“A Widow’s Quilt” was first published in the New Yorker magazine on June 6, 1977, just under a year before Warner’s death in May 1978. It was subsequently republished in a posthumous collection of her stories, One Thing Leading to Another (1984).
In making her selections for The Oxford Book of English Short Stories (1998), editor A. S. Byatt claimed that her sole criterion for inclusion was that the stories selected “should be startling and satisfying and if possible make the hairs on the neck prickle with excitement, aesthetic or narrative” (xv–xvi). “A Widow’s Quilt” is one such story.
Warner’s personal situation at the time of writing is reflected in the story’s title. She herself was a “widow,” having lost her partner of 40 years, Valentine Ackland, in 1969. However, society accorded her no official title since hers was a lesbian relationship, though the last 10 years of her life were transfused with her sense of bereavement, which touched every aspect of her personal and social life. Claire Harman, the editor of War ner’s diaries, talks of the “extraordinary other-life of her bereavement” (ix), and indeed the diary after 1969 contains little that does not refer directly or indirectly to Ackland. The word marriage is constantly repeated. In this frame of mind, and knowing how much Ackland would have appreciated the story’s irony and magical quality, Warner crafted this unexpectedly menacing tale, whose heroine, according to Byatt, is “precisely and ornamentally stitching a pattern of death” (xxiii).
The initial setting—the American Museum near Bath—acknowledges Warner’s large American readership. The widow’s quilt of the title still hangs in the museum and is named in its catalog as the “Darts of Death” quilt. The story delineates a childless and loveless marriage between Everard, a hypochondriacal London stamp dealer, and Charlotte, his insular and resentful wife. Charlotte visits the museum with her sister on a day trip and is captivated by the startling black-and-white quilt. On her way back to London she sits on the train “in a dreamlike frenzy” (133), planning her own version. As a gift for Everard from the museum shop, she has chosen some candies flavored with horehound, an ancient Navaho Indian remedy for women in childbirth.
A story that appears to be black and white, a simple narrative of a woman stitching a “widow’s” patchwork quilt for pleasure, now transmutes into a macabre tale. Charlotte’s crafting of the quilt becomes obsessive, and, as she stitches, Warner reveals the stultifying pattern of this doomed marriage. Secrecy surrounding the quilt becomes “an essential ingredient in her pleasure” (135). Symbolically, on Christmas Eve, Charlotte reveals its existence to Everard, renaming it a “magpie” quilt, thus obscuring its true purpose. As with the horehound, Warner again makes a covert reference to childbirth and pregnancy, since the word magpie originates from the Latin word “pica,” today used in medical terminology to denote a condition in which a pregnant woman craves and consumes nonfood substances. Though not pregnant, Charlotte’s craving for the quilt is all-consuming, and indeed metaphorically she is giving birth—to an entity that becomes larger and more animate by the day: “It had a rationality now, a character” (136). In renaming the quilt, she seals her own fate; there are fewer more powerful natural symbols of bad luck and malevolence than the magpie. Warner now brings to the fore Charlotte’s true purpose—“She was stitching away at Everard’s demise” (137). As her true motivation is revealed, the quilt perversely begins to work against her, becoming a worry, a burden, a “drudgery”: “She began to make mistakes. . . . Her heart thumped, her fingers swelled” (137), common symptoms of pregnancy. When the quilt is almost complete, Charlotte runs out of thread. Returning from her shopping trip, she climbs the stairs back to her flat, suffers a heart attack, and dies. The quilt has taken approximately nine months to gestate.
With its subject matter of relationships, marriage, death, and widowhood, this outwardly morbid tale can conversely be read as Warner’s mourning song, a tribute to her partner and to her love. Toward the end of her life, she wrote in her diary, “Only two things are real to me: my love and my death. In between them, I merely exist as a scatter of senses” (355).
Byatt, A. S., ed. The Oxford Book of English Short Stories. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Warner, Sylvia Townsend. Selected Stories. London: Chatto & Windus, 1988.
———. The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner. Edited by Claire Harman. London: Chatto & Windus, 1994.