One Thing Leading to Another, and Other Stories
Scenes of Childhood
Lolly Willowes, or the Loving Huntsman
The True Heart
For Sylvia: An Honest Account
The death of Sylvia Townsend Warner in 1978 at the age of eighty-five was unmourned by any major critic in this country. “Noted for her graceful style and ironic wit,” said The New York Times in one of those obituaries that read like a passport to respectable oblivion. Though not exactly neglected (her short fiction appeared for decades in The New Yorker and was regularly collected into book form: eight volumes in all), she somehow missed the gold ring on the literary merry-go-round without, on the other hand, acquiring that underground status that has proved so valuable to Jean Rhys’s reputation, or a champion with the distinction of Philip Larkin, who more or less single-handedly rescued Barbara Pym from obscurity. Rather she was that anomaly, the well-known writer who isn’t talked about, whose work was too original to be very popular yet who failed to attract a cult audience. The short stories apart, most people who could identify her as the author of Lolly Willowes and Mr. Fortune’s Maggot, two novels published half a century ago and famous in their day, would be hard put to it to name the other five she wrote. Proustians must know her elegant translation of Contre Sainte-Beuve; and T.H. White’s admirers no doubt snapped up her biography of him—to others a deplorable instance of a first-rate talent squandered on a mediocre one. Her four volumes of poetry have disappeared from view.
One reason for this relative neglect must be the sheer volume of her production (144 stories for The New Yorker alone, and only her literary executors know how many more), which automatically suggests that she wrote too much to be taken altogether seriously. That to be prolific is to be insufficiently obsessed with quality and le mot juste is an idea that has haunted us since Flaubert. Perhaps too we have the feeling that the career cut short by disease, drink, suicide, or simply the collapse of inspiration, is somehow emblematic of our times—hence of special value; while a long, active, and productive life like Warner’s could suggest insensitivity. That said, it must be admitted that Warner probably did write too much. Or more accurately, that although she never wrote badly she wasn’t always the best judge of what was worth writing about. The White biography is an example of this failing, and so are a number of short stories. On the other hand, the vitality that kept her going for close to half a century, and surged forth at the end of her life in some of her finest stories, is by itself a phenomenon that commands attention.
More serious from the critical point of view is the difficulty of placing her. Was she a historical novelist? Since all seven of her novels are set more or less remotely in time and space, she could be called that—except that they have none of the self-conscious, reconstructed air usually associated with the genre. Déjà vu would be more like it, as though she were recollecting a former life—or having a particularly vivid hallucination. The Corner That Held Them (1948), for example, describes the inner life of a fourteenth-century English nunnery with a verisimilitude that reads like a feat of memory; and in Summer Will Show (1936), a pogrom in the Russian Pale is so intensely conveyed that it stayed with me for fifty years, long after the rest of the book had grown dim. Lolly Willowes (1926) and Mr. Fortune’s Maggot (1927) play similar tricks of magic. Mr. Fortune, the missionary who by the end of a year on his South Sea island has made only one convert, and by the second has lost his own faith, could easily have been a cardboard figure in a cautionary tale. Instead, he stands before us in all his pathetic decrepitude, surrounded by his toolbox and oil lamp, his tinned meats and his sewing machine, remarking sadly that “one does not admire things enough: and worst of all one allows whole days to slip by without pausing to see an object, any object, exactly as it is,” and it isn’t hard to shed real tears for him.
Lolly Willowes, on the other hand, begins with reality—the condition of an upper-class young woman doomed by her aversion to men to the horrors of Edwardian spinsterhood—and ends in the supernatural, when she falls into the hands of Satan; and, remarkably, the second half is almost more convincing than the first, perhaps because in Warner herself there was more than a touch of the witch.
Or so one feels, and it is interesting to discover in the posthumous collection of her letters (published in 1982) that it isn’t far from the truth. Again and again in response to queries about where her ideas came from she speaks of dreams and visitations. Thus the opening of Mr. Fortune’s Maggot arrived, she says, in an early morning dream:
A man stood alone on an ocean beach, wringing his hands in an intensity of despair; as I saw him…I knew something about him. He was a missionary, he was middle-aged and a deprived character, his name was Hegarty, he was on an island where he had made only one convert and at the moment I saw him he had realised that the convert was no convert at all…. I made a few notes of the development, discarded the name of Hegarty because it might lead me into a comic Irishman, and began to write.
Of Summer Will Show, her novel about the revolution of 1848, she writes that in 1920 or 1921, when she was “totally engaged in Tudor Church Music” (a reference to her studies in musicology),
I said to a young man called Robert Firebrace that I had invented a person: an early Victorian young lady of means with a secret passion for pugilism…. He asked what she looked like and I replied without hesitation: Smooth fair hair, tall, reserved, very ladylike. She’s called Sophia Willoughby. And there she was and there she stayed. I had no thought of doing anything with her. A year or so later and equally out of the blue I saw Minna telling about the pogrom in a Paris drawing-room and Lamartine leaning against the doorway. And there she stayed.
Until about ten years later when Warner went to Paris, and there, “outside a grocer’s shop…found that I wanted to write a novel about 1848. And Sophia and Minna started up and rushed into it.”
Working on The Corner That Held Them she remarked to a friend: “I am interested to find how much I know about these people”—adding that “there is practically no love in the book, and no religion, but a great deal of financial worry and ambition and loneliness and sensitivity to weather, with practically no sensitivity to nature. If you have no sensibility to nature the rain seems much wetter, the cold much colder, etc. It is not in any way a historical novel.” The historical setting, in other words, was more accident than choice, and to some extent the inevitable product of an imagination steeped in scholarship. Even in the stories ostensibly cast in the modern world the territory is apt to be unfamiliar and the people not those we know by sight. Unlike her near-contemporaries (Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, Jean Rhys, Elizabeth Bowen, among others), who wrote from the center of their own experience and were therefore restricted to the more or less minute inspection of a particular social milieu, Warner rushes into some odd corner that has caught her fancy, and like a terrier drags her subject into the light, shakes it up, often with startling effect, then casts it aside and goes somewhere else.
The method can be disconcerting—as in the short story called “A Work of Art” in the collection The Spirit Rises (1962), which records nothing more than a man’s dedicated descent into a squalor as unnecessary as it is appalling. Or it can lead to irresistible laughter—as in the appearance of Miss Metcalf in the story “Boors Carousing” (1947): “She was wearing a sou’wester, and the rain poured off it, and from under the brim and behind the raindrops she peered at him like an elderly mermaid, he thought, who had taken to country life. Her name was Metcalf, and she was a maniac. So far, so good.”
In still other cases, the normally unacceptable becomes the acceptably normal—as in the remarkable tale of sibling incest called “A Love Match” (1947); and above all in the stories written in her extreme old age, which were collected in Kingdoms of Elfin (1972). What are they? Fairy tales, I suppose: the elfins are fairies, though not charming ones, and their cynical society is scarcely less believable than St. Simon’s. Regrettably, Warner’s letters don’t record the inspiration for these convincing little fictions—though one can guess that elfin immortality may have been a consoling idea to one who wasn’t far from death herself. But who knows? They are an appropriate valedictory from a mysterious writer.
A mysterious woman as well: I know because for years I tried to find out more about her than the terse “Miss Townsend Warner has lived for many years in a village not far from Dorchester in southwestern England” that appeared on the dust jackets of her books. I didn’t get far. I knew only one person who had ever met her, and she is rarely mentioned in the annals of literary London. The ubiquitous David Garnett has a portrait of her as a young woman in The Familiar Faces: “dark, lean and eager with rather frizzy hair. She wears spectacles and her face is constantly lighting up with amusement and intelligence and the desire to interrupt what I am saying and to cap it with something much wittier of her own.” Garnett became a lifelong friend, but the Bloomsbury panjandrums won’t have cared to have their remarks capped with an unknown young person’s wittier ones, and she appears only once in the Woolf diaries, which in 1937 record that she was going to Loyalist Spain with a group of writers that included Stephen Spender. From the Times obituary I learned that she had spoken before an antifascist literary congress in New York in 1939. And that was it, until the publication of her letters three years ago.
If she had written nothing else, these letters would place her among the spell-binders of our time. William Maxwell, her editor at The New Yorker for many years, says in his introduction that when he first met her “her conversation was so enchanting it made my head swim. I did not want to let her out of my sight. Ever.” If that kind of conversation is a lost art (Desmond MacCarthy had it, if his friends are to be believed, and may have been the last literary personality to be so remembered), letters that reproduce the effect are like hen’s teeth, but here they are: bursting with charm, erudition, verbal fireworks, and great funniness. Not since the epistolary geniuses of the eighteenth century can a woman of comparable talents have laid herself out to give pleasure in this way, or have succeeded so brilliantly. The problem is how to convey an idea of their quality without quoting from every page.