History Unforeseen: On Sylvia Townsend Warner

History Unforeseen: On Sylvia Townsend Warner

History Unforeseen: On Sylvia Townsend Warner

In the fiction of Sylvia Townsend Warner, historical change is accidental and almost imperceptible, but for all that no less decisive.


DORSET COUNTY MUSEUMSylvia Townsend Warner, London, 1920s

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

Warner’s avoidance of so dramatic a kind of storytelling is one of the novel’s triumphs, because it permits her to experiment further with emotional restraint. Yet Minna never becomes a foil: it is her magnetism that draws Sophia toward the personal transformations that accompany the recognizably historical ones. Sophia’s turn to radical politics coincides with the sudden onset of her love for Minna, and though Sophia’s ideological commitment ultimately surpasses that of her lover, Warner ensures that these dimensions of Sophia’s experience remain inseparable. As Sophia’s intimacy with Minna deepens, so too does her investment in radicalism; Warner gives conviction the ache of lovesickness and passion the urgency of revolutionary violence.

Perhaps because Sophia’s brainy intensity resembles her own, Warner’s soft touch is sharpened and burnished. Sophia’s thinking often seems to approximate the author’s, as in this passage: “God, an enormous darkness, hung looped over half her sky, an ever-present menace, a cloud waiting to break. In the antipodes of God was destiny, was reason–a small classical temple in a clear far-off light, just such a temple as shone opposed to a stormcloud in the landscape by Claude Lorraine that all her life long had hung in the dining-room.” The interpretation of experience through geometrically precise language is typical of the novel’s narrative voice. In place of the emotional chaos the reader expects–Sophia has just learned of her children’s illness–she receives the plainest kind of pictorial representation: light presses against darkness, a rectangular shelter against a smudgy cloud of foreboding. The payoff of Warner’s style is not just the detail and exactitude of the realist novel; the judiciousness and conceptual rigor of her language, combined with her effortless pirouetting from one moment to another, drain climactic moments of their distinctive color. Climaxes are not climaxes.

Warner’s insight is a simple one–history is never plotted–but its ramifications are complex, particularly because the novel places its ideological commitments on display. Warner’s formulation of this insight is most explicit in the novel’s final sentence, which concludes a subplot that has spanned some eighty pages. When the second round of revolution breaks out in Paris, four months after the first, Sophia is sent on a risky delivery mission by a communist operative who frequents gatherings at Minna’s home. Sophia’s instructions are to deliver several packages to various addresses around the city, and then to open one last packet and distribute its contents to passersby. She performs this final task partially and halfheartedly, without ever reading the envelope’s contents, The Communist Manifesto–that is, not until the novel’s final, exhilarating anticlimax. The book’s concluding sentence reads, “She seated herself; and leaning her elbows on the table, and sinking her head in her hands, went on reading, obdurately attentive and by degrees absorbed.” Sophia’s absorption, like everything else that matters in Summer Will Show, has happened “by degrees”: Sophia becomes “obdurately attentive” after hundreds of pages in which the characters’ habitually diffuse attention mirrors the emotional distance of the narrator: Minna studies Sophia’s hair “with abstracted attention,” and Sophia speaks “inattentively” when, under circumstances that should be withheld in order to preserve some of the book’s mysteries, she fires her pistol in an adversary’s face. This is a revelation, but it doesn’t take the form of an event, a surprise or even a realization. From the novel’s very first pages, Sophia’s conversion has been developing with the glacial patience of an icicle, and in the end the dream of a communist revolution is realized only in an act of reading.

Writing in this magazine in 1936, Mary McCarthy called Summer Will Show “the most skilful, most surefooted, sensitive, witty piece of prose yet to have been colored by left-wing ideology” but conceded that it “could hardly, by direct stimulation, influence the course of a single Ohio worker’s life.” McCarthy meant to applaud the novel by praising Warner’s literary achievement and pooh-poohing those vulgar Marxists who see no difference between art and propaganda. “The book is important,” McCarthy wrote, “because it indicates, by implication at any rate, that the left wing has been able to recruit from bourgeois literature a more highly trained, more cerebral fiction writer than it has previously had in its reserve corps.” But Warner understood that “direct stimulation” rarely effected the desired changes in social and political circumstances; she didn’t aim to induce change so much as to make sweeping transformations of belief, identity and desire seem tantalizingly possible, albeit erratic and impossible to anticipate or prescribe.

Warner’s vision of history is not progressive, at least not in the way that term is ordinarily used. After all, the revolutions of 1848 were all failures. Warner’s deceptively straightforward suggestion is that they did not have to be. In Summer Will Show, history unfolds slowly and chaotically, as the political order–in both its public and personal dimensions–fragments and recombines, drifts waywardly and settles into place. Like the love affair that emerges from Sophia and Minna’s chance meeting, each phase of this revolutionary year feels like an accident. The chaos of history has its own galvanizing potential, however, and its resistance to triumphal (or despondent) storytelling has profound consequences for the novel’s protagonist. Its consequences for the novel’s readers, on the other hand, are difficult to ascertain. If they are galvanized to action, it may not be as a consequence of having read Warner’s book but perhaps, less dramatically, the galvanized reader will include Summer Will Show in the retrospective history of her conversion.

By flattening out narrative time, which is also historical time, so that Sophia’s transformation cannot be experienced as a spike of emotional intensity, Warner forces the reader to seek inspiration in sources other than actions or events. Even in moments of crisis, Warner’s characters register changes after they have already taken place. Sophia experiences her transformation retrospectively: she discovers that–somehow, at some point–she has fallen in love, just as she finds that her convictions (unbeknownst to her) have been turned inside out. Warner’s protagonists, generally speaking, stand in opposition to conventional society, but in Summer Will Show, Warner allows her characters to confront its strictures without resorting to escape, as did Lolly Willowes, or tragic capitulation, like Timothy Fortune. Rather than grant special powers to her protagonist, Warner weakens the foundations of the status quo. The seams of Sophia’s world are continually broken and mended; things are more fabric than stone. Sophia finds her universe torn apart and realizes, after sewing it back together, that nothing appears as it used to. The fact that a communist future is unimaginable should be no obstacle to its realization; history can be counted on to bring about the unthinkable.

At the very center of the novel, just after Sophia and Minna’s love has intensified into a kind of certainty, they embark on a surreal expedition–to the menagerie of the Jardin des Plantes, in the midst of revolutionary upheaval–where Sophia apprehends suddenly, and without warning, that everything has changed irrevocably, and her life resembles none she had ever imagined for herself. Here Warner reminds us that the world’s ordinary enchantment persists even under conditions of political chaos; the moments the pair experience in the Jardin are brief and porous, and shimmer with the transparency of a mirage. This diaphanous quality had long been Warner’s signature, but now it is proof that the world can always be other than it is. Relaxing on a hillock with Minna, listening to the squawking of “tropical birds” and to the “roaring of lions,” Sophia ponders her happiness: “Sitting here, and thus, she had attained to a state which she could never have desired, not even conceived. And being so unforeseen, so alien to her character and upbringing, her felicity had an absolute perfection; no comparison between the desired and the actual could tear holes in it, no ambition whisper, But this is not quite what you wanted, is it?”

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