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.
She was devoted to the Powys brothers, especially Theodore, who devised such dark and perverse quasi-Christian myths; she even chose to live near him, and so could testify that his descriptions of the Dorset peasantry were ‘exceedingly just and clear-sighted’. In the Twenties Powys was still little known, though that was to change when Mr Weston’s Good Wine won enough esteem to become one of the first sixpenny Penguins. (It even got a perceptible nod of approval from Downing College.) Warner had a hand in Powys’s rise to fame, having recommended him to David Garnett, another fantasist, whose Lady into Fox had been a great success in 1922. There seems to have been a market in those years for a peculiarly English brand of fantasy, but any imputation of parochialism must fail: Garnett was a man of wide interests, who wrote poems in French as well as fantasies in English; he was a friend of D.H. Lawrence, and of course his Bloomsbury connection was hereditary. Warner was in touch with that world yet independent of it; she knew Virginia Woolf but condescended to what she regarded as the over-self-conscious Mrs Dalloway, and indeed one suspects that she thought herself, though without vanity, which was not one of her vices, as simply a better writer than Woolf.
Her father was a housemaster at Harrow, and her education – highly privileged, as we may now think – was curiously similar to Woolf’s, for it was undertaken, more or less alone, in her father’s library. She was prodigiously literate and seems to have acquired the kind of social assurance that allows the possessor the privileges of candour as well as the popularity of complaisance. Her first professional steps were in music; she was an expert on Tudor church music and occasionally comments on performances, some of them made possible by her scholarly labours. She wrote music of her own, and at one point considered becoming a pupil of Schönberg’s, but she gave it up. If Schönberg doesn’t sound quite right for her, the reason may be that one tends to think of her as echt English, which is true but not strictly relevant, since although she was certainly that she was not at all insular, and was familiar not only with the great Tudor composers but with the canon of Western music. She could be critical: Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony, as conducted by Klemperer, ‘was like being in a slow train with so many stops that one becomes convinced one has passed one’s station’; but she was good also at admiring, as when she writes thus of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex: ‘A great deal of the choral writing was almost pure Taverner, the construction that of an early passion. It is really impressive music, it sounds old and cold, a chilly shadow that has never lifted from man’s mind.’
Much later she admired Britten, who set some of her poems, and in the days of their widowhood grew close to Peter Pears. She knew Vaughan Williams (detecting a physical resemblance to T.F. Powys, also to Arthur Machen) and records a significant conversation she had with him while his wife and Gerald Finzi’s were buying things in Valentine Ackland’s antique shop. He asked her why she had given up composing. She said she had found she was doing nothing of her own. He told her originality was
stuff – nonsense. The essential thing is to go on composing, never mind who it’s like. Authenticity, I said, not originality. He gave me a long look, – said, against the grain, Well, you showed unusual strength of mind. But [she said] in my next incarnation I think I shall be a painter. What about you? Music, he said, music. But in that world I shan’t be doing it, I shall be being it.
What makes this chat of interest is the composer’s bluff unmarked allusion to Donne’s ‘Hymn to God, my God, in my sickness’ (‘I shall be made thy music’). Here one senses an almost obsolete culture, or subculture. It is characterised by an easy affection for the Anglican pieties which Warner accepted only as part of a sociolect. Intellectually she had no time for Christianity. She remarks that to her it is the emptiness of a church that is holy, and she writes with much feeling about hearing church music in an unlit King’s Chapel. (On the other hand she might well have been delighted at the news that female parsons have been dancing at Hereford Cathedral and stroking the effigies of bishops.)
Her second novel Mr Fortune’s Maggot catches the religious tone. Mr Fortune is a missionary who goes to an unknown island with the object of bringing Christianity to the hitherto happy natives. He makes only one convert, a boy with whom he falls in love. Having built an altar and ecstatically celebrated the Eucharist, he finally comes to and finds the naked boy kneeling beside him:
He gave no sign of surprise, he did not even appear to have noticed the newcomer. With steadfast demeanour he took from the dish a piece of bread and ate it, and drank from the cup. Then, rising and turning to the boy who still knelt before him, he laid his hand upon his head and looked down on him with a long look of greeting. Slowly and unhesitatingly, like one who hears and accepts and obeys the voice of the spirit, he took the cup once more and with the forefinger of his right hand he wrote the sign of the cross upon the boy’s forehead with the last drops of the wine. The boy did not flinch, he trembled a little, that was all. Mr Fortune bent down and welcomed him with a kiss.
Here the rite is removed from religion to magic. Warner’s attitude to the supernatural seems usually to be of this kind, the Christian merging with witchcraft and magic, as, in different ways, she let medicine merge into faith healing and astronomy into astrology. There is something rather vaguely upper-class English about this gentle antinomianism, with its nostalgia for the old ways, and its little jokes about religion (‘my theory why St Paul speaks as he does of women: that he knew only church workers’). A diary entry speaks of ‘that English mixture of the genteel and the raffish’, another of ‘lovely Suffolk, how it combines amplitude with modesty, a model to the English mind’. A sort of cosy grandeur pleases that mind. ‘Leaving outer London, seeing the dusk, the clusters of houses lighting up, the rambling line of street lamps, I thought how evening descends like a tea-cosy over Southern England.’
In almost every word she writes one discerns a sort of easy, unconventional correctness, the quality she recognised admiringly as ‘breeding’. ‘I read The Winter’s Tale and wept for joy. Breed coming out in Perdita the moment she’s threatened.’ Or, nearer home: ‘Janet ... came in the morning, having done some shopping for us in D[orchester] – looking, in an old weatherproof jacket, a fisherman’s jersey, black watch trews of much hard wearing, and a pair of short rubber boots, more elegant, more nymphlike and better dressed than I have ever seen her look before. It is odd how English breeding blazes as soon as it is wrapped in clothes of this kind.’ The origin of this idea is deep in romance – most handily in Spenser and Shakespeare (Perdita, Miranda, the boys in Cymbeline) – but it clearly still has a place in this later world of well-bred ladies, doubtless a little snobbish, though quite unconsciously, who make jam, adore exotic cats, garden, cook, clean, write letters, and in their leisure hours frequent Boulestin or apply themselves to literature and music.
It might even be an indication of breeding to have a well-bred lesbian partner. Hers was tall, distinguished, and boyishly handsome; wore masculine clothes and, habitually, a tie. She had been a London beauty in her youth, and was now a rather disappointed poet; she drank too much and was often ill. In general she strikes one as a somewhat formidable companion (celebrating an anniversary she says: ‘I thought we would be vulgar and have champagne’). She was converted to Roman Catholicism, which Sylvia disliked (‘I went into Valentine’s bedroom before she was up, and my eye fell on a small rosary by her bed, curled up and neat as a snake’) and she caused Warner, notionally quite permissive in such matters, much torment by a protracted and agonised affair with another woman. She was extravagantly loved and when the time came deeply mourned. ‘Grief, my sole comfort, do not go,’ says one diary entry.
That Warner and Ackland should have joined the Communist Party is not surprising; it was what almost all intellectuals of their class and kind were doing or feeling they should do, for what seemed the best of reasons. Warner fell heavily in love with Spain, though she refused to go back as long as Franco lived. She had worked in a munitions factory in the First War, and was ready for militant action in the Thirties. Neither the diaries nor the Garnett letters have much to say about this period; she was probably too busy to attend to the diaries and the correspondence lapsed for 23 years (1933-55), apparently because Ackland objected to it. Warner worked energetically for the Party, writing for Edgell Rickword’s Left Review, the Daily Worker, the New Statesman and other left-wing papers, and running a book-lending scheme for the working class of her Dorset district, thus enabling them to read the works of the Hammonds and Engels. Ackland, for her part, took a break from poetry and wrote a serious study of the condition of agricultural labourers (Country Conditions, 1936). They seem to have been rather neglected in studies of the period – Valentine Cunningham’s Writers of the Thirties, for example, merely includes Warner in various lists of names, without detailed comment.
At the time, though, she attracted more notice, and made herself heard at the famous Madrid Writers’ Congress (she and Ackland were the only women in the British delegation). Stephen Spender represented her in his autobiography as ‘a Communist lady novelist’ with a ‘lady poet’ friend; she resembled ‘a vicar’s wife ... graciously forbidding ... She insisted on calling everybody comrade.’ Wendy Mulford improbably attributes Spender’s attitude to ‘homophobia’. Since Warner had proposed his expulsion from the Party he had cause to feel aggrieved and may have been getting back at her; but there is nevertheless a certain plausibility in his description.
Nevertheless she was not in Spain then merely to play the English lady-Communist, and her novel After the Death of Don Juan (1939) is, as she said, ‘a parable... of the political chemistry of the Spanish War’. A more impressive book, Summer Will Show (1936), is also a kind of parable, a story set in Paris in 1848, but with Spain in mind; it has a lesbian element and ends with the heroine reading a passage from a fresh copy of the Communist Manifesto.
No labours on behalf of the Popular Front could expunge privilege, or do much to modify cultural assumptions. The Warner-Garnett letters are testimony to the culture they shared. They had intellectual as well as social intimacy. This is Warner on writing fiction:
First we build our houses of air and geometry. The stairs that no foot can tread go up undeviatingly, and underneath there is a convenient cupboard in which we can house darkness (or coats and hats, just as we please). Then we begin to write and build them of brick. The horror is, not that the bricks are square and solid, but that they are an insult to geometry, not a pure right angle among them, and no more solid than a crumpled mosquito net.
I wonder if writers still write to one another so interestingly. Of course there is also a lot of talk about publishers, but a lot also about recipes, bereavements, cats and why they make love to their owners, the weather, sometimes superbly described. The correspondents are in some ways remarkably alike, distinguished inhabitants of the same distinguished literary parish. Whatever one quoted the other would already know; so Garnett could no doubt identify the source of the lines
Earth, that grew with joyful ease
Hemlock for Socrates –
which I can’t. Altogether one could say of this book what Warner said of the letters of Garnett and T.H. White: ‘a splendid record of how two superior mid-20th century minds exchanged experiences and opinions, and were candid with each other ... you were obviously designed by natural selection to correspond with each other.’ Less superior onlookers may occasionally feel a bit left out; but, after all, our privilege is merely to eavesdrop.
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