This 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.”