Swans on an Autumn River by Sylvia Townsend Warner

One of the reasons I never make ‘end of year’ lists of best books until the last possible moment (more or less – I don’t spend New Year’s Eve parties typing away) is because sometimes I read something brilliant in the last few days of the year. And picking up Swans on an Autumn River (1966) by Sylvia Townsend Warner, I’m glad I’ve waited. (It was published as A Stranger with a Bag in the UK, but I’ve gone with the title of the edition I have.)

This is my second collection of short stories by Warner, and it’s just as brilliant as the first one I read (The Museum of Cheats). The more I read by her, the more I think – with the possible exception of the brilliant Lolly Willowes – that short stories were truly her metier, rather than novels. She somehow puts humanity powerfully into these curious, wise, and very adeptly controlled short pieces.

Warner is exceptionally good at first lines. They aren’t the pithy, quotable sort that are laboriously placed as some sort of diving board, after which the tone of the story becomes much more natural – we all know that variety, and they are indeed fun to quote, but don’t always sit well with the rest of the narrative. Warner captures your attention, but there is no jolt as we move from the first sentence to the second. Here are a few of them:

We had divorced in amity; when we met again after the statutory six months we found each other such good company that we agreed to go on meeting from time to time. (‘A Jump Ahead’)

From that morning when he woke to the sound of the first autumnal gale lashing like a caged tiger against the house fronts and knew with physical infallibility that after all he was going to recover, Guy Stoat burned with impatience to get out of the County Hospital and go home. (‘The View of Rome’)

As he quitted the Aer Lingus plane from Liverpool and set foot for the first time in his life on Irish soil, he was already a disappointed man. (‘Swans on an Autumn River’)

My favourite story of the collection is the first one, ‘A Stranger with a Bag’. In it, a travelling salesman notices a rickety old house out of his train window for the first time, and – on an uncharacteristic impulse – decides to go and see it. Warner weaves together his imaginative journey with the one he actually takes, putting both into simple sentences, so the reader is (for a while) unsure whether things like ‘he walked towards the house’ are actually happening or not. The scene he finds is unexpected, to him and to the reader, and the title shows Warner’s tilts of perspective – as he realises that, to the household, he is just a stranger with a bag.

I like it so much because it mixes elements of fairy tale with the unshakably mundane. Warner is very good at scene-setting and buildings – she shows us the house from a distance and then close-up, knowing that a house is very different from these perspectives, and somehow conveying it in her writing.

Other topics she looks at are the visit of a young relative to his grandmother and great-aunt, and the clash of his recollections of them with the real experience; a new wife and an old wife collaborating unexpectedly; a disturbing picnic. Many more. In perhaps her most famous short story, ‘A Love Match’, a brother and sister quietly become a couple.

A few of the stories feel a little too dramatic at their climax – the title story, ‘Swans on an Autumn River’, perhaps falls into that category – but, at her finest, she is brilliant at undercutting a reader’s expectations and, in doing so, showing a truer, brighter light on human nature. And that doesn’t mean that she always sees the worst – she sees past either cynicism or pollyannaism into the heart of what makes people who they are.

The True Heart by Sylvia Townsend Warner

The True HeartThis beautiful, beautiful edition of The True Heart (1929) by Sylvia Townsend Warner was given to me as part of a wonderful Secret Santa present from Christina (the secret was eventually revealed!) in a Virago Modern Classics LibraryThing exchange. That was back in 2014, and it recently got to the top of my list by being nominated by Ali when I asked people to tell me what to read from my tbr. Thank you both, because I loved it!

It is slightly shaming that, despite writing about Warner at length in my DPhil thesis, I had only read a few of her novels. Because my thesis was thematic, I concentrated on the novels which fit the criteria (they had to be fantastic, for one thing – if you want to know about fantasy vs fantastic, then that can be another post one day!). That meant that I spent a long time reading the diaries, letters, essays etc of Warner and others, but didn’t look too hard at the novels which came after the ones I was interested in.

I was also rather nervous – because, while I love and adore Lolly Willowes, I liked Mr Fortune’s Maggot rather less, and was bored rigid by Summer Will Show and The Corner That Held Them. That may well be because of my struggles with historical fiction, and I know those novels are well-loved by many. But it meant I was curious how I’d feel about The True Heart.

The novel has two things in its favour: it’s set in the Victorian period, which is apparently within my remit for acceptable historical fiction (and within living memory when Warner wrote it), and it was written in the 1920s. Yes, that is often enough for me to fall in love with a book, but in this case it’s notable because I think Warner was at her best with her first few novels – and this one was her third.

I’ve rambled long enough without actually telling you anything about the plot. Apparently it is a retelling of Eros/Cupid and Psyche, though I had forgotten that when I was reading it (and don’t know the myth, thinking about it, so who knows.) Our heroine is Sukey Bond – a bright and imaginative orphan, who leaves her orphanage to be farmed out to… well, aptly, a farm. She is 16, and the place out in the Essex marshes has been found for her by Mrs Seaborn – a woman whom Sukey admires and idolises beyond all others. In the months that passes, it is a sort of idol of Mrs Seaborn that she keeps in her mind, while she tries to get her head around her new scenario. Here’s a fairly length excerpt, which gives you a hint of Warner’s greatest strength – her style. I love how her writing mixes the pastoral, the emotional, and the wryly amusing.

 

She hoped that Zeph would offer to take her to the sea, for though she knew that she had but to follow the windings of the creek eastward to find her way there by herself, she lacked courage to go alone. Herds of cattle and horses grazed over the marsh; but she did not dread these, for she soon discovered that the worst they did was to follow her, snorting and inquisitive, but not intending her any harm. It was the sea itself that she dreaded. The Bible had taught her that the sea was to be feared. storms arose there, the cruel floods clapped their hands. Perhaps a wave would take hold of her and bear her away, or perhaps she would see a ship wrecked.

She hoped in vain. Zeph had a poor opinion of the sea; he would have thought it no compliment to a respectable young girl to offer her a sight of that inscrutable nuisance. When they set out he turned his face firmly inland, conducting her to inspect Mr Hardwick’s new silo. Sukey gazed with due respect at this rarity. It reminded her of the Tower of Babel, and she thought how dreadful it would be if Zeph suddenly began to speak French.

The family are chiefly of the ‘poor but honest’ variety, though the girlfriend of one of the sons (Prudence) is more of a minx who is determined to subjugate Sukey. She has recently been in Sukey’s maid role, and thinks that the best way to elevate herself to equality with the family is to distance herself from her former life. Sukey continues to be something of a naive innocent.

It is with this frame of mind that she meets Eric. She first mistakes him for the third son of the family, but is quickly disabused on this front. He is, in fact, Mrs Seaborn’s son – a kind, nature-loving young man, usually silent. His first overtures to Sukey are offering to show her where he has found a secret orchard. And, drawn to kindness and gentleness, Sukey falls in love with him. They get engaged, in private, near a church – which Eric thinks they can just climb into to be wed.

It is only later that he has a seizure, and Sukey is told by the malicious Prudence that Eric is considered an ‘idiot’. He is taken away from the farm.

We follow Sukey as she quits her job, leaves her things, and goes to find Eric – hoping to be welcomed by the Mrs Seaborn she has built in her head. That’s not quite how things go. And the rest of the novel sees Sukey try to win the freedom and independence that she and Eric need for their simple, harmless love. Along the way she meets curious characters (including Queen Victoria!) and there are amusing incidents – my favourite being where she offers to be a maid at a house which, the reader quickly realises, offers other services…

This is a beautiful book, unsentimental in every scene, but never cynical or too detached. Rather, it shows the strength of a character and the gentle power of determination. Above all, it shows Warner at her best descriptive power and storytelling ability.

I don’t think it’s up there with Lolly Willowes, which is truly a tour de force, but The True Heart is still a great novel and I’m grateful to Christina and Ali for working together – albeit unknowingly! – to get me to read it.

Others who got Stuck into it:

Heavenali: “The novel is deceptively simple, but it is a glorious non-sentimental celebration of love, and the wonderful capacity of the human heart.”

Rough Draft: “The beautiful and deeply textured descriptions and the odd encounters give the novel a fantastic, dream-like quality.”

The Museum of Cheats by Sylvia Townsend Warner #1947Club

In 2011, probably around the time I was writing my doctoral chapter on Sylvia Townsend Warner, I madly bought up all her collections of short stories. And, let me tell you, some of them are not easy to find affordably – but I wanted to stock up my shelves. Fast forward five years and I’ve read… none of these collections. And possibly none of the stories, thinking about it. So hearty cheers for the 1947 Club sending The Museum of Cheats up my tbr pile – it’s absolutely brilliant.

Warner tends towards the brief, with short stories, which is exactly how I like them – presumably because she had to fill certain spaces in the New Yorker, and anywhere else that housed these. The only exception is the title story – and I’m actually going to gloss over that one, as I found it much my least favourite story in the collection; it is on the model of The Corner That Held Them (a Warner novel I found intolerably dull, though it has many devoted fans), concentrating on the history of a building rather than the details of people’s everyday lives.

But, setting that one aside, Warner has an expertly observant eye. I was reminded a little of Katherine Mansfield – in terms of the searing through to the centre of a matter, and the potentially life-altering moments among the banal; indeed, how the banal can be life-changing. We see a hostess curious about the unkind caricature she finds on a notepad by the telephone; a woman show paintings to an uninterested visitor; a returning solider discover his books have been given away. The most striking story, perhaps, is ‘Step This Way’ – about abortion.

Warner opens each story with confident finesse, immediately taking the reader into her unusual view of the world. Here is the opening of ‘A Pigeon’:

The two large windows of the room on the first floor looked straight out into the trees of Lincoln’s Inn Fields. A pigeon was cooing among the greenery. Tears rushed into Irene’s eyes. She had a sentimental character, and how sad it was, really, a girl of her age, as innocent as that bird, and all by herself, sitting opposite a solicitor called Mr. Winander and having an interview about her divorce.

The balance of that sentence and those clauses, ending on the word ‘divorce’, strikes me as so cleverly done. And she is not simply concerned with drama; I love the way Warner finds a gentle humour in the curious patterns of normal speech. This is in the same story:

“Mrs. Johnston, you must forgive me asking this. Are you quite sure that you wish to go forward with a divorce?”

“Oh yes, definitely. I never was one to stay where I wasn’t welcome.”

I suppose we have to acknowledge that these stories were probably written and published in 1946, at least some of them, but the collection certainly came out in 1947 – and, yes, the war looms large. I wasn’t expecting it to, actually. It seemed the sort of thing that would pass Warner by in her concentration on the minute. Having said that, she still looks at the war as it affects individual relationships and minds – nothing so dramatic as a world stage. This, from ‘To Come So Far’, is representative of the way Warner uses the war for her own quirky angle:

She was worn out with getting on her husband’s nerves, being alternately too strong or too weak – like tea. If he were a returned soldier, all this would be natural. Magazines were full of stories about manly nerves unable to face the return of civilian life or articles on How to Re-Acclimatise Your Man, and newspapers were full of accounts of murdered wives. But throughout the war Arnold had been an indispensable civilian, jamming enemy broadcasts, and throughout the war they had got on together perfectly, complaining of the discomforts of living and giving each other expensive presents because to-morrow we die. Now, in 1946, Arnold was mysteriously as indispensable as ever and they hadn’t died.

She has such a great turn of phrase. It’s there throughout Lolly Willowes and, twenty years later, her style remains unmistakably hers – and these sorts of unexpected stylistic quirks seem to me to be even more appropriate in a short story. It’s the sort of context that can carry the weight of something slightly bizarre, without it distorting a full-length character study. For example, in ‘Story of a Patron’ – all about the discovery of a ‘primitive artist’ – she includes this:

Mr. Haberdone asked to see more examples of Mr. Rump’s art, and Mr. Rump produced a portrait of Mrs. Rump. It was a remarkable likeness, quite as accurate as the portrait of the cactus but more dispassionate, as though Mrs. Rump had been grown by a rival seedsman.

One of my favourite stories in the collection was also one of the most curious – ‘The House with the Lilacs’. Most of the stories in The Museum of Cheats capture moments in ordinary lives, showing how extraordinary they can seem to the people experiencing them. In ‘The House with the Lilacs’, the reader is left uncertain – Mrs Finch reminds her family of a house they looked at when choosing where to live, and recalls it in perfect detail, but not where it was. The rest of the family know that neither they nor she have ever seen such a house. And that is more or less where we leave it. Even more intriguingly, in a letter Warner wrote to William Maxwell, she describes Mrs Finch as ‘my only essay at a self-portrait; her conversation and her ineffability’.

Sadly, The Museum of Cheats is pretty scarce – though more copies seem to be available in the US than in England; despite living in Dorset, Warner’s stories always found a more appreciative audience in New York. I can only imagine that her other stories would be equally rewardingly tracked down (if not as appropriate for the 1947 Club). I’ll certainly be making sure I read more from my Warner shelf before too long.

 

Tea or Books? #24: careful or manhandle, and The Love-Child vs Lolly Willowes


 
Tea or Books logoI have forced two topics on Rachel – firstly, are you careful with books, or do you manhandle them? (It will all make sense in context.) And then two books that were lynch pins of my doctoral thesis – The Love-Child by Edith Olivier and Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner. Prepare yourself for hearing lots about my research, partly because it’s the first time since my viva that anybody has sat down and listened to me talk about it.

(Btw Great British Bake Off recap coming SOON, promise, but it takes longer than putting this episode up and I didn’t have time tonight!)

It feels like ages since we recorded, so it’s really nice to be back. We’ve missed it! Do let us know what you’d pick in each category, and any topics you’d like us to cover in future episodes. Listen above, via a podcast app, or at our iTunes page. One day we’ll have enough ratings and reviews for them to show up on the page.

Here are the books and authors we talk about in this episode…

The Victorians by A.N. Wilson
Winnie and Wolf by A.N. Wilson
Angus Wilson
Ivanhoe by Walter Scott
E.T.A. Hoffmann
Why I Read: The Series Pleasure of Reading by Wendy Lesser
The Shelf by Phyllis Rose
The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett
Henry James
Susan and Joanna by Elizabeth Cambridge
Hostages to Fortune by Elizabeth Cambridge
Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman
Mapp and Lucia series by E.F. Benson
Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood
Present Laughter by Noel Coward
The Love-Child by Edith Olivier
Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner
Henrik Ibsen
Winifred Holtby
The Witch-Cult of Western Europe by Margaret Murray
Sarah Waters
Lady Into Fox by David Garnett
Mr Fortune’s Maggot by Sylvia Townsend Warner
The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner
Summer Will Show by Sylvia Townsend Warner
William Maxwell
Dwarf’s Blood by Edith Olivier
The Seraphim Room by Edith Olivier
The Venetian Glass Nephew by Elinor Wylie
Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker
The Brontes Went to Woolworths by Rachel Ferguson
A Harp in Lowndes Square by Rachel Ferguson
The Haunted Woman by David Lindsay
His Monkey Wife by John Collier
To The North by Elizabeth Bowen
The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen

Sylvia Townsend Warner: a biography by Claire Harman

STWYou know sometimes there are books on your shelves for years that you think you ought to have read? And then sometimes you really should have read them, cos you’ve done a DPhil partly on the author… well, better late than never, I’ve read Claire Harman’s very good biography of Sylvia Townsend Warner, originally published in 1989. And I reviewed it over at Shiny New Books for the Christmas update, as Penguin have recently reprinted it to coincide with Harman’s biography of Charlotte Bronte.

Well, whatever the reason for the reprint, it is very welcome. You can read the whole review here, but below is the beginning of it, as usual…

This marks the third biography I’ve reviewed in Shiny New Books that is about a major figure in my doctoral thesis – three out of three of them. With Harman’s biography, though, I could (and should) have read the biography while studying, but somehow never got around to it. I knew (thought I) enough about Warner’s life from reading her diaries and letters, and essays about her; the biography could wait.

With The Hunted – Sylvia Townsend Warner

Do you ever wish a book had been published a bit earlier?  I imagine a few people lamented that the first dictionary was issued just weeks after they’d struggled with spelling ‘sincerely’ at the end of a letter, or mourned that British Birds and How To Spot Them came out mere days after that flock of yellow-crested (or was it crested-yellow?) hornspippets descended.

Well, I’m feeling that way about With The Hunted – the selected non-fiction writings of Sylvia Townsend Warner, recently published by Black Dog Books (their website here.)  If it had come out earlier, it would have saved me a LOT of time scrabbling through enormous, dusty old journals, hunting out articles by Warner, photocopying interviews from books, etc. etc…. But, truth be told, I had great fun doing that.  And now it is available for everyone to read!  Thank you Black Dog Books for sending me a review copy.

With The Hunted really is a goldmine.  I haven’t read it all yet, but I’ve read enough to know that it is an astonishingly varied and fascinating companion to Warner’s novels – indeed, I have something of a chequered relationship with Warner’s novels, and might find the writings selected here more consistent.

It includes so much!  Remember how much I enjoyed her pamphlet on Jane Austen?  It’s in With The Hunted!  I greatly enjoyed an interview from Louise Morgan’s 1931 volume Writers at Work, which enchantingly begins ‘”I wish,” said Sylvia Townsend Warner, “that I could tell you I wrote standing on one leg.  Then you’d have something really entertaining and original to say about me!”‘  It’s included!  Her speech on ‘Women as Writers’ which re-popularised Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own – it’s there!  Everything from an essay on her grandmother’s experience of the countryside (‘iniquities she had thought of as rare vestigial occurrences in crime-sheets persisted and were taken as a matter of course among these cottage homes of England’) to her views on Daniel Defoe (‘there are some books, as there are some personalities, which one can open anywhere and be sure of an interest.  This, I knew, was one of them’) is here in this exceptionally wide-ranging volume.  418 pages never contained such infinite variety.

And then there are all the beguiling essays and reviews that I have yet to read!  The titles leap out to me.  I want to read ‘Are Parents Really Necessary?’ immediately; I cannot imagine what could lie behind ‘Not To Be Done in May.’  And then there are pieces on Saki, Katherine Mansfield, Dickens, Edward Lear, Beatrix Potter – what riches!

Peter Tolhurst – the editor of With The Hunted – cannot be thanked enough.  Not only will this book prove invaluable to future scholars of Sylvia Townsend Warner, who will not have the paper trail I had whilst writing my thesis chapter on Warner, but it is for anybody who has any interest in Warner’s novels, or indeed in early twentieth-century literature.  In this extensive collection we see Sylvia Townsend Warner as literati and as countrywoman, casting her eye over her contemporaries and Victorian literary greats, yet also the minutiae of everyday life and everyday concerns, with the same perception and humour.

Whether you love Warner or have never read her before, I think this is a wonderful resource to keep on the shelf, dip into, dip into, dip into – and marvel at.

STW on VW

Sylvia Townsend Warner (photo source)

Sylvia Townsend Warner on Virginia Woolf

Diaries 26th
January 1942

‘At Boots Library the young woman put into my hands Virginia
Woolf’s last book [Between The Acts].  And I received an extraordinary impression
how light it was, how small, and frail. 
As though it was the premature-born child, and motherless, and
literally, the last light handful remaining of that tall and abundant
woman.  The feeling has haunted me all
day.’

Summer Will Show – Sylvia Townsend Warner

Yes, the excerpt yesterday was from Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1936 novel Summer Will Show.  STW has had quite a few mentions at Stuck-in-a-Book this year, since I’ve been researching a chapter of my thesis on her novel Lolly Willowes, and I read Summer Will Show for the same reason.  Well, it’s very different.  Warner is renowned, in fact, for the disparity of her topics – which include a missionary on a desert island, a medieval convent, a woman becoming a witch, and, in this instance, the French Revolution.  The only tie between her novels is her striking prose and observational eye.

Our heroine is Sophia Willoughby, who begins Summer Will Show as a rich, aristocratic wife and mother in 1840s Dorset.  Her marriage is not an especially companionable one, but she doesn’t seem particularly upset about it.  Indeed, it seems to be par for the course.  Warner expertly encapsulates the change in temperament between an engaged woman and a married woman of the period:

Sophia might refuse her food, pine, burst into unexpected tears, copy poetry into albums and keep pet doves, while her marriage was being arranged and her trousseau ordered; but once married it was understood that she would put away these extravagancies and settle down into the realities of life once more.
Sophia seems rather unfeeling at the outset – strict, rather than motherly, and without any noticeably emotional attachments.  Warner often summarises people’s essential characters through seemingly incidental – and here is Sophia’s sentence: ‘She disliked sitting down in the middle of a walk, she disliked any kind of dawdling.  A slow and rigid thinker, to sit still and contemplate was an anguish to her.’

She is contented, if anything, when her husband absconds to Paris – but even her delight in the freedom afforded by her unassailable singleness is tainted when she learns about her husband’s Parisian mistress, Minna Lemuel:

For even to Dorset the name of Minna Lemuel had made its way.  Had the husband of Mrs. Willoughby chosen with no other end than to be scandalous, he could not have chosen better.  A byword, half actress, half strumpet; a Jewess; a nonsensical creature bedizened with airs of prophecy, who trailed across Europe with a tag-rag of poets, revolutionaries, musicians and circus-riders snuffing at her heels, like an escaped bitch with a procession of mongrels after her; and ugly; and old; as old as Frederick or older – this was the woman who Frederick had elected to fall in love with, joining in the tag-rag procession, and not even king in that outrageous court, not even able to dismiss the mongrels, and take the creature into keeping.

Ouch.  But doesn’t Warner arrange an image well?

Something tragic happens, which sets Sophia off to find her husband – even with the obstacle of Minna.  She arrives in Paris, and first encounters Minna while the latter is telling a story about her past to an assembled group of eager listeners.  The difficulty about having a great raconteur as a character is that the novelist must be one themselves (it’s one of the things which makes Angela Young’s accounts of storytellers so wonderful in Speaking of Love, incidentally) – Warner is pretty impressive, but her strength lies in unusual metaphors and striking images (which only occasionally go too far and become too self-conscious), rather than compelling anecdotes, per se.  Here’s another of those curious little verbal pictures I love so much:

And with dusters tied on her feet she [Minna] made another glide across the polished floor, moving with the rounded nonchalant swoop of some heavy water bird.  Her sleeves were rolled up, she wore a large check apron, she had all the majestic convincingness of a gifted tragedy actress playing the part of a servant – a part which would flare into splendour in the last act.
Indeed, Minna’s personality is captured most effectively when we are told that ‘she was always pitching herself to an imaginary gallery’.  Her dramatic nature captures Sophia’s interest, and the burning resentment with which she arrives turns into affection, and then devotion…  The excerpt I posted yesterday comes into play here.

I enjoyed the first half of Summer Will Show.  Warner’s prose is certainly dense here, not to be read speedily, but the dignity and spark of Sophia still came through strongly.  Her concerns about reputation in a judgemental aristocratic world were interesting and subtle; her relationship and re-encounter with her husband were vibrant and never slipped into the sort of unrealistic emotionalism seen in a lot of novels from the 1930s.  But… the second half dragged and dragged.

First edition (can be bought here)

Perhaps my main problem was that I’m not especially interested in the French Revolution – and I’m certainly not coming from the impassioned left-wing perspective with which Warner wrote this novel (although she later grew rather less zealous in later life.)  Understandably a lot of the action of revolutionary France takes centre stage later in the novel, and as the narrative wandered a little away from relationships, hurt, and pride – themes Warner explores rather masterfully – I lost interest.  And yet even in the first part of the novel, I admired more than I loved.  It was enjoyable, but I couldn’t respond with the fervour with which I greeted Lolly Willowes.  The writing was so thick, so relentlessly beautiful, even, that I felt exhausted reading it.  That can hardly be labelled a criticism of Warner, but it prevented me loving the novel deeply.

I have heard Summer Will Show praised to the heights, and thus part of me thinks a re-read in a decade or so would be a good idea.  I don’t thrill to the thought.  Harriet Devine has also recently struggled to love this novel, so at least I’m not aloe in my assessment.  For those more interested in historical fiction than I am (and it would hard to be less) maybe you’d get more from this than I did.  For the reader new to Warner, I would certainly suggest Lolly Willowes as the first novel – but I have grown increasingly to think that her greatest triumph is her letters.  I’ve heard people say the same thing of Virginia Woolf, about her letters and diaries, and thought the assessment rather silly – but, for Warner, the chief qualities of her fiction-writing (adeptness at unusual imagery; an eye for original perspectives) appear in her correspondences, without the flaws which creep into her novels.  The Element of Lavishness is still the best thing I’ve read by Warner, and Summer Will Show didn’t come close to challenging the throne.

Authors on Authors (Part 3)

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:

though
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:

Of all Jane Austen’s novels, Emma must fully conveys the exhiliration of a happy writer. As the arabesques of the plot curl more intricately, as the characters emerge and display themselves, and say the very things they would naturally say, the reader – better still, the re-reader – feels a collaborating glow.  Above all, it excels in dialogue: not only in such tours de force as Miss Bates being grateful for apples, Mrs. Elton establishing her importance when she pays her call at Hartfield, but in the management of dialogue to reveal the unsaid; as when Mr. John Knightley’s short-tempered good sense insinuates a comparison with his brother’s drier wit and deeper tolerance; or as in the conversation between Mr. Knightley and Emma about Frank Churchill, whom neither of them know except by repute: Emma is sure he will be all that he should be, Mr. Knightley’s best expectation is “well grown and good-looing, with smooth, plausible maners” – and by the time they have done, it is plain that Emma is not prepared to fall in love with Frank Churchill, and that Mr. Knightley has been, for a long time, deeply and uncomfortably in love with Emma.

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:

G.H. Lewes, when he recommended Charlotte Bronte to “follow the counsel which shines out of Miss Austen’s mild eyes”, was unaware of Lady Susan, where Miss Austen’s eyes are those of a hunting cat. 

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.

Opus 7 – Sylvia Townsend Warner

I’m reading around my next DPhil chapter, on Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes, and thus there might well be a little spate of Warner related posts coming up here over the next few weeks.  I have an inkling that this might be one of those reviews which is very specialist, and might not attract much interest (1930s narrative poem, anyone?) but I shall plough ahead and see what happens!

I read Opus 7 (1931) by Warner mostly as a counterpoint to Lolly Willowes, but it is also interesting on its own account.  It’s a narrative poem, about fifty pages long, about Rebecca Random – an unsociable woman who lives in an idyllic cottage, ‘lives on bread and lives for gin’, and has an almost uncanny ability to grow flowers:

Some skill she had, and, more than skill, a touch
that prospered all she set, as though there were
a chemical affinity ‘twixt her
stuff and the stuff of plants.

Indeed, the most obvious connections between Opus 7 and Lolly Willowes are the countryside, and this almost witchlike ability that Rebecca has.  Flowers spring up almost overnight, and make Rebecca and her garden something of a spectacle for the villagers.
But the topic is really just a way of exploring the dynamics of village life, especially the darker side.  Rebecca starts to sell her flowers – but only because she needs money for drink.  The villagers buy her flowers for their mantelpieces, parties, and funerals – but do not accept her; she engages in these exchanges, but does not talk to the people next to her in the pub, nor buy them the drinks they anticipate.  In a really interesting aside, Warner leaves the stance of anecdote-reteller and dips into the author’s voice – comparing her addiction to writing and rewriting with Rebecca’s reliance on alcohol:

And down what leagues of darkness must I yet
trudge, stumble, reel, in the wrought mind’s retreat ;
then wake, remember, doubt, and with the day
that work which in the darkness shone survey,
and find it neither better nor much worse
than any other twentieth-century verse.
Oh, must I needs be disillusioned, there’s
no need to wait for spring!  Each day declares
yesterday’s currency a few dead leaves ;
and through all the sly nets poor technique weaves
the wind blows on, whilst I – new nets design,
a sister-soul to my slut heroine,
she to her dram enslaved, and I to mine.
I rarely read poetry, as you know, so perhaps I am not the best judge of quality.  I recently wrote a little bit about Warner’s collection Time Importuned, which I didn’t really like or dislike.  I felt I got a lot more out of Opus 7 – perhaps because it had a sustained narrative, and everything which comes along with that, particularly the foregrounding of character.  Once I had that all set in my mind, I could sit back and enjoy Warner’s writing.  It was occasionally a little forced, and I didn’t approve of all her attempts to create end-rhymes.  This was rather inexcusable:

But now Rebecca, wont to chatter ding-
dong with the merriest, and when drunk to sing

But in general I found it rather beautiful – her use of metaphor is quite striking, for instance.  This excerpt isn’t to do with Rebecca, but concerns the aftermath of village life after the first world war – looking back to the war with quite a chilling, effective image.  Even with all the writing about the trenches which I have read (which we have all read, I imagine) this made an impact on me:

I knew a time when Europe feasted well :
bodies were munched in thousands, vintage blood
so blithely flowed that even the dull mud
grew greedy, and ate men ; and lest the gust
should flag, quick flesh no daintier taste than dust,
spirit was ransacked for whatever might
sharpen a sauce to drive on appetite.
I can’t imagine any publisher willing to publish Opus 7 now, simply because of its form and length.  It’s not long enough to be considered a novel in verse, but it is obviously too long to be merely a poem.  However I am glad that Chatto and Windus decided it was worth issuing back in 1931, in their lovely Dolphin Books series (which I collect when I stumble across them) – it’s not my favourite book by Warner, but it is rather powerful and striking.  And, for a poetry ignoramus, rather an accessible way to enjoy the form, without forfeiting the qualities which make me primarily a lover of prose.