dullness of a middle-class woman’s existence in the middle of the twentieth century.’


Endpapers are taken from Sailors, a 1940-1 Calico Printers Association dress fabric. In a private collection.

Picture Caption

Rest Centre and Communal Feeding; WRVS archive

Read What Readers Say

Madame J-Mo (blogger)

English Climate’ is a collection of short stories inspired by Sylvia Townsend Warner’s experience of the Second World War while living in the British countryside. We see vignettes of villagers who could populate any rural area all over the UK, and we have to wonder – à la DE Stevenson’s wonderful character Miss Buncle, also reprinted by Persephone – how many of these people were inspired by those whom Sylvia knew personally. STW writes in a typically Persephone manner (if such a thing exists), in that she has a crisp but friendly tone, slightly admonishing those who judge others negatively, and with a sharp ability not to waste words on unnecessary sentences – which is a great skill in any writer. And at this time when we are all feeling mentally fragmented and emotionally spent, some comforting short stories from a simpler time are just what we need…

Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings

Although I love Sylvia Townsend Warner’s writing and already own a collection of her short stories, I don’t think I have any of these stories, and also some have never been reprinted since original magazine publication. ‘English Climate’ collects together twenty- two of STW’s stories which were published between 1940 and 1946; they’re presented chronologically, which is an effective method because it allows us to watch the change in behaviours and attitudes as the war progressed. There isn’t a dud story among them, and what was particularly fascinating was the different angles STW took. Some of the stories are less directly war-related, simply exploring the psychology of people in extreme and unusual situations (so, of course, somewhat relevant to how 2020 has been for many of us...). She’s an acute observer of the subtleties of the relationships between men and women; and her commentary on the foibles of everyday life is sharp and often very funny. She was such a marvellous writer, and these stories capture so well the changing emotions and times of the War period. I can’t recommend the collection highly enough.

Northern Reader (via Instagram)

‘English Climate’ by Sylvia Townsend Warner contains a tremendous collection of twenty-two stories that sum up a lot of the British attitudes to the Second World War. Written in the moment, these stories were submitted to the ‘New Yorker’ and other publications and have been collected by Persephone in this fascinating book. Though some have not been seen since their original wartime publication, all stand up to being read again in the twenty-first century. Their accurate representation of life in the English countryside is witty, full of atmosphere and conveys a lot of the sense of people’s reaction to the shortages, rationing, evacuees and so many other elements. These stories, though excellent and successful, were often unpublished since the original publication; indeed, as Lydia Fellgett writes in her excellent Preface, STW was uncertain herself as to whether some of the stories had actually appeared in the ‘New Yorker’, given the complicated wartime situation. Fellgett goes on to write that the stories “perfectly balance the domestic and the political. And they bring such joy with their quick humour and their lively detail.” This book features stories of implication, suggestions and dialogue which speak of people beset by war, coming to terms with a new way of life. It is a collection to be savoured. Persephone have produced several collections of stories, diaries and novels actually written during the Second World War, and for its immediacy, its ability to convey an impression of how people felt, and sheer audacity of its style, this is an incredible example of a Persephone reprint.

Categories: Country Life Gay and Lesbian Humour Short Stories Social Comedy Woman and Home WWII

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