A lot of books I’m mentioning this year seem either to be about Jane Austen or by Sylvia Townsend Warner… so it is appropriate that one of them is Jane Austen by Sylvia Townsend Warner! It’s in the same Writers and Their Work series as Pamela Hansford Johnson’s pamphlet, mentioned yesterday, and I’ll write a similarly swift post about it.
PHJ on ICB nabbed the Century of Books slot for 1951, so STW on JA will just have to wait on the sidelines… but I rather suspect it will appeal to more of you. Austen has more adoring fans than Dame Ivy, but are also significantly more spoilt for choice… This is, perhaps, hardly the only or foremost resource for information about Austen’s life and work, but I am a sucker (as this mini-series demonstrates) for authors talking about authors. The combination of Warner and Austen is my favourite yet, and I loved reading Warner’s thoughts on the various novels. She more or less bypasses biographical detail, which was fine by me – there are plenty of other places to go for that. Instead we get to read Warner’s insightful responses to Austen’s work. She doesn’t propose dramatic or revisionist readings of the novels, but there are lots of gems along the way. I loved this:
sense distinguishes Elinor Dashwood and sensibility her sister
Marianne, the contrast is between two ways of behaving rather than
between two ways of feeling
and, a bit longer, this:
It is a shame, given Warner’s sensitive and alert
reading of Austen’s writing, that she does not recognise the irony
dripping when Austen wrote about her ‘little bit (two Inches long) of
Ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect
after much labour.’ Read in context – or even out of context – it is clear that Austen has tongue firmly in cheek, and it’s curious that Warner (herself so often ironic) does not spot this. Never mind.
What I think I love most about Warner’s writing in any context – her novels, letters, this pamphlet – is her exuberant use of imagery. I probably mention it every time I review something by her, but it is delicious – usually quite surreal, but somehow fitting, and often animalistic. She writes extensively about Austen’s juvenilia, and says that they ‘have a ringing brilliancy, like the song of a wren’. Lovely! And later she writes:
Oh, Warner – you and cats! She can turn anything around to cats, given enough time – and is thus, in my eyes, a kindred spirit.
As I said earlier, there are many other places to read about Austen. This pamphlet was issued at a time when a more or less complete bibliography could still be compiled (and one is included – with less than three pages of critical material) but now it proliferates. The reason I would recommend Jane Austen by Sylvia Townsend Warner amongst this extensive canon is for the particular insight one excellent novelist is able to shed upon another. STW and JA have been perfectly matched.