History Unforeseen: On Sylvia Townsend Warner | The Nation


History Unforeseen: On Sylvia Townsend Warner

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In 1929, with the completion of Tudor Church Music, Warner decided to break things off with Buck, whose response to her literary projects had not always been enthusiastic. Dorset, rather than London, was beginning to feel like her center of gravity. The sculptor Stephen Tomlin, whom Warner had met when he was a student at the Harrow School, and with whom she sustained a tumultuous, sometimes romantically charged friendship, had brought her into the orbit of T.F. Powys, another writer whose sui generis novels have sadly faded from view. His wry whimsicality made a gentle impression, a watermark, on the pages of Warner's novels. As early as 1922, she had been spending time with Powys in the village of Chaldon Herring, in Dorset, which would later gain distinction as a literary enclave because of the presence of Warner and her circle. Among Powys's acquaintances was his sometime typist, a young poet named Valentine Ackland, whose impressive height (six feet), formal manners and bohemian predilection for trousers were thrown into full relief by the rustic surroundings.

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Sensing Warner's unhappiness as her relationship with Buck disintegrated, Ackland invited her to stay in her rented cottage in Chaldon Herring, which would be unoccupied while Ackland spent some time living in London. Warner declined the offer, but word found its way to Ackland's landlord, who evicted Ackland for subletting. When Warner, soon after, purchased a cottage of her own in the village, she atoned for her inadvertent offense by inviting Ackland to live there as a steward: Ackland would maintain the property, and both of them would split time between London and Chaldon Herring. Neither expected to spend much time together in the cottage, but one night, two weeks after settling in, as they lay awake in their beds, Ackland struck up a conversation from the adjacent room. "I sometimes think I am utterly unloved," Ackland confided. Warner's consolation must have been tender; soon the two found themselves living in a "marriage," as Warner later described it, that would survive Ackland's alcohol-drenched melancholy and her numerous, often agonizing affairs with other women. They remained together until Ackland's death in 1969, and perhaps, to Warner's mind, even after. "Somewhere about 3 a.m.," Warner wrote in her diary in 1972, "I woke in my sleep and there she was beside me in actuality of being: not remembered, not evoked, not a sense of presence. Actual."

Ackland subscribed to the Daily Worker and the Left Review; the latter occasionally published articles she wrote about the miserable conditions of agricultural laborers, underpaid and exploited by landowners, which she had observed firsthand in Dorset. It did not take long for Warner's views, under the pressure of Ackland's, to crystallize: her embrace of communism seemed like the efflorescence of beliefs she already held. As Claire Harman, Warner's biographer, puts it, she had long known her "dislikes" without knowing her "beliefs." Warner made a list of the former in a letter to Ackland: "Priests in their gowns, anti-semitism, the white man who is the black man's burden, warmongers--I had long been sure of them but, beyond a refusal to give money to people who came collecting for missionary societies, my convictions remained unacted desires. Perhaps this was not enough." In 1935 Warner and Ackland joined the Communist Party of Great Britain. Soon they were fundraising, campaigning and attending international conferences, activities that culminated, in 1936, with a short but galvanizing trip to Spain to give medical support to the Republican forces fighting the civil war, working as both nurses and secretaries for the Red Cross unit in Barcelona. Summer Will Show was published during their three weeks in Spain, as Franco's forces laid siege to Madrid.

Warner's conversion to communism marked the historical moment at which she fell conclusively out of fashion. Neither Summer Will Show nor any of her subsequent books enjoyed the commercial success of her "whimsical" novels of the '20s. I don't think this is a consequence of Warner's radicalization--the novels after Summer Will Show wear their convictions lightly. Nor does it seem probable that Warner's readers were put off by her frank depiction of lesbianism, or at least not just by that: Timothy Fortune, who was, in Warner's words, "fatally sodomitic," had proven quite popular.

I think it was the development of Warner's style that alienated her readers. Warner was never inaccessible in the kaleidoscopic manner of her Modernist peers; she faulted Virginia Woolf, for instance, for her "schoolgirlish" habit of shutting out readers by forcefully imprinting her psychology on her prose. Warner seemed to be moving toward a genre of her own. Was she a fabulist? A realist? A propagandist? An author of historical romance? Warner was performing a radical experiment, one so subtle that it was misunderstood even by as perspicacious a critic as John Updike. Writing much later, and on the slightly different subject of her prowess as a short story writer, he found space in a generally positive review to fault her for "irrelevancies"--that is, the accumulation of extraneous details. "Her stories tend to convince us in process," Updike wrote, "and baffle us in conclusion; they are not rounded with meaning but lift jaggedly toward new, unseen, developments." But the waywardness of her prose, its tendency to drift "jaggedly" from one topic to another without the subordination of the parts to the whole, was not an oversight. Warner was clearing a new path for fiction without announcing her departure. Her experiment could easily be taken for a defect rather than an exit from tradition. (Her prose sometimes recalls that of the most famous Dorset novelist, Thomas Hardy.) Her style never presented the muscular challenge of a book like To the Lighthouse, which laid a gauntlet at the reader's feet. The Modernist masterpiece was an opportunity for feats of readerly strength. Warner's novels were not, and readers were perplexed about what, in the end, they were.

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