History Unforeseen: On Sylvia Townsend Warner | The Nation


History Unforeseen: On Sylvia Townsend Warner

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Summer Will Show was in one way a record of Warner's personal experience, but it was also the result of a careful cultivation of style. Warner's first novel, Lolly Willowes, is remembered as a feminist fable, but equally important to Warner's development as a writer is the evanescent quality of its prose. The story is simple: Lolly tires of her family, leaves London for the countryside and makes a surprisingly casual arrangement with Satan to enter his service as a witch. Lolly's adventure is not really an adventure: it is as free of dramatic reversal or complications as it is of rhetorical flourish. Warner's conclusion presents the reader with the disarming notion that Lolly's submission to Satan is a form of freedom: "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." Warner's "gaze" is equally "undesiring and unjudging," and her narration registers Lolly's experience without demanding anything from it--not even the diversion of a conventional plot. The aloofness of Warner's voice grants the protagonist the freedom to think and do as she pleases, which is ultimately not much more than to plan and execute a change in scenery.

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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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The novel, which was the inaugural selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, exuded an aura of witchy glamour that sparked rumors about the author's relationship with black magic. (That Warner, like Lolly, had wearied of her family home near London and abandoned it for a less savory country cohort may have furthered this speculation.) Soon after the book's publication, Virginia Woolf asked the freshly anointed literary star how she knew so much about witches; Warner replied, "Because I am one." Yet the brief celebrity of Warner's witch obscures the novel's true powers of enchantment: Warner's formulations are so lucid that they pass through the reader's imagination with the vividness and insubstantiality of a dream. The prose is ethereal; its rhythms repeat, at the sentence level, the story's vanishing act, disappearing like a gulp of cool water down your throat: you swallow gratefully, but without careful reflection on the contents of the draught. No novel has ever been so easy to reread--as if for the first time.

The publication of Summer Will Show revealed a philosophical dimension to Warner's distilled transparency. In language that carries the reader forward with metronomic deliberateness, she envisions historical change as accidental and almost imperceptible--but, for all the ease of its movement, no less decisive. The later novel outdoes the distance of the debut: Warner's gradualist aesthetic feels like a gust of frigid air, perhaps because of the hot-blooded subject matter. Summer Will Show was the first of Warner's novels to obviate the charge of "whimsy"--a key word in contemporaneous reviews, and one Warner had underlined when she dreamed up the title Mr. Fortune's Maggot, the "maggot" of which refers not to the larval fly but to an archaic use meaning a "whimsical or perverse fancy": in this case, Timothy Fortune's decision to abandon England for the South Seas, where he hoped to convert the indigenous peoples to Christianity. Summer Will Show drops these intimations of imaginative flight. Death, in its most quotidian forms--disease, starvation--haunts its pages from the outset.

Warner begins Sophia's tale at her family estate in Dorset, where she devotes her energies to the care of her children, Damian and Augusta. Sophia's husband, Frederick, has run out on her, choosing instead the life of a sensualist in tipsy, bohemian Paris. Warner permits her otherwise restrained protagonist moments of anger at Frederick's infidelity: "Even when she knew for certain," Warner explains, "that he had been many times unfaithful to her, and was again neck-deep in an adultery, she was not jealous. She was furious."

Mostly, however, Sophia carefully calibrates her emotions. Even her self-satisfaction is sternly enforced. "Just as she desired a more respectable tenantry," Warner writes, "Sophia might have desired a more suave and fertile landscape; but in the depth of her heart she knew that one was as unimprovable as the other, and the consciousness of having no illusions made her content with what she had." Deliberation turns inadequacy into a sign of practicality: the deficiencies of her land and her tenant farmers prove only that her expectations are reasonable. Similarly, Sophia imagines her ambiguous marital status as a form of power: "I am far safer than if I were a widow," she thinks to herself. "For at my age, and in my position, I should be pestered with people wanting to marry me, I should have to live as cautiously as a girl. But now I can stand up, and extend my shade, my suzerainty, unquestioned as a tree."

Soon, the conditions under which Sophia lives, which she has rationalized as wishes fulfilled (she assures herself in the novel's opening pages that this is "the life my heart would have chosen"), fall suddenly away. Damian and Augusta die of smallpox. It's 1848, and Sophia travels to Paris to seek another child by her husband, just as barricades rise up in the streets and revolution begins to unfold. This accident of personal and political history signals one of the novel's preoccupations: the unpredictable collision of stories, especially ones that seemingly have nothing to do with one another.

The most important of these encounters occurs when Sophia meets her husband's mistress, Minna Lemuel, a storyteller whose marvelous rhetorical skills have earned her a certain seedy glamour in Paris's artsy underworld. When Sophia seeks out Frederick at Minna's apartment, she happens upon a performance that transfixes her: Minna tells a story from her childhood as a Jew in Lithuania, which culminates in her flight from a pogrom. Here, as Claire Harman has noted, Warner presents the reader with a narrative voice totally distinct from, but no less accomplished than, her own. Minna's voice is more inviting than the narrator's--more passionate, more generous with images, more amenable to action. In the midst of Minna's account of the pogrom, she narrates her near-suicidal assault on her persecutors with a fervor, moral clarity and feeling for suspense that are totally foreign to the novel's presiding voice: "Now I knew where to perish. The Christians should see that a Jewess could be no less faithful than a Jew. And while I ran towards the blazing house my old fancies flared up, and it seemed to me that not only should I die defying them, but that my race should be avenged through me, since I would certainly kill many of them before they killed me."

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