Of Cats and Elfins by Sylvia Townsend Warner

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Reviewed by Harriet

of cats and elfin sylvia townsend warner handheld press

Just over a year ago I reviewed the newly published Handheld Press edition of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Kingdoms of Elfin, a collection of strange, glittering, fascinating stories, which had first appeared in the New Yorker in the 1970s. Although Warner is sometimes celebrated as a fantasy author – and indeed her first novel, Lolly Willowes does have a protagonist who becomes a witch – this had been her first return to the genre since 1940, when she had published a collection of short stories under the title The Cat’s Cradle Book. Happily for admirers of Warner’s fantasy fiction, the present collection not only includes the seventeen cat stories but also contains a 1927 essay, ‘The Kingdom of Elfin’ and five uncollected Elfin stories, mostly written at the same time as the New Yorker stories but not published there.

No census has numbered them; no income tax inspector knocks on their green hills, or drops yellow forms into their hollow and holy trees; their children, except a few changelings, do not attend the Board Schools, their criminals slip through the fingers of policemen, and their dead are buried without certificates.

So writes Warner about the fairies who populate her Elfin stories. Few humans see fairies, she goes on, but this is ‘not because we are too stupid to see them, but because they are too clever to be seen by us’. We are lucky, then, to be able to catch a glimpse through her tales.  It’s fascinating to reflect that this essay was written nearly fifty years before she returned to the subject in the 1970s.  In the present stories we meet again some characters who appeared in the earlier volume. One such is beautiful Queen Tiphaine, whose death here precipitates the coronation of an unlikely heir, Queen Mousie. All the Elfin stories are a pleasure to read, but my favourite has to be the earliest (1929), ‘Stay, Corydon, Thou Swain’, in which Mr Mulready, a middle-aged draper, falls in love with a young woman who he takes to be a nymph. ‘His mind’s nymph was Miss Edna Cave, who sold stay-laces and suchlike oddments in a dark secluded corner of the shop’. Was he deluded? Maybe not.

Then we come to the cat stories, which are prefaced by Warner’s introduction. This tells the story of her visit to a mysterious ancient house in the countryside: ‘With trees all around it, with a deep mossy lane in front of it, the house lay like a pear fallen from a tree’. The house is inhabited by the handsomest young man she has ever seen, and also by his nineteen cats (twenty-seven if you count the kittens). Both the narrator and the young man can speak cat. He introduces her to the collection he has made of the stories the cats tell (which make up the remainder of the book), but before the introduction is finished, all but one of the cats has died of a mysterious sickness which the vet doesn’t recognise. This is evidently a fictionalised account of Warner’s early relationship with her lover Valentine Ackland, who did indeed have nineteen cats, which died mysteriously.

The cats generally do not tell stories about other worldly beings. Instead their protagonists are mostly animals, though animals with very human characteristics. Not cats, though – the only living cat in these tales is the one so badly treated by a crow and a rook – he’s in desperate need of help but the two birds refuse in on the grounds that ‘You do not comply with the regulations of the fund. Until you have sold your skin we can do nothing to help you’. Then of course there’s ‘The Castle of Carabas’ in which the marquises of that title live in horror of cats, haunted by the memory of a monstrously huge one which terrorised one of their ancestors (a reference here to the ancient fable that was the origin of the story of Puss in Boots). Other animals that appear include a tiger who befriends a saintly hermit and ends up imbibing unwanted characteristics from the holy man:

Meanwhile the tiger was feeling very oddly. At first it seemed to him that he had been overtaken by some mysterious illness, and this surmise was borne out by the fact that he had completely lost the impulse to kill.

The acquisition of human characteristics by animals is a recurring theme in these stories. We meet a fox who, after reading The Lives of the Saints, aspires to become a hermit. He succeeds remarkably well, so much so that he is approached and asked to become Pope, something he feels he must refuse. It’s hard not to sympathise with the wolf, in ‘Popularity’, who yearns to be loved, and goes round asking numerous animals and birds how to achieve this. After many fruitless attempts including wagging his tail, purring, eating grass, learning to sing and eating grubs, he consults an owl who advises him to be ‘as wolfish as possible’ something he returns to with enthusiasm, only to be slaughtered by the local villagers.

There are also stories in which humans appear, though they are often humans with rather unusual characteristics. One of these is the Trumpeter’s Daughter, who ‘did not know until her thirteenth birthday that she was a changeling’. Her father then tells her of her supernatural origins, and warns her that she will never find a place in the world. Happily she meets a gypsy, who tells he has not just one but a hundred places, and goes where he pleases. ‘”That sounds a life to suit me”, said the girl. And she went with him’. Bluebeard’s Daughter, Djamileh, is the child of the only wife not to be murdered. She has inherited her father’s colouring: ‘Her hair was a deep butcher’s blue – the inside of her mouth and her tongue were dusky blue like a well-bred chow’s’. Although she has been warned by her father against curiosity, she cannot help herself, and explores forbidden areas of the castle with her equally curious husband, before turning this supposed vice into an unexpected virtue.

Discovering Warner, as I did myself only a couple of years ago, has been one of the high points of my already enjoyable reading life. So I was delighted to have the chance to read this latest collection, which I can’t recommend highly enough.

Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, Of Cats and Elfins: Short Tales and Fantasies (Handheld Press, 2020). 978-1912766154, 226pp., paperback original.

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