Keeping warm

Penelope Fitzgerald

  • Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner edited by William Maxwell
    Chatto, 311 pp, £15.00, October 1982, ISBN 0 7011 2603 5
  • The Portrait of a Tortoise by Gilbert White and Sylvia Townsend Warner
    Virago, 63 pp, £3.50, October 1981, ISBN 0 86068 218 8
  • Sylvia Townsend Warner: Collected Poems edited by Claire Harman
    Carcanet, 290 pp, £9.95, July 1982, ISBN 0 85635 339 6
  • Scenes of Childhood and Other Stories by Sylvia Townsend Warner
    Chatto, 177 pp, £6.50, September 1981, ISBN 0 7011 2516 0

Sylvia Townsend Warner expected her correspondence to be published, indeed she sensibly provided for it. ‘I love reading Letters myself,’ she told William Maxwell, her literary executor, ‘and I can imagine enjoying my own.’ She was born in 1893, an only child. Her father was a Harrow master, who, in a way not very complimentary to his profession (but quite right for STW), never sent her to school. She was allowed to study what she liked, and was devoted to him, emerging from the ‘benignly eccentric household’ as a musician: she was about to go to Vienna, to study under Schönberg, when the First World War broke out. When her father died, leaving her, as she put it, ‘mutilated’, she saw that it would be better to earn her own living than stay in the country and quarrel with her mother. She came to London, and worked as an editor on the monumental Tudor Church Music. Plain, frail, shortsighted, not quite young any more and, for the first time in her life, rather poor, she set out to enjoy herself. ‘I am sure that to be fearless is the first requisite for a woman: everything else that is good will grow naturally out of that.’

In her first novel, Lolly Willowes, she puts the situation in terms of fable. The decorous Lolly sees that she must escape her family. This intimation comes to her in the greengrocer’s, when she looks at the plum jam and feels herself in a darkening orchard, where the birds are silent. To find where the jam comes from, she gets an ordnance survey map – as STW did when she set off in search of T.F. Powys, the writer she most admired. When a well-meaning relative pursues Lolly even to her country cottage, she asserts her will by transforming herself into a witch. Admittedly, she has now been captured by Satan, ‘the loving huntsman’, but she has proved that she ‘prefers her own thoughts above all others’, and, in any case, she feels that she knows more than Satan – more about death, for example, ‘because, being immortal, it was unlikely he would know as much.’ This is reassuring, and typical of the writer. What STW herself wanted to do, and did, was to write (though sometimes she thought she was better at sawing and digging), to hear music, and to live in the country with the human being she loved best, Valentine Ackland. The two women settled in one cottage after another, and finally at Frome Vauchurch, in Dorset.

What happened to them? That was left in their letters, journals and poems for the world to understand. In 1935 they became 1935-ish members of the Communist Party. In 1936 they went to Spain together for three weeks to help in the British Red Cross bureau. By 1950 Valentine had joined the Catholic Church, and STW, while remaining fiercely anti-clerical and ready to fight to the death against privilege or bullying, allowed a little irony to modify her left-wing views. ‘It takes reckless resolution now,’ she wrote, ‘to admit that one has known a more civilised age than the present. It is painful to admit it to oneself, and apparently shameful to mention it to others. Everyone is busy pretending that even if they once or twice went out to tea they always drank the tea from a mug.’ In 1949 Valentine (described as a ‘sea-nymph who can split logs with an axe and manage a most capricious petrol-pump’) fell in love with another woman, a young American, and STW courageously faced solitude, preferring ‘the sting of going to the muffle of remaining’. The crisis passed, because, STW thought, ‘I was better at loving and being loved,’ and they returned to a life which she could only call blessed. She meant travel, many friendships, gardening, jam-making, perilous motoring, cats, books and music. Guests might find the cottage exceedingly cold (Maxwell says that the temperature was the same indoors and outdoors and the front door stood wide open), but the welcome could hardly have been warmer. These years brought STW, not prosperity, but recognition, both here and in America, as a deeply imaginative writer whose novels and poems were most distinctively hers. More than this she didn’t expect: when, in 1967, she was invited to become a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature she mildly pointed out that it was her first public acknowledgment since she was expelled from kindergarten for upsetting the class.

In 1968 Valentine died of lung cancer. ‘I have always prayed that I might not die first,’ STW wrote, ‘though my age made it probable that I should.’ As she went through her dead friend’s possessions, she found in the coat-pockets notes from herself, ‘on the lines of Keep warm, Come Back Soon.’ They had agreed that STW should live on at Frome Vauchurch, and this, until May 1978, she did. ‘With a heart as normal as a stone’, but quite undaunted, she was still writing and reading voraciously – and giving dinner parties and denouncing Mrs Thatcher – to the very end. Misfortune and egoism, she thought, turned women into vampires – very different from witches – and this she was determined to avoid.

Her letters, from which I have been quoting, are formal, in the sense that STW hardly knew how to write carelessly. It isn’t that she is considering the effect: she produces one, from a long habit of elegance. She knew that herself. ‘I can’t say it yet,’ she wrote to Leonard Woolf after Beginning Again came out. ‘Already I am writing like a printed book, and falsifying my heart.’ Often, however, her formality couldn’t be improved upon – for example, to David Garnett: ‘I was grateful to you for your letter after Valentine’s death, for you were the sole person who said that for pain and loneliness there is no cure.’ It enabled her to deal with publishers, and, most difficult of all, to give away money gracefully: ‘I can well afford it; I have always made it a rule in life to afford pleasures.’ Every now and then a short story which she never had time to write rises quietly to the surface:

Now I will sit down to tell you about two very old and distant cousins of mine, brother – sister, who live together. She is in her nineties: he is a trifle younger. They were sitting together, he reading, she knitting. Presently she wanted something, and crossed the room to get it. She tripped – fell on her back. So she presently said: Charlie, I’ve fallen – I can’t get up. He put down his book, turned his head, looked at her, and fell asleep.

Just as careful, and just as brilliant, are the descriptions of day-by-day life in the cottage and the village, often to correspondents who had never seen either. All records of passing time were precious to STW, from Proust to Gilbert White’s notes on his tortoise. ‘Continuity,’ she said, ‘it is that which we cannot write down, it is that which we cannot compass, record or control ... An old teapot, used daily, can tell me more of my past than anything I recorded of it.’ Few people can ever have described a teapot as well as STW.

Editing this volume was clearly a labour of love, and not an easy one, for William Maxwell. Unfortunately, he has cut and edited the letters on a system peculiar to himself (‘I have used three dots, unbracketed, to indicate an omission at the beginning of a letter ... I have not used three dots to indicate that there is more than the last sentence’) and, disappointingly, there is only a sketchy index. Addicts of collected letters will tell him that this is a serious mistake. STW’s index would have read, in part:

celibacy, STW recommends
clearing up, STW’s passion for
coalshed, T. H. White’s diaries lost in
cold baths, STW advises, if piano kept in bathroom
Contre Sainte-Beuve, STW translates.

As to the selection, the correspondence with Valentine Ackland is being published separately, while some other series have disappeared or been withdrawn: still, there is plenty here. It is only a pity (though no fault of William Maxwell’s) that he has found nothing from America for 1927, when STW was guest critic of the New York Tribune, and that there is so little reference to her poetry.

It is sad that she should have died such a short time before the publication of her Collected Poems. Claire Harman begins with the unpublished and uncollected work, arranged as far as possible in chronological order. STW is shown as an endless reviser, hard to satisfy. The Espalier (1925) and Time Importuned (1928), with their demurely ironic titles, are the only two collections she brought out in her lifetime. Opus 7, a satirical narrative in the style of Crabbe, based on the story of a ‘drinking old lady ... a neighbour for many years, and I had the greatest esteem for her because she knew what she wanted,’ came out in 1931. The late poems were privately printed, except for Boxwood, which STW thought of simply as verses for Reynolds Stone’s wood engravings (although it includes the haunting ‘People I never knew’). The rambling joint collection with Valentine Ackland, Whether a Dove or a Seagull, has not been reprinted here, for the tactfully put reason that ‘it exists on its own terms.’

STW was a Georgian poet, and my only complaint against Claire Harman’s excellent introduction is that it takes the word ‘Georgian’ as an insult, and I had hoped that it no longer was. She was Georgian in her subject matter and also in her professional skill, composing, as she said, ‘with piteous human care’. There, she can bear comparison with Walter de la Mare, the master of the two-stress line:

Winter is fallen early
On the house of Stare ...

STW almost always succeeds with this precarious metre, which sounds nostalgic in ‘The Repose’, mysterious in ‘Nelly Trim’, and in ‘Blue Eyes’ exactly suggests Betsy’s disappointment:

Down the green lane
She watched him come,
But all he did
Was to pinch her bum.

With half-rhymes and unstressed rhyme she made a number of delicate experiments, letting the meaning control them, so that in ‘Anne Donne Undone’ the rhyme gradually disintegrates as Anne struggles with weakness and fever, while in the triplets of ‘Journey by Night’ it almost disappears. In one of her New Yorker pieces, ‘Interval for Metaphysics’, STW remembers what it was like, as a small child, to relate the world of words to the world of things, and stand looking at a wooden paling ‘which had suddenly developed its attaching gravity, and had gathered to itself the pale primrose that forsaken dies, and a certain expression that the sky puts on at dusk, and that I had rarely seen, since I was supposed to be in bed by then’. Yet she was surprised, twenty years later, to find she was a poet. ‘I haven’t yet got over my surprise that I should be doing it at all.’

Her sharp-wittedness had always made her more, rather than less, sympathetic to other lives, past or present, birds and animals as well. In a tiny lyric, Winter is an old beggar standing motionless in the fields:

All day he will linger
Watching with mild blue eyes
The birds die of hunger.

Loneliness, I think, she considered, after mature reflection, the worst suffering of all. It is at the heart of her finest poem, ‘Ballad Story’, and her novel set in a Medieval convent, and dedicated to Valentine Ackland, has the epigraph: ‘For neither might the corner that held them keep them from fear.’ But, in the end, what is most striking about this civilised poet is her affinity with whatever it is that defies control. By this I don’t mean either sin or magic, for she regarded both of these as perfectly amenable, but what she liked to call ‘the undesigned’. Against Nature we oppose human order – the lawn must be mowed and appointments must be kept, even though ‘the clock with its rat’s tooth gnaws away delight.’ But, conversely, we can accept the threat of disorder, even if it is never let loose, as the most precious thing we have. ‘I have tamed two birds,’ she wrote in ‘The Decoy’, ‘called Metre and Rhyme’

At whose sweet calling
All thoughts may be beguiled
To my prepared place;
And yet by blood they are wild.