Breeding

Frank Kermode

  • The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner edited by Claire Harman
    Chatto, 384 pp, £25.00, June 1994, ISBN 0 7011 3659 6
  • Sylvia and David: The Townsend Warner/Garnett Letters edited by Richard Garnett
    Sinclair-Stevenson, 246 pp, £20.00, June 1994, ISBN 1 85619 341 1

Sylvia Townsend Warner died in 1978, aged 84. Her first novel, Lolly Willowes, appeared in 1926, and none of her later works quite matched its success. In her later years she was probably better known to most people as a name that appeared under rather than above story after story in the New Yorker; that journal published about fifty over a period of some forty years. She was a copious, elegant and witty writer, and since she produced these stories rather easily, she came to think of the New Yorker, for a long time an indispensable financial support, as a generous old admirer whom she could please fairly easily when she needed to.

In addition to the stories and novels she wrote poetry, and a biography of T.H. White. She also translated Proust’s Contre Sainte-Beuve, was a devoted correspondent, and kept a diary running to 38 volumes. More surprisingly, she was a musicologist of considerable importance, as well as a knowledgeable gardener and a resourceful cook. Since she also seems to have been a good and sensitive friend it is fair to conclude that she was altogether a rare and admirable person.

Many pages of the diaries now published are about her love for Valentine Ackland, the woman with whom she lived for forty years. She had in youth a long, unimpassioned affair with an eminent married musician, whom she gave up when Ackland appeared. They had their ups and downs, of course, and Warner’s intelligent devotion to this partner is impressive.

She has been posthumously fortunate: her ‘first-wave’ feminism has proved of interest to the second wave, and much of her work has been republished. William Maxwell, a friend and correspondent who was for years her editor at the New Yorker, published a selection of her letters in 1982, and Claire Harman, having edited the Collected Poems in 1983, published a good biography in 1989. Wendy Mulford’s lively study, This Narrow Place, gives a fuller account of the political activities of the Thirties, when Ackland and Warner joined the Communist Party and visited Spain. So in one way or another it is now possible to know quite a lot about them. Their politics, and the ways in which they put their beliefs into practice, have a special interest to anybody who is baffled by the behaviour of the Thirties intelligentsia.

Yet despite this rush of information, Sylvia Townsend Warner remains rather mysterious, possibly because she thought women in general were or ought to be so. Candid and high-spirited in male company, she didn’t seem to feel, as a woman, deprived, but Lolly Willowes, which got her off to such a good start, is about a downtrodden middle-class woman who escapes her male oppressors and becomes a witch. This reminds one of Keith Thomas’s observation that medieval women, if they wanted a hearing, had to become prophets (‘the best hope of gaining an ear for female utterances was to represent them as the result of divine revelation’), though doubtless at some risk of being taken for a witch. The last publication of Warner’s lifetime was, appropriately, a collection of stories called Kingdoms of Elfin. Many of these had appeared in the New Yorker, though eventually Mr Shawn in unelfish Manhattan called a halt.

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