Poor Mary by Sylvia Townsend Warner, 1947
by Sylvia Townsend Warner, 1947
Sylvia Townsend Warner's "Poor Mary" was first published in The Museum of Cheats in 1947, a collection that concentrates on the effects of war on British life. The stories work almost as a series of vignettes, with a markedly different tone from much of Warner's other writing, which may stem from her interest here in representing contemporary social conditions. Claire Harman suggested in her biography of Warner that the irony and satire of her early stories has been replaced here by a "texture … which had to form a suitable vessel for the sad, shabby, petty, and pitiable characters Sylvia was observing."
Although the texture may be different, the central themes in "Poor Mary" are familiar enough to readers of Warner's stories. The story is a brief glimpse into the lives of a couple separated by war: Nicholas, a conscientious objector, and his wife Mary, a volunteer in the ATS. The narrative focuses on a visit home by Mary, who has been away for four years, that gradually reveals a relationship that has been deadened and then brutalized by the war around it. The space and differences between the couple form the concern of the story. Not only have they taken opposite stances with regard to the war, but their separation during it has irrevocably altered their relationship:
She smells of metal, he thought, as I smell of dung…. Just as there was a difference between their smells and a difference in their gait, there was a difference in their manner of speech.
The distance between them is marked symbolically both by everyday detail—Nicholas, for example, is unable to remember whether Mary takes sugar—and finally by their lovemaking at the end of the text. This is, it seems, only bearable because they no longer have to maintain the pretense of communication:
Their smells of dung and metal would mingle, her shoulder would feel like greengages and her hair would get in his mouth, and she would be silent. It was one of her graces that she was silent in bed.
It is the texture of the writing, as Harman suggested, that pushes the loneliness at the center of the story into the realm of abjection and brings the horror of the narrative to the surface. This is achieved both through the mode of narration and with the intrusion of disturbing surreal images throughout.
Except for her dialogue, Mary's voice and experience are almost effaced, and the point of view presented is always that of Nicholas, however bizarre, fragmented, and disturbing. Despite the third-person narration, the reader has access to his internal thoughts and to the narratives he constructs about Mary:
She was going to have a baby, no doubt of it. It accounted for everything, for her nerves, for her legs, for her appetite, for her arrival. Poor Mary! … And the next instant he was thinking: My poor Mary, I hope it wasn't a rape. Meanwhile his indifferent body was complying with the schedule of his daily life, and he felt himself to be growing more and more sleepy.
Indeed, throughout the story it is his indifference and the sense of irritation at the disruption of "his daily life," more than any concern for Mary's welfare, that is so striking. When she tells him that she has fallen in love during the four years they have been apart, he is only aware of the kettle for tea he is holding ("Would nothing rid him of these turbulent kettles?").
The figurative language and surreal detail give the story its disturbing power and mark this from the beginning as something other than a conventional narrative of romance, which we otherwise might expect from the opening scene of Nicholas picking flowers for his wife's homecoming. As in her "A Love Match," a story dealing with the taboo of incest, Warner alerts us here to a different discourse by the image of the hedge in the second paragraph as being "like a black wave breaking into lips of foam." The natural landscape, like the emotional one in the story, is sterile ("the leafless hedge"); everything within it is tainted and deadened. This atmosphere is carried into the interior of Nicholas's home, a space as small and enclosed as the narrative. When Mary comments on the candles in the kitchen, he explains,
I bought them at a sale. They're called corpse candlesticks. The idea is that you leave them by the body all night, you see, and the rats can't knock them over.
A narrative perspective is thus gradually established that is almost wholly contaminated by the horror of war, the same horror that Warner highlights in "A Love Match." Here, however, the partial nature of the narrative, its sketchlike quality, is crucial to the atmosphere of the text. "Poor Mary" ends with another disturbing image. After they have made love, we are told that Nicholas will sleep, "letting the day's fatigue run out of his limbs as the fleas run out of the body of a shot rabbit," emphasizing once again the horrific filter through which the lives of Mary and Nicholas are seen and lived.