Authors: Sylvia Townsend Warner
Also by Sylvia Townsend Warner
MR FORTUNE'S MAGGOT
THE TRUE HEART
SUMMER WILL SHOW
AFTER THE DEATH OF DON JUAN
THE CORNER THAT HELD THEM
THE FLINT ANCHOR
Short story collections
MORE JOY IN HEAVEN
THE CAT'S CRADLE BOOK
A GARLAND OF STRAW
THE MUSEUM OF CHEATS
WINTER IN THE AIR
A SPIRIT RISES
SWANS ON AN AUTUMN RIVER
THE INNOCENT AND THE GUILTY
KINGDOMS OF ELFIN
SCENES OF CHILDHOOD
ONE THING LEADING TO ANOTHER
Sylvia Townsend Warner
Edited, and with an Afterword, by Michael Steinman
Foreword by William Maxwell
SYLVIA TOWNSEND WARNER
once said, “I write short stories for money,” but it was quite untrue. She wrote to please herself, and because she had no choice. In a letter to a friend she wrote, “A story demanded to be written, and that is why I have not answered your letter before: a wrong-headed story, that would come blundering like a moth on my window, and stare in with small red eyes, and I the last writer in the world to manage such a subject. One should have more self-control. One should be able to say, Go away. You have come to the wrong inkstand, there is nothing for you here. But I am so weak-minded that I cannot even say, Come next week.”
In another letter she remarked, “It may interest you to know that the whole of this story sprang from a house that happened to catch my eye as I was travelling from Lewes to Worthing . . . I gave it a glance, noticed that it was darkish, square, sat among its shrubs among sallow fields. That was all. A few days later, I had the whole story, all I needed to do was transfer it to a landscape that has not so many literary associations as Sussex. These impregnations are very odd. Inattention seems to be an essential element, just as it is in seeing ghosts. In the matter of seeing ghosts, I suspect that water is important too; a pond or a river nearby, a damp house, a rainy day.”
During her lifetime she published seven novels, ten collections of short stories, a life of T. H. White that is a model of biographical writing, several volumes of poetry, and a translation of an early work by Marcel Proust â
a kind of trial run for his masterpiece.
She also wrote the libretto for a one-act opera about Shelley's drowning in the Bay of Lerici. It was set to music by the American composer Paul Nordoff but never produced.
Her posthumous books include two collections of short stories, edited by Susanna Pinney; a selection from her diaries, which are voluminous, edited by Claire Harman; and four volumes of correspondence â her love letters to and from Valentine Ackland, arranged by Sylvia during her lifetime and edited by Ms Pinney; letters to and from David Garnett, edited by his son Richard; letters to and from me, mostly during the years I was her editor at the
edited by Michael Steinman; and her general correspondence, edited by me. She published so much that she could not keep track of it all. The fiction in this present collection nobody was aware of until Mr Steinman, working in libraries, came upon one story after another.
Sylvia Townsend Warner was born on December 6, 1893, at Harrow-on-the-Hill, where her father was a housemaster and taught history. What emerged from her infancy was a charming, preternaturally intelligent child. When she was old enough for kindergarten she disrupted the class by mimicking the teachers â meaning no offence â and her parents were asked to withdraw her. They then decided to educate her at home. Her mother taught her to read, from the Bible, and other basic subjects, and her father taught her history informally when they were on vacation in Wales or Switzerland. By the time she was ten she had read halfway through
Her mother had wanted a son, or, lacking that, a girl who was beautiful and had all the social graces. Sylvia was a squinty-eyed child who had to be fitted for glasses. She also inherited the family jaw. Sometimes when her mother went out for the afternoon her father brought her down to his study for tea. It was a dusky room partly below ground level, smelling of tobacco and wood shavings, with a workbench and carpenter's tools in it and a huge rocking horse that stood ten hands high. Sitting on it, with the child on his lap, he rocked and recited “La Belle Dame sans Merci hath thee in thrall . . .” Or she would pull books from the shelves and examine them. The thing she couldn't do was to open the green baize door that separated his study from the classrooms. Though she was probably more intelligent and gifted than any of the boys he lavished his pedagogical skills on, she had to take what was left over. He was such a brilliant teacher that even that was not negligible and may have been the reason why in her novels the reader gets such an acute sense of what it was like, for instance, to be living in France during the Revolution of 1848 or on a South Sea Island when Victoria was on the throne in England. When her mother looked up from her book to remark that she would have been better at entertaining royalty than were the people with whom Charles II took refuge after the battle of Worcester, he remarked under his breath that Charles II was easily entertained. On this slight evidence I suspect that his habitual conversational mode, like that of most schoolmasters, was sardonic. He and Sylvia were thick as thieves.
Her mother was born in southern India. In the story “My Father, My Mother, the Bentleys, the Poodle, Lord Kitchener, and the Mouse” this paragraph occurs: “My mother's recollections of her childhood in India were so vivid to her that they became inseparably part of my own childhood, like the arabesques of a wallpaper showing through a coat of distemper. It was I who saw the baby cobras . . . It was to me that the man fishing in the Adyar River gave the little pink-and-yellow fish which I afterwards laid away among my mother's night-dresses, alone in a darkened room under a swaying punkah. It was I who made sweet-scented necklaces by threading horsehair through the tamarind blossoms which fell on the garden's watered lawns. I was there when the ceiling cloth broke and pink baby rats dropped on the dining-room table; when the gardener held up that dead snake at arm's stretch and still there was a length of snake dragging on the ground; when the scorpion bit the ayah. It was my bearer who led me on my pony through a tangle of narrow streets, and held me up so that I saw through a latticed window a boy child and a girl child, swathed in tinsel and embroideries and with marigold wreaths around their necks, sitting cross-legged on the ground among small dishes of sweetmeats, and who then made me promise never to tell my parents â which I never did . . . It was I, wearing a wreath of artificial forget-me-nots, who drove to St George's Cathedral to be a bridesmaid, with an earthenware jar in the carriage, from which water was continually ladled out and poured over my head; for this being an English wedding it had to take place in the worst heat of the day . . . It was I whom the twirling masoola boat carried through the surf to the P. & O. liner, on the first stage of a journey towards an unknown land which was called home.”
She studied the piano and musical theory with Percy Buck, the music master at Harrow. When she was nineteen she entered on a clandestine love affair with him. He was married and had five children and she had no intention of upsetting his marriage. Their affair lasted seventeen years, was never very ardent, and perhaps she did it by way of thumbing her nose at her mother. She made herself into such an erudite musicologist that she was asked to serve with a four-member committee searching out and editing sixteenth-century music, which existed often only in manuscripts to be found in the organ lofts of cathedrals. The project was funded by the Carnegie Trust. The result of their labour was the monumental ten-volume
Tudor Church Music
In 1916 her father died â she was convinced of a broken heart because so many of his most promising pupils were being killed in Flanders. Long after the fact, she wrote an American friend: “My father died when I was twenty-two, and I was mutilated. He was fifty-one, and we were making plans of what we would do together when he retired. It was as though I had been crippled and at the same moment realised that I must make my journey alone.”
Grief made her mother impossible to live with. The three-pounds-a-week stipend paid by the Carnegie Trust made it possible for Sylvia to manage a flat in the Queen's Road, Bayswater.
She wanted to be a composer and had hoped to study with Schoenberg but the war in Europe made this impossible. The depth of her feeling for music is conveyed by this sentence about the music of the period of Haydn and Mozart: “I never leave off wondering at the music of that century â how it ran like a stream through that unmusical civilisation, being talked through, disregarded, unprized or prized for the worse motives; and yet ran, clear, independent, between its banks with its own life and its own direction, with tributaries all along its course from here, there, everywhere.”
She had many friends in London. Some of them she had known as schoolboys at Harrow. Chief among them was David Garnett, whose bookshop was the centre of literary London. In Garnett's memoir
The Familiar Faces
there is a portrait of Sylvia as a young woman: “Sylvia is dark, lean and eager with rather frizzy hair. She wears spectacles and her face is constantly lighting up with amusement and intelligence and the desire to interrupt what I am saying and to cap it with something much wittier of her own. I sometimes speak slowly, waiting for the right word to come . . . She quivers with eagerness as though I were really going to say something good and then dashes in and transforms my sentence and my meaning into a brilliance I should have been the last person to have thought of.”
On a walking trip in Dorset with the sculptor Stephen Tomlin she was introduced to the novelist Theodore Powys and his family. They lived in the tiny village of East Chaldon near the sea, and she was fascinated by them and became part of their circle, which included a handsome, elusive young woman who went by the name of Valentine Ackland and was a poet. According to Claire Harman, Sylvia's biographer, “Valentine” was a pen name; she was christened Mary Kathleen McCrory Ackland. Her father was a fashionable London dentist, the senior dental surgeon at St Bartholomew's Hospital, and was awarded the C.B.E. for his work in reconstructing the smashed faces of soldiers. He was a melancholy man, dissatisfied with his life and unhappy with his family. Valentine sometimes believed that he loved her but it seems more likely that he loved only himself. When he discovered that she had had sex with a woman he turned on her violently and said that if she continued this practice she would go blind and possibly insane. The good old days. He died suddenly of cancer shortly after the end of the war. Valentine's mother was the daughter of a wealthy barrister and amusingly eccentric. Sylvia couldn't bear her.