DORSET COUNTY MUSEUM
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).