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History Unforeseen: On Sylvia Townsend Warner | The Nation

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History Unforeseen: On Sylvia Townsend Warner

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DORSET COUNTY MUSEUMSylvia Townsend Warner, London, 1920s

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David Carroll Simon
David Carroll Simon, a doctoral candidate in comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley, is...

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For Joanna Ruocco, language is a multiplier of worlds, a portal to alternate realities.

Looking back four decades to the origins of her novel Summer Will Show, which was published in 1936, Sylvia Townsend Warner described her protagonist as more of a discovery than a contrivance of the imagination:

It must have been in 1920 or 21...that 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; she attended prize-fights dressed as a man and kept a punching-bag under lock and key in her dressing-room. He asked what she looked like and I replied without hesitation: Smooth fair hair, tall, reserved, very ladylike. She's called Sophia Willoughby.

The thoroughness and spontaneity of Warner's description suggest casual familiarity rather than creative exertion: Sophia strode into Warner's consciousness with the same deliberateness and self-possession that sustained her secret life as a boxer.

Warner, one of the subtlest--and, for that reason, least appreciated--of the British Modernists, had a penchant for this kind of tale. Much later, Warner claimed that Mr. Fortune's Maggot (1927), her second novel, owed its genesis to "an extremely vivid dream" in which the eponymous protagonist simply appeared, fully formed. In a letter to William Maxwell, her editor at The New Yorker (where she published more than 150 short stories between 1936 and her death in 1978), she wrote, "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." Rather than fashion a protagonist to suit her ambitions as a novelist, once again Warner found herself struck by the serendipitous appearance of a mysterious stranger. With poise and pathos, respectively, Sophia Willoughby and Timothy Fortune commanded Warner's attention, and she, a rapt observer, assigned herself the almost clerical task of transcribing their experiences.

I have my doubts about Warner's anecdotal ars poetica--her novels are nothing if not calculated--but her oddly passive vision of artistic labor may help explain the astonishing trajectory of her career. Warner is a master of self-effacement. Each of her seven novels is an unprecedented new world, and each of them looks, at first glance, as if it were written by a different author. She conjured up a vision of pastoral witchcraft (Lolly Willowes, 1926) and an equally fantastical South Seas (Mr. Fortune's Maggot); she dressed Greek myth in Victorian clothes (The True Heart, 1929) and her own political convictions in the proletarian garb of Paris in 1848 (Summer Will Show); she studied the social hierarchies of eighteenth-century Spain (After the Death of Don Juan, 1938) and the constricted but sensuously complex life of a medieval nunnery (The Corner That Held Them, 1948); in her final novel she traced the fate of a merchant's family across several generations in Victorian East Anglia (The Flint Anchor, 1954).

I have been reading and rereading these novels for years, ever since a friend gave me a copy of Mr. Fortune's Maggot, which he had not read, on the hunch that it was something I would like. The gift was the kind of apparition I then learned, from Warner, to take seriously. Every time I reread it, I am struck by Warner's uncanny clarity, a quality that belongs, as Warner shrewdly hinted, to the world of dreams.

But an author's reputation and readership cannot thrive on chance encounters alone, and Warner has long remained a secret, perhaps because her experimental impulses were never exuberant enough to grab the attention of the Modernists' most adventurous readers. The recent republication of Summer Will Show is her best chance, after all these years, of emerging from the fog of near-oblivion, as thick as it is unfair. The story belongs to Sophia Willoughby, whose conversion from self-protective aristocrat to committed communist is prompted by a love affair with her husband's mistress. On Sophia's long journey to the printed page, she lost her "passion for pugilism" but acquired two of her creator's defining characteristics: ardent love for a woman and, no less zealous, for communism.

Warner came late to both attachments. She spent her early years of adulthood engaged in a secret romance with Percy Buck, the music director of the elite Harrow School in Middlesex, near London, where her father was a much-beloved teacher of history. In 1913, when the affair began, she was only 19; Buck was 41, long married and a father of five. Warner first knew Buck as a close friend and frequent guest of her father's, but they subsequently developed a relationship of their own; Warner viewed him as an intellectual equal, and, better still, he shared her interest in music. He also encouraged Warner's first forays into professional writing, drafting her onto a five-person committee responsible for editing Tudor Church Music, a ten-volume anthology that is now considered a classic of musicology. In Buck's company, Warner spent the 1920s editing music, writing fiction and submitting her work for publication. By the decade's end, she had published three novels and two volumes of poetry as well as various short stories and reviews. Her poems won the praise of other poets--A.E. Housman and Louis Untermeyer, for example--but it was her first, unexpectedly fashionable novel, Lolly Willowes, that earned her a following.

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