The Novels of Sylvia Townsend Warner

The British novelist's works, currently being reissued, encompassed witches, communist revolutionaries, and medieval monasteries – but running through them all is her formal invention and socialist politics.

A photo of Sylvia Townsend Warner taken in 1930 shows both her intensity and her slightly awkward grace. Part of a series shot by Cecil Beaton, it shows her turned slightly away from the camera, her head resting on her right hand and her eyes, set with a pair of thick-rimmed spectacles, fixed sharply on the lens. A tall and slim woman, her posture—sat doubled-over with her left hand resting on her lap—only accentuates her height, and her hair, cut short into a fashionable bob, frames a long and somewhat masculine face.

Her looks were striking, and to many she held an almost magnetic presence. William Maxwell, her friend and editor at the New Yorker, a magazine to which she contributed more than 50 short stories over 40 years, was captivated on their first meeting in New York in 1939 just as the first rumbles of war were sounding across the Atlantic. Her voice, Maxwell recalled, ‘had a slightly husky, intimate quality. Her conversation was so enchanting it made my head swim.’

She was by then a member of the Communist Party and had already made several trips to war-ravaged Spain to provide aid to the republican forces. By the war’s outbreak, Warner had reinvented herself several times over. A precocious child born to a renowned Harrow schoolmaster in 1893, from a young age Sylvia possessed a fierce intelligence. Home-schooled by her father after being removed from nursery for mimicking the teachers, by the age of 17 she was known to some as the ‘best boy at Harrow’. She also had an early interest in music composition and by 21 was set to study in Vienna with the renowned composer Arnold Schönberg. The outbreak of war in 1914 put paid to her plans on the continent, but it was music that was to provide her both employment and an excuse to leave Harrow for London.

At the age of 19, Sylvia began an affair with her father’s close friend and the music director at Harrow, Percy Buck – a married father of five and a man 22 years her senior. They were soon to be colleagues as well. From 1917 both were engaged in a project to publish Tudor church music, a monumental task that on publication would amount to ten volumes of meticulously transcribed works. Warner was to spend several years at work on the project travelling the country, often with Buck, visiting cathedrals and archives in the hunt for rare pieces of music.

At 28, a chance trip to the Essex marshes—where she fell in love with the bleak, strange landscape—saw her take her first steps towards becoming a writer, and from then she was to write both poetry and fiction for the rest of her life, writing being something she found ‘as easy as whistling.’ Around the same time, via her friendship with the sculptor Stephen Tomlin, she fell in with a circle close to the Bloomsbury Group, that famous set of interwar writers and intellectuals that included Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, and Lytton Strachey.

If today Warner is known at all it is for her first novel Lolly Willowes, published in 1924. The book follows Laura ‘Lolly’ Willowes, who at the outset is an unmarried 28-year-old, devoted to her adoring father. His death leaves her reliant on the goodwill of her brother and his family, with whom she lives as a spinster aunt for the next twenty years. From there, increasingly stifled by both familial obligations and the atmosphere of London, she flees the city for a rather damp part of Buckinghamshire, the village of Great Mop set within the rolling chalk hills of the Chilterns. It is an epiphany in a greengrocer’s that occasions her departure—plum jam conjuring visions of a darkening orchard—and Great Mop becomes the scene of Lolly’s later pact with the devil, an act that frees her from her womanly role and gains her a witches’ familiar, a cat named Vinegar.

On publication, this story of a middle-class woman turned witch caused a stir on both sides of the Atlantic, becoming a literary bestseller in both Britain and America. The book is a witty work of social satire on the nature of interwar womanhood. Lolly becomes a witch not to wreak havoc but ‘to have a life of one’s own,’ a forceful push back against an ‘existence doled out to you by others’. In the words of Warner’s biographer Claire Harman, this was ‘an elaborate way of presenting the same thesis as Virginia Woolf did in A Room of One’s Own, published three years later.’

Yet, rather than searching for a room from which to write, Lolly yearns for women to be able to ‘sit in their doorways and think.’ It is thus, for Harman, a search for privacy and not, as with Woolf, for power. A year later Warner’s fame was bolstered by the publication of her second novel Mr. Fortune’s Maggot, the story of a missionary losing his faith in the South Sea Islands marked by themes of anti-colonialism and homoeroticism, and a third, The True Heart, followed quickly thereafter.

Commitment

From this promising start, it would be another seven years before Warner was to publish another novel. Although she was to maintain a modest level of fame for most of her life, helped no doubt by her regular publication in the New Yorker, she was never again to reach the heights that her early career and talent seemed to warrant. Between early fame and her later work, several events were to intervene in her life, each perhaps contributing to her relative lack of later commercial success.

The first such event was her increasing commitment to Communism during the 1930s. For intellectuals of this period joining the Communist Party was not uncommon; the decade was rocked by social and economic crises, and the threatening drumbeats of war could be heard on the horizon. Under such conditions the cause of communism became an obvious draw for many interwar writers and intellectuals.

Her first encounter with communism, though, was inauspicious. On a trip to London in 1933 she was repulsed by the piety and violent commitment of a party member who said that he’d rather die than relinquish his portrait of Lenin. Yet, the rise of Hitler and National Socialism in Germany, and the subsequent trial of Georgi Dimitrov in 1934, brought Warner’s sympathies increasingly towards the party. She closely followed the trial of Dimitrov in the British press, as he valiantly defended himself against his Nazi accusers for his alleged role in the Reichstag fire. It was, for Warner, Dimitrov’s ‘extraordinary courage and enterprise and poise‘, that attracted her to him, and by spring the following year both her and her lover, the poet Valentine Ackland, were party members.

Since 1932, Warner had been working on a novel set during the great 1848 revolutions in Paris, and her newfound political commitment added an extra impetus to the work. Published in 1936, Summer Will Show is Warner’s most narratively accomplished, if formally conventional, work. The protagonist is Sophia Willoughby, a young aristocrat who at the novel’s outset resides in the stately Blandamer House in Dorset with her two children, both of whom are sick with whooping cough. As a remedy for their illness, the children are taken to the local lime-kiln where the keeper dangles them over the kiln’s burning fire by their ankles.

18 months before this, Sophia had banished her husband Frederick from the house on account of his ongoing affair with Minna Lemuel — a Jewish ‘half-actress, half-strumpet’, whose absent-presence pervades the first section of the book. Sophia cannot hide her contempt for Minna, a contempt that drips from each page. For Sophia, Minna is ‘a nonsensical creature bedizened with airs of prophecy, who trailed across Europe with a rag-tag of poets, revolutionaries, musicians and circus-riders sniffing at her heals.’

The breakdown of the marriage caused by Frederick’s affair with Minna forces upon Sophia a newfound freedom, a freedom that alongside her new status as a lone woman (albeit one that is ‘well-incomed’) only manages to increase her feelings of impotence. For Sophia, ‘it was boring being a woman, nothing that one did had any meat in it.’ For a man, freedom would be something different again, but the freedom that Sophia experiences soon turns into an all-consuming void, one that is deepened by the sudden death of both of her children from smallpox.

Thoughts of her impressionable husband and his Parisian mistress consume both the novel and Sophia from the start. On his return to the house to attend to the death of his children Frederick is changed, and Sophia is haunted by the words he speaks to his dying daughter—’Ma fleur‘—with echoes of Minna flowing through them. In an attempt to overcome the void created by her new freedom from the ‘world policed by oughts’, Sophia turns first to work, religion, and education, all of which come to nothing. After a failed liaison with the lime-kiln keeper, the man who had given her children the fatal pox in the first place, she races to Paris in an attempt to force Frederick to once more provide her with a child.

On arrival in France, Sophia is greeted by first stirrings of the February revolution that is to bring down the monarchy of Louis Philippe and replace it with a new republican government. In Paris, Sophia is soon swept up, not only in the revolutionary events but also in a passionate affair with the woman who both attracts and repels her, her husband’s mistress Minna. Their first meeting occurs at a fashionable party where Sophia stands watching as Minna tells the story of her escape from a pogrom in her native Lithuania. Having intimated earlier in the novel the spell-binding qualities of Minna’s storytelling, Warner here shows it clearly; Minna’s tale is perhaps the novel’s most arresting section, and it marks a change of both pace and tone from the earlier narrative. With her dazzling attention to both gesture and speech, Warner shows her full power and skill as a writer. Minna’s narrative is interspersed with actorly flourishes, halting the telling ‘like the player lifting the bow from the strings’, or when her eyes wander across the faces of those seated around until reaching Sophia when ‘the flickering glance touched her, and rested.’ A rustle from the back of the room stops the story, and Minna comes to rest with a sigh ‘as though as field of corn that had stood all day in the breathless August drought had yielded to a breath of wind.’

The encounter with Minna and the events in Paris leave Sophia profoundly changed. She soon becomes drawn into the circle of revolutionaries around Minna and, with her upbringing as a respectable lady less likely to put her under suspicion as an insurrectionist, she is recruited into assisting a group of communists with the planning of a new uprising. Here we are provided with a wonderful cast of characters, each brilliantly drawn, not least the calm and unemotional communists like the revolutionary theorist Ingelbrecht—’a man like plain cold water’—and the faintly ridiculous figure of poet Wlodomir Macgusty. As the novel progresses, Minna and the romantic revolutionaries are soon left behind, and Sophia’s growing communist sympathies come to the fore.

Unlike so many of the books written in the shadow of the Party during the 1930s, Summer Will Show is no propaganda piece. At Blandamer, the political convulsions that rocked the British countryside in the 1830s are remarked upon in the subdued manner befitting the recollections of an aristocrat. The men of the 1830 Labourers’ Uprising are remembered not as some potentially revolutionary force but as ‘a procession of men wearing their best clothes’, men who, a little earlier, had shod her pony or whose hedges she had pilfered berries from. For her, these men are part of the organic whole of society, merely one aspect of the visions of a paternalist landowner.

In the background of this picture of the English countryside are the birth-pangs of capitalist enterprise; Sophia’s uncle owns a prosperous estate in the West Indies and Sophia busies herself for a while as an improving landowner. Later, during the Parisian uprisings, Warner harbours no illusions about the communists, none of whom have, in Harman’s words, a ‘revolutionary halo’. These are not men of steel, and we see Sophia’s quietly furious reaction to her snub at the hands of these revolutionaries. Yet, as the novel reaches its climax during the June Days, with its bloody massacres and reprisals, we are left with Sophia, having narrowly escaped death where so many of her comrades perished, opening the package of leaflets entrusted to her and reading, gripped at the new world opening before her, the opening pages of the freshly printed Communist Manifesto.

Cataclysms

Summer Will Show was a departure for Warner not only in its politics, but also in its style and tone. There are also hints of autobiography throughout, not least in the protagonist’s political conversion and lesbian romance. A few years before the book’s publication, Warner began a love affair with Valentine Ackland—a strikingly attractive, Eton-cropped poet 13 years her junior who dressed in men’s trousers, shirt and tie. It was to be a romance that, despite Ackland’s heavy drinking and infelicities, was to last until Ackland’s death from cancer in 1969. Yet, just as it would be wrong to reduce Warner’s book to the status of ‘communist novel’, so too is it misleading to read the book solely as a queer romance. The love between Minna and Sophia is left for the most part without comment, hinted at only with beautifully drawn scenes of the two lounging together on pink sofas or sitting in bed eating biscuits.

When Summer Will Show was published in 1937, both Ackland and Warner were in Spain, where the Civil War between the republican government and Franco’s forces was already raging. On their first visit to Spain, Warner worked at a Red Cross hospital in Barcelona, and she and Ackland were to visit once more in June 1937 for the International Writer’s Congress as part of the British delegation alongside Edgell Rickword (editor of Left Review, for whom both were to contribute articles and poetry throughout the late 1930s), journalist Claude Cockburn, and poet Stephen Spender. Soon after, Warner was to finish another novel, After the Death of Don Juan, ‘a parable or an allegory […] of the Spanish war.’

Once more the lack of a common style between her writings is apparent. There is little to suggest that Don Juan is by the same author as Lolly Willowes. The lack of a clearly marked and enduring style is perhaps one of the reasons that Warner has eluded both critics and a wider readership for so long. Another, perhaps, is the distance she put between herself and the fashionable world of literary London. From the 1920s she lived in Dorset, eventually settling in the village of Frome Vauchurch. The rest of her career, despite writing regularly for the New Yorker and publishing a number of further novels and story collections, was spent with little public acclaim; on becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1967 she remarked slyly that it was her first public acknowledgment since her expulsion from kindergarten. There was a brief resurgence of interest in her work during the late 1970s and 1980s, as her writing was reclaimed by a new generation of feminists and brought back into print by Virago. Yet it appeared even then that little beyond a small but vigorous readership were to remain.

Alongside her creative writing, Warner also published occasional works of criticism and a number of essays on politics and the Spanish situation, mainly for left publications such as Left Review, The Countryman, and the New Statesman. The late 1930s would also see her engage in a debate with the Marxist philosopher and literary critic Georg Lukács on the historical novelist Walter Scott. In 1938, the journal International Literature published a two-part essay by Lukács on Scott’s novels, adapted from the first chapter of his book The Historical Novel. Warner wrote in response, suggesting that Lukács’s essay had misrepresented the importance of Scott’s relationship to the national question. A further response from Lukács in turn brushed aside Warner’s criticisms, but the debate shows not only the importance of the question of the nation in left thought in the years leading up the 1939, and in Elinor Taylor’s words whether it can be ‘detached from its imperial and chauvinist connotations,’ but also the level of Warner’s political and intellectual commitments in these years. Into the 1950s Warner remained a Communist Party member and defender of Stalin.

The war years were to prove a watershed in both her life and work. As she wrote in a letter to her friend Paul Nordoff in 1946, ‘the temple of Janus has two doors, and the door for war and the door for peace are equally marked in plain lettering, No Way Back.’ After 1945, she would strive to find a form adequate to her political commitments. Perhaps the closest she came to this, and undoubtedly her masterpiece, is The Corner That Held Them, published in 1948. In this and her last novel The Flint Anchor it was to be society, not individual characters, that were the subjects of her writing. The Corner That Held Them is set in a fourteenth-century Norfolk monastery, and spans several generations and dozens of characters with little in the way of plot or main protagonist.

As the years roll by and a series of cataclysms takes place beyond the monastery walls—the Black Death, the Hundred Years’ War, the Peasants’ Revolt—little changes for the nuns. The wars in France are remarked upon mainly for the new burden of taxation that they carry, and the plague is seen by the nuns as signaling little more than ‘the change from being alive to dead.’

Dominating the book, as it would the lives of the nuns, was the economic reality of living and working in medieval England. As Warner was later to remark, she began the story ‘on the purest Marxist principles, because I was convinced that if you were going to give an accurate picture of monastic life, you’d have to put in all their finances.’ If this makes the book sound dull, then it is certainly not. What we are left with is a masterpiece of the small, seemingly inconsequential detail, unencumbered by the desire for stuffy antiquarian convention of so much historical fiction.

Neither The Corner That Held Them nor Summer Will Show have much in the way of a conclusive ending. The latter’s final page is filled with the opening lines of Marx and Engels’ pamphlet from which Sophia reads, ‘obdurately attentive and by degrees absorbed.’ What we have instead though is the sense of the ongoing movement of history. What becomes of Sophia is uncertain; perhaps a new age is dawning, or perhaps Sophia is to spend the rest of her days engaged in acts of little note. Such an ending seems fitting for a novel written both during and as an allegory for the crisis years of the 1930s. It also serves as a timely reminder in our own age of crisis that the future is as yet unwritten – and in spite of the social crises all around, and as Sophia will soon learn, that we still have a world to win.