"Emma loves museums," said Helena, "and I think it's good for her to look at things being still, for a change, instead of that incessant jiggety-jog of television. Not like us when we were young, Charlotte - though you were never so tied to the box as I was.
"I hated watching people breathe."Charlotte, the main character in "A Widow's Quilt," has other oddities besides not watching television because she doesn't like to see people breathe.
All of the characters in Sylvia Townsend Warner's short stories have fascinating oddities. They are lonely, perhaps. Or deformed. Or unfaithful. Warner describes some gruesome situations, actually, in a way that makes her characters seem more interesting than weird, more innocent than demented.
Charlotte's story begins with her visit to the museum where she sees a widow's quilt. It has squares cut from a white wedding dress and drab black serge. The colors, pattern and size (narrow, for a single bed) all signify a woman mourning her marital state.
Charlotte, too, is mourning her marital state. She rushes home from the museum to begin a widow's quilt of her own - even though her husband is still alive.
With each stitch she dreams of freedom. Ah, the places she will travel, the life she will lead when finally the boring, predictable postal employee she is married to has passed away. She gets so caught up in the sewing project that she begins to feel unwell. She gets dizzy. Stabs herself with the needle. Makes mistakes that have to be picked out.
Finally, one day when the quilt is nearly finished she must rush out to buy more thread. Her heart gives out on her as she is hurrying home. Her husband, left alone, gives her quilt away. He has no use for it, you see. He plans to travel constantly now.
Sylvia Townsend Warner was born at Harrow on the Hill in England in 1893. She died in 1978 in Dorset. She was best known for her short stories, many of which were published in "The New Yorker." She also wrote a biography of T.H. White and several novels, including "Mr. Fortune's Maggot."
This new collection of stories (all of which have been published before) spans her lifetime. She is at her peak of insight and humor and touchingly bizarre characterization when she is writing about married British women. Her portraits of Nazis are her most bleak and least successful stories, but there are only two or three of these stories in the collection.
It is possible when reading the stories of one author to become a bit bored by the end of the book. Plots become predictable. Not so with Sylvia Townsend Warner.