Fans of the late Warner’s schoolmarmish tales about upper-middle-class English country life will undoubtedly relish this slim volume of previously uncollected stories (1926–77), all but one published stateside in The New Yorker.
Populated with the eccentric figures Warner favored—strong-willed spinsters suspicious of modernity, precocious child-aesthetes, mild-mannered shopkeepers—most of these stories would be more accurately described as vignettes or character sketches. In lieu of a traditional narrative arc, the frequently sentimental pieces describe situations or flights of fancy or the characters’ momentary feelings. “A Brief Ownership” is fairly typical: its unnamed narrator, planning a drive through Scotland, finds a listing for a town named Dull in her guidebook and imagines herself retiring there, occupying her days by reading about the lives of English bishops. The most successful tales concern a neurotic antiques dealer, Mr. Edom, and the intricacies of his dealings with customers and difficult employees. In “English Mosaic,” a client brings Mr. Edom a drainpipe, hideously plastered with broken bits of valuable china. While his arrogant assistant proclaims the thing’s beauty, Mr. Edom feels almost personally insulted by the mind that could create such an ugly object. “Qwertyuiop,” one of the more engaging entries here, features a sulky teenaged narrator (a refreshing change from Warner’s generally fusty protagonists) who longs for a typewriter in order to transcribe her poems. The stories are framed by an informative though surprisingly uninspired introduction by the late William Maxwell, Warner’s editor at the New Yorker, and a superfluous afterword (a string of plot synopses) by Michael Steinman, who edited this volume and The Elements of Lavishness (p. 1669), a simultaneously published collection of the correspondence between Warner and Maxwell.
Valuable for devotees, perhaps, but not the best introduction to Warner’s work.