cover image The Element of Lavishness: Letters of William Maxwell and Sylvia Townsend Warner, 1938-1978

The Element of Lavishness: Letters of William Maxwell and Sylvia Townsend Warner, 1938-1978

Sylvia Townsend Warner. Counterpoint LLC, $27.5 (340pp) ISBN 978-1-58243-118-5

In 1936, the English writer Sylvia Townsend Warner published her first story in the New Yorker; shortly thereafter she was contacted by mail by a new entry-level editor named William Maxwell. Over the next 40 years, Warner published 153 stories in the magazine, and Maxwell became one of the best-known fiction arbiters of his time. They came to be close friends and correspondents, their exchange (totaling 1,300 letters) depending only partially on New Yorker business. The two carried on an almost impossibly civilized conversation: Warner, learned and eccentric, peppered her letters with obscure literary references and enclosed the odd gift (one year she sent Maxwell a spoon). Maxwell displayed an editor's refinement and a touching solicitude toward his British friend. Though at times they foundered in a sea of mutual admiration, the correspondents were at their best when exchanging literary opinions, details of their respective family lives or simply two ordinary people's distracted awareness of global events. The letters were often not dated, and putting them in sequence must have been a Herculean task for editor Steinman (who also edited Maxwell's correspondence with Frank O'Connor); in any case, the edition is not without flaws. Unable to print the entire correspondence because of its sheer volume, Steinman included some complete letters and excerpts of others, without noting his omissions or explaining his choices; there is no framing material other than a brief introduction, and scarcely any notes contextualizing the letters. Yet despite these editorial oversights, readers who admire Warner and Maxwell for their own beautifully expressed selves will find much to enjoy in this tribute to the leisurely intimacies of a bygone era. (Jan.)