Purging Stephen Spender

Susannah Clapp

  • Sylvia Townsend Warner: A Biography by Claire Harman
    Chatto, 358 pp, £16.95, July 1989, ISBN 0 7011 2938 7
  • For Sylvia: An Honest Account by Valentine Ackland
    Chatto, 135 pp, £6.95, July 1989, ISBN 0 7011 3562 X

Before she was born, Sylvia Townsend Warner was called Andrew. When she was seven, her mother took against her for failing to be pretty and failing to be male; by the time she was 17 she was known to the boys of Harrow, where her father was a master, as ‘the cleverest fellow we had’. She described herself as repelled by the ‘devouring femaleness’ of her mother and as owning a ‘preponderantly masculine’ intellect. At the age of 36 she fell for a young woman with a face like a sulky choirboy, and relaxed into a lifelong partnership, explaining: ‘I lean more and more on her trousers.’

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