Some Effects of a Hat by Sylvia Townsend Warner


published 1963

appeared in the New Yorker in 1963, then in story collection One Thing Leading to Another in 1984







[Excerpt from story]

On the table lay the American gentleman’s hat.

Its colour was a rich muddy green, and its surface had been felted into close, lustreless mossiness. Round the crown was a band of fanciful braid, and into the braid was tucked a wad of partridge breast feathers. It was obviously a very grand and superior hat. She took it up, cautiously, with the feeling that anything so grand must also be fragile, and was astonished at its combination of lightness with solidity, and at the unassailable curve of its brim. A hat for all time, a hat like a monument.






comments:  I love Sylvia Townsend Warner, and am not so keen on short stories, but gave this collection a go because of a recommendation for this story about a hat – very Clothes in Books (thank you Chrissie).

So first this story – really excellent – both strange and charming, and very unexpected. A visiting man accidentally leaves his hat behind in Mary Daker’s cottage. She keeps thinking he will come back for it, so keeps it on her hall table. She becomes fond of the hat, tries it on, thinks it suits her. What comes next I think no-one could have predicted, so I can’t really say any more. But it is a very satisfying story. It is based on something the author saw, which she put in a letter to her editor, reproduced in the book I have.

The collection I read was put together in 1984 by Susanna Pinney, from uncollected stories, and was published by the Women’s Press. I found the quality extremely variable (as is usually the case with ‘uncollected stories’, as in, ‘maybe there’s a reason no-one re-published these particular ones’). STW is never less than a good writer, but I absolutely loved some of these, and was less keen on others. The usual case with short stories I suppose.




There are some linked stories set in an antique shop, and I could have read them all day, I really hoped the whole book was going to consist of them. If only she had written a novel about Mr Edom and Mr Collins.

And all the stories will have some line to impress, like this one:
It was mid-March , and the east wind was howling down the street like the harlot’s curse.
There were a few stories about the Finch family which I also enjoyed. The best of them contains a long and rather vague set of events leading to this situation, where a young man hiking on Exmoor encounters the family:
Round the bend of the lane came two replicas, in rather bad condition, of Gainsborough’s well-known portrait of Arminella Blount in the Character of Flora, a cadaverous small boy draped in a blood-stained Indian shawl, and a middle-aged lady dressed in the height of fashion who carried a bird cage. Once again, Mr Finch was forced to admit the fact that the instant his family escaped from supervision they somehow managed to make themselves conspicuous.
This is worthy of Hilary McKay and the Cassons - in particular this scene from Saffy’s Angel – I think Hilary would like some of these stories, and you can totally imagine Bill Casson making the remark ascribed to Mr Finch. The killer point of this one (I am not going to warn of spoilers) is that Mrs Finch won’t explain why they look like this to the young man, and the reason is: ‘Why shouldn’t he’ have a strange and inexplicable story to tell his children and grandchildren in years to come?

In this collection, the joy of the good stories made it worth ploughing through the others.

Hat adverts from early 1950s – once I started looking at these adverts I became obsessed by them. There is a certain style they all have…

The superb Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner has two entries on the blog.















Comments

  1. You know, Moira, sometimes short stories are just the thing. The collections can be, as you say, quite variable, even if the author is very talented. But still, I do enjoy them at times. And this particular one sounds right up your street. The description of that hat is so rich!

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    1. She is such a great writer! And maybe short stories are particularly good right now, when we are all a bit unnerved and not sure where the world is going... It can be hard to settle to a novel.

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  2. The antique shop! Must have read this collection in the early 80s and have been living mentally in that antique shop almost ever since!

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    1. Yes, then you know what I mean! if only she'd written a novel - a series of novels....

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  3. Our older son in Calgary lives a few blocks away from Smithbilt Hats. They make thousands of cowboy hats every year for the Calgary Stampede. A good cowboy hat costs from $130 - $1,100 depending on the quality of the felt. To our surprise last year they also have some women's fascinators. (The woman who designs their hat bands and some embellishments for cowboy hats also designs fascinators.) Sharon came home with a lovely royal blue fascinator. Here is a link to the fascinators - https://smithbilthats.com/product-category/holly-allen/special-occasions/?v=707f3a40153b. Sharon loves finding the unexpected in a store.

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    1. They are beautiful Bill, so much more than what people usually mean by fascinators! But if ever there was a couple who would have great hat-taste, I would expect it to be you and Sharon.

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  4. Just reread the antique shops stories and loved them all over again! Thanks for reminding me, Moira.

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  5. You do have me interested in this author but... I have way too many new authors I am interested in right now. Maybe someday. I believe in fate... if I am meant to read her books, it will happen.

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    1. One of hers will turn up sooner or later! As you say, fate.

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