English childhood recalled with wit; Scenes of Childhood, by Sylvia Townsend Warner. New York: The Viking Press. 177 pp. $10.95.
All of us should have an aunt like Sylvia Townsend Warner. Part poet, part sprite, she'd be just the one to turn to, as dessert arrived, for a favorite family story.
Between the mince pie and chocolates, she'd regale us with the tale about the poodle that chased Lord Kitchener, the family cat, through the upstairs bedroom, through a hail of pincushions, glove stretchers, and trinket boxes.
One of Aunt Sylvia's stories would begin like this: ''Long, long ago, when there was a czar in Russia, and scarcely an automobile or a divorced person in Mayfair, and when the throne of England was embellished not only by a beautiful queen but by several beautiful mistresses, too, and when rock gardens were still a rarity, and my mother's greatest ambition was to have a black velvet dress with white lace on it, Miss Viner would come to tea. Miss Viner was a small, wiry woman, with a sharp nose and a voice like a fox terrier -- but a very cultured fox terrier, who had learned to yap with dignity. . . .''
Thankfully, Sylvia Townsend Warner's recollections of Miss Viner's visit and other eccentric family happenings have been preserved in ''Scenes of Childhood, '' selected from some 40 years of the late English gentlewoman's reminiscences that appeared in The New Yorker magazine.
Author of seven novels, eight collections of short stories, six volumes of verse, and a biography of T. H. White, Miss Warner was also a student of Tudor church music who had a ''broadminded passion'' for exploring country churches. ''A Winding Stair, a Fox Hunt, a Fulfilling Situation, Some Sycamores, and the Church at Henning'' gives us a quick glimpse of one church's pale friezes, and a lingering look at Miss Warner's whimsical titles.
While her scenes of adulthood reflect a wry, yet gentle, point of view, the scenes of childhood that make up more than half of this slim book are enchanting. The only child of a schoolmaster father and well-intentioned mother, Sylvia Warner was raised ''not to dawdle but to go briskly'' on her afternoon walks, and to finish all the food on her plate. She was hard on clothes, having ''an experimental disposition and a strong inclination towards gutters, ditches, newly tarred gates, and excitable dogs with large paws.''
Above all, her artistic sense enabled her at an early age to see in a sunset ''a mackerel sky, with innumerable small clouds, close-packed as pebbles on a beach.''
In her remembrances of the friends and relations of early childhood, Miss Warner is at her best. There's the family poodle who growls at four-poster beds, and the cat, Lord Kitchener. And there's Cousin Ursula, a first cousin twice removed, who lived in one of the best-known haunted houses in Ireland and who ''looked like a spectre, but the spectre of a camel, for she was extremely tall and thin and walked with a camel's swaying rawboned gait.''
The reminiscences here could turn to oversweetened, sentimental mush. But Sylvia Townsend Warner has that sensible talent for knowing how to lead her readers to a smile, and then leaving them to enjoy it. On occasion, she may even stand a bit too distantly from the scene. One wishes for more, not less, of her delightful presence.