Sylvia Townsend Warner
Sylvia Townsend Warner; drawing by David Levine

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.

She will begin without preamble, like someone coming into a room to pick up an interrupted conversation:

I have just seen off a week-end visitor, and washed up lunch, and heeled in a William Lobb and a Nevada who were sent off much more briskly than they needed to be because their growers were thinking of the railway strike; and now I will sit down to tell you about two very old & 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.

Such vignettes might be taken as target practice for her fiction if it weren’t obvious that they were simply part of her stream of consciousness, on her mind at the moment. Here she is again:

The day before yesterday, I appeased a life-long ambition: I held a young fox in my arms…. I held him in my arms, & snuffed his wild geranium smell, and suddenly he thrust his long nose under my chin, and burrowed against my shoulder, and subsided into bliss. His paws are very soft, soft as raspberries. Everything about him is elegant—an Adonis of an animal. His profile is intensely sophisticated, his full face is the image of artless candour. His fur is like rather coarse, very thick, swansdown, & he wears a grey stomacher.


But it hardly matters what she is writing about—the eleven little bay trees she is raising, the moorhen who has visited the garden, the Kinsey Report (“Sexual experiences are nothing if they are not amazing”), cats (“They drove me distracted while I was having influenza, gazing at me with large eyes & saying: O Sylvia, you are so ill, you’ll soon be dead. And who will feed us then? FEED US NOW!”), music (“Something has happened in our lifetime to the symphony, and now it seems totally uninhabitable—like a hotel”), Blake’s verbs, Carlyle’s harping on his wife’s small dimensions (“He only just stops short of wee cowering, crimson-tippet beastie”), why the Scotch resemble the French, the boredom of the war, and the absurdity of Tory politicians. But one must call a halt somewhere—perhaps with her memory of a French manor house, “empty but for a quantity of poultry, who squawked, flustered, strutted in and out, coupled and kept up an incessant conversation; and as I was watching them I realised that this was the nearest I should ever get to the Versailles of Louis XIV.”

Still, and for all the speh it casts, this volume isn’t going to satisfy anyone wanting a detailed or very personal look at the author’s life. The letters don’t begin until 1921 (when she was twenty-eight), compress that decade into a few pages, and cover the 1930s only a little more fully. Thus a few backward glances are all we get of her London period (Lytton Strachey, she says, had a breath as “cold as the Erlking’s”), and a few letters suffice for her experience of the civil war in Spain. The Communist party, which she joined in 1935 and apparently stuck to at least until the end of World War II, isn’t mentioned at all—which is curious considering that she was firmly identified at the time as a left-wing novelist. (Reviewing Summer Will Show in The Nation, in 1936, the young Mary McCarthy hailed it as “the most skilful, sure-footed, sensitive, witty piece of prose yet to have been colored by left-wing ideology.”) Finally, there are no love letters.

Maxwell’s introduction fills in some but by no means all of these gaps. She was the only child of a master at Harrow school, educated at home by a French governess, and might have been a composer if the outbreak of World War I hadn’t put an end to her hope of studying composition with Schönberg in Vienna. (This explains her intense response to music in the letters, especially those to the composer Paul Nordoff, who made an opera of Mr. Fortune’s Maggot—what became of that?—and may or may not have completed another for which she wrote the libretto.) He touches on her resentment of the sketchy education given a girl-child by a schoolmaster father whose attention was all for

those special pupils who came thronging between her and her birth-right, whose voices rose and fell behind the study door, who learned, who profited, who demanded, who endeared themselves by their demands, who were arrayed for the ball while she, her father’s Cinderella, went barefoot like the cobbler’s child in the adage.

The quotation is from the short story “A Spirit Rises,” which Maxwell takes to be autobiographical, and it is helpful as far as it goes. It sheds some light on a furious passage in a letter to Nancy Cunard deploring the condition of single women: “The great civil war, Nancy, that will come and must come before the world can begin to grow up, will be fought out on this terrain of man and woman, and we must storm and hold Cape Turk before we talk of social justice.” But he is reluctant to explore the possible origins of her feminism—or the clearly related subject of her communist sympathies. He simply says that, although the political element in at least two novels is “obvious,” she was “never not a literary artist”—which of course is true; and for the rest he can only speculate on when, if ever, she lost her political fervor.

But the central mystery in the letters is Valentine Ackland, the woman Warner loved and lived with for forty years, until Ackland’s death in 1969. In spite of her constant presence, her personality remains elusive. Though Warner depicts her wayward charm as irresistible, even when it involved religious mania and an infidelity that almost broke Warner’s heart, I came to suspect that it had been less so to those who knew them and the real story more complicated, and painful to Warner, than she made it appear. But who was Ackland? Maxwell is oddly silent about her origins, her age, even what she looked like. Worse, he excludes even so much as a sample of Warner’s letters to her. Why? Warner, he says, actually prepared their correspondence for publication after Ackland’s death, albeit with “restrictions” which her executors (he is one) are “honoring.” Honoring how? If the restrictions involve a waiting period, why not specify? And if not, why with-hold what Warner herself intended to be published?

All this caution might be interpreted as an effort to protect Warner from scandal-mongering; but in that case it is hard to understand why the same executors, who hold the copyright, saw fit to allow the publication early this year of a document far more likely to distress her admirers than the censored letters would. For Sylvia: An Honest Account was apparently dashed off by Ackland in 1949, and is primarily the confession of a hopeless addiction to alcohol she somehow believed Warner had not observed during seventeen years of life together. It is also the deeply hysterical apologia pro vita sua of a spoiled little rich girl with pretensions to be a poet (her photograph might be that of a 1920s Oxford aesthete), and a large capacity to torment those who cared for her—in short, a confirmation of one’s darker suspicions about her. And since it seems doubtful that Warner would have wanted this particular linen to be laundered in this particular way, it leaves me more than ever puzzled what the policy of her executors really is.

What, for example, do they intend to do about her private journal, which Maxwell says ran to forty notebooks and was (as of 1982) “as yet untranscribed”? This may or may not imply that someone has in hand a project incomparably more interesting than Ackland’s messy little memoir. But publishers, like executors, can’t always be trusted to know what is and what isn’t valuable in a writer’s legacy; and (the Ackland book aside) what has occupied Warner’s for the last three years is the resurrection of such short stories as went uncollected the first time around. In my view, this has been ill advised. Neither Scenes of Childhood (1982) nor One Thing Leading to Another (1984) has done anything to enhance her reputation, and with good reason. Neither collection represents her at her best, or even second-best.

One Thing Leading to Another is the better of the two. “The Mother Tongue” is a good example of her way with the powerless and inarticulate; and the domestic misadventures of the Finch family, who appear in three stories, are very funny, if in a rather dated and insular fashion. Scenes of Childhood, on the other hand, is a real disappointment, and not only because it misses the opportunity to explore the issue so poignantly touched on in “A Spirit Rises”: how it felt to be the daughter of a beloved father whose early attention is diverted by the demands of an English public school, and of an autocratic mother whose effect on her can be guessed from a letter to George Plank:

Don’t be so sure about my mother. She was not a man-eating tigress, she had no need of that, since every man who set eyes on her hurled himself into her jaws. She had a delicious bite or two, & then spat them tidily out again…. During my youth I was terrified of her, and one reason why I couldn’t afford an account-book was that the alternative, after my father’s death, to penury in London would have been to live with her, and incessantly exasperate her, in Devonshire…. After I had left off being afraid of her, I was able to feel love…and to accept her illegitimate charms without a priggish sensation that they were unjustified. I imagine your Lady Sackville…was much such another.

Since it happens that Lady Sackville was exactly such another, there is clearly a parallel with Vita Sackville-West—also a writer, also a lesbian—of which she may or may not have been aware, and may or may not have been signaling to Plank. These are deep psychological waters, and I am not suggesting that Warner should have waded into them when writing about her childhood; I am saying that the conversion of her parents into funny cutouts was unworthy of her.

“My father was a schoolmaster—a rather naysaying profession. In private life, he redressed the balance by falling in with my mother’s wishes whenever this did not lead directly to crime or public riot” is a typical opening to one of the stories in Scenes of Childhood, and it sets the false tone of what follows: anecdotes in the familiar style of English whimsy about dotty nannies and butlers, defective plumbing, eccentric neighbors—and of course that crazily charming mother who in real life she seems to have detested. In fact, I often can’t account for these stories, and others she wrote in the same vein, which seem quite untrue to her icy eye for snobbishness and injustice—and even more so to the standard of comedy set in the letters. The New Yorker apparently loved the upper-class jokes (all but one of the stories originally appeared in it); but today they are too slight for survival. If she is to receive her critical due, it would be better to resurrect the novels and earlier short-story collections, which have been out of print for years.

In a way, the process has already begun with paperback editions of Lolly Willowes and The True Heart (Mr. Fortune’s Maggot is also available), published for a feminist audience. I doubt if she would have minded this, but I must say that I do. To read in a preface to Lolly Willowes that “with chilling immediacy this book speaks today, as it did in 1925, for women” is to encounter the dreariest feminist rubbish.

The novel happens to be as much a fantasy of escape from the modern industrial world as a parable of female liberation. But let that go and consider only how Lolly’s freedom is actually achieved: by submission to the most arrogantly chauvinist of all power figures—the Devil himself. Consider the final paragraph, in which Lolly sleeps out of doors for the first time in her restricted life:

Satan going his rounds might come upon her and smile to see her lying so peaceful and secure in his dangerous keeping. But he would not disturb her. Why should he? The pursuit was over, as far as she was concerned. She could sleep where she pleased, a hind crouched in the Devil’s coverts, a witch made free of her Master’s immunity; while he, wakeful and stealthy, was already out after new game. So he would not disturb her. A closer darkness upon her slumber, a deeper voice in the murmuring leaves overhead—that would be all she would know of his undesiring and unjudging gaze, his satisfied but profoundly indifferent ownership.

If this highly charged sexual daydream speaks to today’s woman, let alone with chilling immediacy, I am surprised; and would be more so to learn that there is a message in The True Heart (originally published in 1929 and reissued by the Virago Press) other than that persistence will get your man. In fact, as Warner said in a preface written in 1978, it is the Cupid and Psyche story in Victorian trappings, and details the successful pursuit of Eric, a well-born “holy idiot,” by a loving servant girl—a charming jeu d’esprit brought off with a minimum of sentimentality; and why need it be more than that? Warner had many themes, and escape from the demands of society and its institutions was certainly one of them. But her men aren’t ipso facto oppressors, or her women victims. In the novel The Flint Anchor it is a nineteenth-century patriarch who founders under the weight of family and possessions; and in the story “To Come So Far” it is the husband who decides to leave his wife for the comforts of a seaside hotel. There are other examples, but they add up to the same thing.

In a letter about Spain written in 1938, Warner spoke of the “beautiful directness typical of anarchism, a most engaging type of thought, though I do not want to be an anarchist myself. The world is not yet worthy of it, but it ought to be the political theory of heaven.” The political theory of the artist, too, for surely she meant that—which is why it is a mistake to try to ram her into one category or another. Feminist, Marxist, historical novelist, social comedian, teller of fairy tales—she was all these, and none of them to a degree that would ultimately define her; and this is her disadvantage. If a convenient pigeonhole could be found for her (as it has for Barbara Pym, whose bloodless little novels are recklessly compared to Jane Austen’s), no doubt we would be in the flood of a Warner revival. That hasn’t happened, and won’t until such time as a rampant imagination and a style as elegant as any in modern English come to be valued at least as highly as merely “sensitive” prose. In the meantime, I would make this plea of Viking, her primary publishers in America: forget about those previously uncollected short stories and start reissuing the forgotten novels like Summer Will Show; get somebody to transcribe the journals; and for heaven’s sake don’t let the letters go out of print.

This Issue

July 18, 1985