Mary Jacobs' commentary to THE FOREGONE CONCLUSION by Sylvia Townsend Warner
‘The Foregone Conclusion’ by Sylvia Townsend Warner was first published in the New Yorker magazine in 1973 when its author was aged 80. It opens with probably the most arresting and unexpected first lines of any short story:
„She planted a high Spanish comb in her pubic hair and resumed her horn-rimmed spectacles.
“There! That's as much as I shall dress.” ...‟
There is something so touching about Lucy's gallant gawkiness, that poignant combination of brittle, dare-devil sexual display along with the bookish uncertainty heralded by her horn-rimmed spectacles. This remarkable tone, mingling comedy and pathos, is sustained throughout the story. But there is more to it than this touching characterisation of Lucy. Despite its quirky brevity, „The Foregone Conclusion‟ is soberly preoccupied with the passage of time: how we think we deal with time and how time deals with us, whether we know it or not.
Lucy and her unnamed married lover have been conducting their affair for only six months, but time has already worked its harsh way with them. „In their beginning‟ they had hurried away from restaurant tables, eager to be alone together. Now their meetings in Lucy's „gaunt‟ bed-sitting room are always over-shadowed by the inevitable ending of each liaison as the „methodical civil servant‟ must take his departure from this unacknowledged existence with Lucy to resume his other, licit, private life „with a wife, two dull daughters, [and] an OBE‟. Time opens up between the lovers like a chasm: he, „old enough to be her father‟, is quickly restored to respectability after love-making; as Lucy remarks, „You look perfectly proper – all you need is your umbrella‟. By contrast, clinging to the memory of a passion which had once seemed able to defeat time, she is reluctant to dress, even though her lover assures her that „the practice of years‟ will eventually work upon her too. He has even given her a clock - which she seldom remembers to wind up.
Warner delicately pursues this theme: the heavy overcoat with which her slightly embarrassed lover seeks to conceal Lucy's nakedness is ten years old, leading her to speculate upon how many other Lucys it has previously enveloped, as she quotes: “And custom lie upon thee ...” The line, from Wordsworth's „Intimations of Immortality‟, addresses a Child: „Full soon thy Soul shall have her earthly freight,/And custom lie upon thee with a weight,/Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life!‟ Such a meditation on the relationship between youth and age, innocence and experience, the past and the present permeates „The Foregone Conclusion‟ from its riddling title to its unexpected close which, like the Scarlatti sonata that Lucy plays, „twirl[s] its tail‟ before ending. Aware that against the inexorable actions of time we can set only memory and art, Lucy tries to cheat time by precipitating the very loss that she fears.
Readers familiar with the biographies of Warner by Claire Harman and Wendy Mulford and the pieces in Warner's Scenes of Childhood will recognise some autobiographical elements within the story. These include the „gaunt proportions‟ of Lucy's bed-sitting room; her days spent in the British Museum Reading Room; „leather and spangles‟ as the height of her fashion; her fondness for exotic cookery; and the affair with a much older married man who shares her ardent dedication to music. However these are merely additional pleasures within a story which within its four pages conveys a witty, paradoxical yet poignant meditation on time, art, memory and loss.
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