Authors: Sylvia Townsend Warner
SYLVIA TOWNSEND WARNER (1893â1978) was a poet, short-story writer, and novelist, as well as an authority on early English music and a member of the Communist Party. Her first novel,
(available from New York Review Books), appeared in 1926 and was the first ever Book-of-the-Month Club selection.
Mr. Fortune's Maggot
, her second, followed a year later.
was the title novella of a 1932 collection. According to Warner's biographer Claire Harman, it “was almost certainly begun in the expectation that it would grow into a full-length novel, a sequel, or an extended coda” to
Mr. Fortune's Maggot
. Yet it also stands on its own, and Warner considered it “the purest, the least time-serving story I ever wrote.” Over the course of her long career, Sylvia Townsend Warner published five more novels, seven books of poetry, a translation of Proust, fourteen volumes of short stories, and a biography of T.H. White. NYRB also publishes
Summer Will Show
, Warner's novel of the French Revolution of 1848.
ADAM MARS-JONES was born in London, where he lives and works. His fiction includes
Monopolies of Love
The Waters of Thirst
(1993). He writes about films and books for London newspapers.
SYLVIA TOWNSEND WARNER
NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKS
of writers with barnyard animals aren't ordinarily complimentary, but there's no mistaking the admiration in John Updike's tone when he describes Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893â1978) as having “the spiritual digestion of a goat.” Elsewhere he has saluted the “more than half a century of brilliantly varied and self-possessed literary production” which somehow “never quite won her the flaming place in the heavens of reputation that she deserved.”
Yet Warner's first two novels were highly successful in both Britain and America (
being selected in 1926 as the very first Book-of-the-Month Club choice), and for forty years from 1936 she contributed a mass of stories to
The New Yorker
âupwards of a hundred and fifty in all.
Some of the reasons for her relatively slow absorption into the canon are trivial: a three-part name like Sylvia Townsend Warner, for instance, nude of a hyphen, suggests an American origin to British eyes, which may have discouraged one of her natural constituencies (readers have always been parochial, or if they're being cosmopolitan they like to know it).
Other reasons lie deeper. Although
was the opposite of a false start, it did create a false impression. British reviewers rightly compared this fantasia about a superfluous woman who finds that there is a place for her in the world after all (she's a witch) to David Garnett's
Lady Into Fox
(1922), but it also seemed to hint at a feminist agenda.
Her second novel,
Mr. Fortune's Maggot
(1927), consolidated the success of the first, but it gave notice that this was a writer who infused personal material into her work with a pipette, rather than pumping it in using a high-pressure hose, as the century more and more preferred. Mr. Fortune is a missionary in the South Seas seeking to make converts in a joy-based, guilt-immune culture.
Sylvia Townsend Warner's later long fiction was at home in very various settings: late-eighteenth-century Spain (
After the Death of Don Juan
, 1938), for instance, or a community of nuns in fourteenth-century East Anglia (
The Corner That Held Them
, 1948). Since the 1970s, these novels have been republished by feminist presses, but without
to start the series and set the tone they would seem politically wayward and escapist.
Warner herself was anything but a superfluous woman, even before the appearance of
turned her from a praised and published poet into a best-selling novelist. She was one of five editors (the youngest, and the only woman) of
Tudor Church Music
, a massive edition made possible, in the straitened economy after the First World War, by a grant from the Carnegie UK Trust. As such she already enjoyed in specialist circles what her biographer Claire Harman splendidly calls “muted celebrity.”
This seems an admirable life for a professional woman, but her appointment would hardly have happened without the influence of Percy Buck, another of the editors. The two were lovers for seventeen years from 1913, or rather she was his mistress, since the affair was secret and there was no question of Buck leaving his wife and five children. She had affairs with other men over the period of their involvement, but infidelity to her boss's infidelity was hardly enough to make her a model of emancipation.
In 1930 she started to share a cottage in Dorset with Valentine Ackland, a young woman with short hair and given to the wearing of trousers, whose marriage had been annulled. Shortly after that they were sharing a bed.
The dislocation of status between being a married man's secret and a scandalous woman's wife-partner was in theory absolute. In practice Warner weathered it smoothly. Sexual heresy made her no more radical, and no less so.
Admiration for her casual fortitude is inevitably damped down by the conviction that Ackland (1906â1969), the love of her life, was in many ways the bane of it also. There followed decades of repetitive trauma. As Chester Kallman to Wystan Auden, so Ackland to Warner. Auden, though, might have envied the lucid triumph Warner recorded in a letter of 1951: “Here I am, grey as a badger, wrinkled as a walnut, and never a beauty at my best: but here I sit, and yonder sits the other one, who had all the cards in her handâexcept one. That I was better at loving and being loved.”
In her low-key attitude to her own sexual dissidence, as in so much else, Sylvia Townsend Warner was the strongest possible contrast to her older contemporary Virginia Woolf. She emancipated herself from provincialism at least as fully as Woolf, but without anything like the same struggle, the same effort of the will. She had the knack of melting across barriers, rather than defining herself against them. Though her prose has its cubist moments, she was immune to the sense of crisis, of total rupture, that marked modernism.
shortly after publication, she resisted the spell of its author, “though I think she can move like a swan, speak like a siren, twine like a convolvulus.” Warner's root objection was that Woolf remained enthroned in her own prose, unwilling or unable to abdicate in favor of her readers: “What is the use of describing feelings and thoughts, however vividly, if they are to remain the author's? This is
book, this is what
feel about itâIt made me feel almost ashamed as I read it to see such gifts made such a schoolgirlish use of.”
Warner may have been a passionate member of the Communist Party (she and Ackland joined in 1935, and visited Spain the next year), but ideology leaves the lightest possible footprint in her work. She boasted that the medieval nunnery in
The Corner That Held Them
was analyzed in orthodox Marxist terms, but what sort of Marxist devotes six years to the perfecting of a novel so remote from the struggle for tomorrow? Political crisis she could recognize, but it took placeâand demanded responseâin a parallel universe from her writing life.
There's a similar separation of domains and powers at work in the novel reprinted here,
Mr. Fortune's Maggot
. The theme that teases what we now call colonialismâthe assumption that Western civilization deals directly with reality, while other groups are subject to local illusionsâis anything but doctrinaire. It doesn't inhibit the writer from confidently embroidering any amount of Polynesian exotica, from a narrow base of knowledge. Warner claimed to have relied on a single book for background (a volume of letters from a female missionary)âand a book read ten years previously at that, so vivid in memory that she didn't need to revisit it or consult others: “...it had the minimum of religion, only elementary scenery, and a mass of details of everyday life.” She did ask friends, though, about some less exotic matters: “Before long I must see you, for my missionary has got to dive under the sea somewhere about p. 115. The only time I have been under the sea was quite involuntary, but I remember your telling me you loved diving...I have also made some enquiries about algebra, but the earthquake and the harmonium...have settled in nicely” (letter to David Garnett, March 6, 1926).
In a letter to William Maxwell written in the mid-1960s, Warner traced the beginnings of the story to “an extremely vivid dream. A man stood alone on an ocean beach, wringing his hands in an intensity of despair; as I saw him in my dream I knew something about him...” Even late in the writing of the book (which she compared to being pregnant with a child made of Venetian glass) she remembered being “in a state of semi-hallucination,” dressing for instance for the weather in the book rather than the weather in the streets.
Yet in letters written in the mid-Twenties to her most intimate literary friend, David Garnett, close in age but senior in reputation, she made no mention of a dream and struck a jaunty, almost boisterous note: “You would laugh if you could see the story I am writing now. It is a lovely subject, there is nothing original about it, for it takes place on a Pacific island (like Defoe and H. de Vere Stacpoole), and the hero is a clergyman (like Mrs. Humphry Ward and Oliver Goldsmith), and it is written in alternate layers of Powys and Garnett, both imitated to the life. I roar with laughter at it and write on feverishly. The Rev. Crusoe is Theo, of course, and Man Friday is you...” (November 11, 1925). “Powys” is the reclusive T. F. Powys, best remembered for his novel
Mr. Weston's Good Wine
, and so is “Theo”âWarner had originally met David Garnett when trying, successfully, to get Powys's fiction published.
Jauntiness can of course defend softness and susceptibility, and since Garnett would be the book's first reader Warner may have wanted to play down her involvement with her character and his story. Perhaps a fresh wave of feeling overtook and enlarged an original satirical impulse, producing a change of tone that surprised even the writer. In March of 1926 she was warning Garnett that despite such gaieties as earthquake and harmonium, “it is not a gay story, and perhaps you will not like it.” In October she further distanced herself from the story: “My missionary is an impossible length, fatally sodomitic, alternately monotonous and melodramatic, his only success is an aigre-doux quality which will infuriate any reader after the third page. I love him with a dreadful uneasy passion which in itself denotes him a cripple...”
Whether the novel's tender thread was there from the beginning or woven in later, Garnett was the first of many readers to respond strongly to it: “David took the proofs to read and shut himself up with them,” Warner wrote in her letter to William Maxwell. “When he came out, having read the book, he began to tell me that he thought it was good. His face swelled and reddened and we both realized that he was in tears.” Garnett corroborated this account of his reaction in a review for the
: “...suddenly, our eyes are blurred with tears, and through them we see the truth, bitter and needing more courage than we can command. So we are rather childishly ashamed of having ever laughed at Mr. Fortune...”
Warner herself claimed to share this feeling of responsibility: “I remember writing the last paragraph, and reading the conclusion and then impulsively writing the envoy, with a feeling of compunction, almost guilt, toward this guiltless man I had created and left in such a fix.” It isn't good for authors to be too much at the mercy of their own effectsâthink of Alice Walker solemnly thanking her characters for comingâbut Warner seems to have come to no harm.