Saturday, February 11, 2017

More Sylvia

Well, so far my not-quite-resolution to finally read more of Sylvia Townsend Warner seems to be coming to some fruition—unlike most other resolutions I've ever made. I already reported in January on her wartime stories, and now I've read Claire Harman's excellent biography of Warner and finally read her second novel, Mr Fortune's Maggot, which I had a previous false start with.

In fact, the bio may well have helped me in engaging a bit more with Mr Fortune, though I was, as always, a bit conflicted in reading it. Bios are, after all, the one form of storytelling that always ends in the death of the main character. It's true that Hemingway once famously noted, to a woman who criticized his work for being too bleak, that all stories, continued far enough, end in death, but somehow bios are particularly depressing for me. I always feel that I've become close friends with the subject of the bio (if I like them, at least), and then, just when we've got well acquainted, I have to watch them grow old and die.

If anything, this biography was more gruelling than most in that respect, since although Warner lived into her eighties, she lost her wife of nearly 40 years, Valentine Ackland, nine years before she herself died and was haunted (almost literally) by Ackland and thoughts of their life together for much of that time. What's more, Warner was brilliant at analyzing her grief and her own gradual decline in her diaries, as in this darkly funny passage from a letter to David Garnett:

Do you ever feel the childishness of old age? I don't mean second-childhood, but the particular childish excitement at being able to do things dexterously?—to pour out milk without spilling it, to put things back in their proper places, to be capable and responsible? It is a pure pride, as it was then. I only get it occasionally, and it lasts like morning dew.

And so, while I certainly found some inspiration in how bravely and self-deprecatingly she carried on, having it so often in Sylvia's own words was even a bit more like watching a friend go through it all first hand.

But really that's true of almost any biography, which may be why I tend to shy away from them. But Claire Harman, who has also published bios of Robert Louis Stevenson, Fanny Burney, and, most recently, Charlotte Brontë, does an excellent job here of bringing out both the mundane domestic lives of Sylvia and Valentine and the larger trajectories of their lives, political engagement, friendships, families, and marriage. 

There was much to enjoy here, including the fascinating dynamic between Sylvia and Valentine, who, I think, might have been a difficult person for me to like, but on the other hand what I saw as her more neurotic and perhaps selfish approach to life may well have complemented Sylvia's instincts to love and give and be flexible.

The excerpts from Sylvia's diaries provide some of Sylvia's wonderful turns of phrase, as when she writes of a home they lived in for a time, "The east wind sobs and whimpers like a Brontë in the kitchen." And I was tantalized to learn of at least three novels begun at various times and abandoned—do manuscripts survive, I immediately wonder? Two of these fell by the wayside while she was at work on The Corner That Held Them, the medieval nunnery novel that I love but have never quite managed to finish. And a long story Harman describes from the same period clearly does survive and sounds fascinating:

In 1948 Sylvia began another story, set in contemporary England, about a Swedish au-pair girl arriving at the country home of her new employer to find that the lady is dying. The first, completed, part of 'Song Without Words' is among the best things that Sylvia wrote, psychologically compelling and remarkably evocative of an English winter landscape, but the second part of the story ran dry, and was shelved.

Of course, since I still have so much of Warner's published work to read, I need hardly be bemoaning the lost and unfinished work, but you know how I am—the less available something is, the more enticing I seem to find it.

I was interested to see what a dramatic effect the arrival into Sylvia's life of The New Yorker had. Despite her early bestsellerdom with Lolly Willowes, by a few years later her and Valentine's finances had become a bit hand-to-mouth, until someone suggested that some story of village life Sylvia was telling in conversation would make a perfect story for The New Yorker, and the rest (along with any and all financial difficulties) was history. She died a rather well-off woman, if not actually wealthy, despite the fact that most of her work was out of print, and the reason was all those hefty paychecks from the Big Apple.

And in following up on my recent post about her wartime stories, there were two diary entries related to the war that I found particularly interesting. The first, a classic eccentric mother-in-law story, is Sylvia describing the rather overeager war work taken on by Valentine's mother:

In her ardour for service she has undertaken the charge of so many things that as far as I can reckon she will be essential in five different places at once; and as she attains terrific velocity, fells whatever stands in her path, and is permanently fitted with a screaming device like a German bomb, she will create incalculable havoc amid both defenders and attackers, besides spraining her ankle and getting very much out of breath. I often think that Mrs Ackland is the real reason why Hitler has not yet tried a landing on the East Coast. She thinks so, too. It is very odd to look at all these poor consequential idiots and remember that war might at any moment make real mincemeat of them. Even under the shadow of death man walketh in a vain shadow.

And finally, less amusingly but revealingly for an American whose list of top historic moments to travel in space and time to visit, given the opportunity, has always included, pretty high up the list, Trafalgar Square on V-E night, here's Valentine's own assessment of the moment:

'I was sure we would all collapse, perhaps die of joy,' Valentine wrote. 'Instead it feels as if we had all died of fatigue and impacted rage before the joy came ... Probably there'll be photographs of drunken crowds in Piccadilly and reverent crowds in village churches—They won't be true—they won't be representative!'

When peace was finally declared, Valentine wrote, 'we both felt peculiarly tired and perhaps we were rather particularly polite to each other. I had to work, which was ordinary, but I felt odd and unreal [ ... ] And most profoundly, indistinctly gloomy.

After finishing the bio, I dived right into reading Mr Fortune's Maggot, Warner's follow-up to my favorite novel of all time, Lolly Willowes. I had indeed attempted to read it once before and was unsuccessful. This time, I enjoyed the book a lot, though it certainly doesn't rank, for me, with dear, dear Lolly. To complete the segue, I loved this note in the biography about Warner deep in the throes of composing Mr Fortune:

In the middle of writing the storm on the island, she took William the chow out for his midnight walk and had got half-way down Inverness Terrace under a raincoat and umbrella before she noticed that in Bayswater it was a mild autumn night.

Mr Fortune is a well-meaning but rather feckless missionary, who asks to be allowed to venture to the impossibly remote island of Fanua, somewhere in the neighborhood of New Guinea, in order to gain converts. In short, he only manages a single convert, and that one, a boy named Lueli, perhaps a tentative one at best. The two live rather idyllically together in a hut in the shadow of a volcano, and Mr Fortune's eagerness to make other converts among the tribe gradually withers amidst the islanders cheerful indifference and happy lifestyle.

Undoubtedly Mr Fortune's watch, which he forgets to wind one night long after his arrival on the island, is an important symbol in the novel—perhaps not only for his abilities as a missionary but also for his faith itself, which seems to become displaced, "fraudulent," by his isolation with the cheerful natives:

But what time was it? The sky was overcast, he could not guess by the sun and he could not guess by his own time-feeling either, for his body had lost touch with ordinary life. He sat debating between nine-seventeen, five past ten, ten-forty-three, eleven-twenty—indecisive times which all seemed reasonably probable—and noon exactly, which was bracing and decisive, a good moment to begin a new era—but too good to be true. At last he settled on ten-twenty-five; but even so he still delayed, for he felt a superstitious reluctance to move the hands and so to destroy the last authentic witness his watch could bear him. Five minutes, he judged, had been spent in this weak-minded dallying: so resolutely he set the hands to ten-thirty and wound the poor machine up. It began to tick, innocently, obediently. It had set out on its fraudulent career.

I was also struck by Warner again using in Mr Fortune's Maggot the idea of names and the power of naming, as she did so prominently in Lolly Willowes. And here too the power of naming seems to be humorously undercut. The idea of a missionary arriving on an island and assigning his convert a new name is one that grates on my nerves, but I'm not sure, in this passage, that the object of the name is taking it any too seriously:

For a long while he stood lost in thankfulness. At last he bade the kneeling boy get up.

'What is your name?' he said.

'Lueli,' answered the boy.

'I have given you a new name, Lueli. I have called you Theodore, which means "the gift of God."'

Lueli smiled politely.

'Theodore,' repeated Mr. Fortune impressively.

I love that polite smile in the face of Mr Fortune's "impressive" pomposity. And just as Warner played in the early novel with the use of "Lolly" vs. "Laura," here the fact that the name Theodore never appears except when spoken by Mr Fortune—in the text, Lueli is always Lueli—makes clear how much of an impact Lueli's Christian name has had on him.

On this second reading, I found the novel entertaining throughout, but my favorite passage by far is when Mr Fortune attempts to instruct Lueli in greater depth about Christian scripture:

Since the teaching had to be entirely conversational, Lueli learnt much that was various and seemingly irrelevant. Strange alleys branched off from the subject in hand, references and similes that strayed into the teacher's discourse as the most natural things in the world had to be explained and enlarged upon. In the middle of an account of Christ's entry into Jerusalem Mr. Fortune would find himself obliged to break off and describe a donkey. This would lead naturally to the sands of Weston-super-Mare, and a short account of bathing-machines; and that afternoon he would take his pupil down to the beach and show him how English children turned sand out of buckets, and built castles with a moat round them. Moats might lead to the Feudal System and the Wars of the Barons. Fighting Lueli understood very well, but other aspects of civilisation needed a great deal of explaining; and Mr. Fortune nearly gave himself heat apoplexy by demonstrating in the course of one morning the technique of urging a golf ball out of a bunker and how English housewives crawl about on their hands and knees scrubbing the linoleum.

Perhaps a problematic sort of teacher to have if one wants to get anywhere in particular.

Mr Fortune's Maggot is actually in print these days, wonder of wonders, from Virago in the U.K. and from New York Review Books Classics in the U.S. Oddly, though, there is one important difference between the editions that folks might want to know about. The NYRB edition, now retitled simply Mr Fortune (perhaps the "maggot" was judged a bit offputting for bookstore shelves?), also contains "The Salutation," the novella sequel Warner wrote in 1932. My edition being an old green Virago from the 1980s, I had to track down the original story collection for which "The Salutation" was the title story, and I've now had a jolly time reading the entire collection as well. This makes about five Warner titles that I've read in rapid succession, which reflects far more focus on my part the last month or so than I am generally capable of.

If you do have a non-NYRB edition of the book, you may want to try to track down "The Salutation," which I found generally lighter, more cheerful, and more entertaining than the novel itself, though perhaps less powerful overall. In short, Mr Fortune, having left his idyllic island, has made his way exhaustingly to somewhere in South America, where he faints in the backyard of a lonely widow's house.

There are lots of entertaining passages in the novella (as well as, I have to admit, a slightly bewildering ending, but that didn't take too much away from my overall enjoyment), but I was particularly struck by the following passage, which says a lot about violence and intolerance and may be of particular relevance in the current post-Brexit Trumpian catastrophe. It follows a scene in which Timothy has been happily observing a rhea (related to the ostrich and emu) when it is suddenly shot dead by his hostess' dreadful nephew:

There was no need to look for the motive. Opposite slays opposite, as fire and water writhe in their combat, as lion and lamb wage their implacable enmity. Slender, fiercely erect, racked with youth and pride, the boy with the fun stood in a trance of hatred, defying a world of rheas, a world of harmlessness, dowdiness, ungainliness. There could be no mistaking his intent. Apollo could not have bent his bow with a more divine single-mindedness to destroy; and seeing him, the impulse of blame was quenched in the man's heart. One might as well have blamed a flash of lightning.

There is a second novella in the collection, "Elinor Barley," which I have to confess I found a bit dull. In general, the stories are not as strong as in Warner's later collections, but there is certainly a quirky charm with occasional echoes of Lolly Willowes. "The Son," about an anti-social woman who has served as caretaker of a large family home for more than 20 years, disconcerted by the return of the family's son, who seems to have been driven mad by his hatred for his mother, is a small masterpiece of atmosphere and oddity. Ditto "The Maze," in which a man moves to a small village, discovers that a 17th century memorial ignored by villagers has a forgotten maze of ditches around it, and becomes obsessed with mapping the maze, to the villagers' consternation. And "The Holy War," about a piously autocratic man who sets out to write a book annotating all the places where the atheistic Edward Gibbon went wrong in his Decline and Fall, only to become seduced by Gibbon and have his entire personality changed, is a humorous testimony to the power of books to disrupt and sometimes undercut our beliefs and our lives.

So what next in my reading of the divine Sylvia? More of her stories for sure, but perhaps I'll also move on to her third novel, The True Heart (1929). Hmmm…


  1. There was only one Edward Gibbon.

    Warner was a fine poet too and her biography of T.H. White, despite - or because of - its reticence is a fascinating sudy of a fine and tormented writer.

    1. Excellent catch. I've corrected my misspelling above--thanks for noting it.

      I am planning to get round to Warner's poetry and perhaps the bio as well. There are excerpts of some of her poems in Harman's biography, and also interesting stories about the writing of the White bio, so I am interested in both.

  2. I actually got to the end of The Corner That Held Them recently..........don't worry about not finishing it - you didn't miss much! I found it a totally puzzling book but then I'm a simple old woman who likes books to start and finish 'properly'! I decided that Margaret Frazer, a US author who wrote a series of crime set in a convent at much the same time as The Corner must have got her idea from that novel.

    1. Well, Sue, I thank you for the reference - a few Christmases ago, I started my friend Holly onmurder mysteries set in convents, and now I can look for a Maragret Frazer novel to gift her with - Scott, what complex pathways you set us on with your wonderful blog!

    2. Thanks, Sue. I think I read a Margaret Frazer or two a few years ago. I actually do like the fact that Warner is playing around with what novels should or can be with Corner, but I have to agree that it makes for a bit more laborious reading!

  3. While I often enjoy biographies of authors I enjoy, I also tend to have problems with the final chapters, and make sure that I don't read them just before bed time or when feeling down. (The final chapters, that is.)

    Warner's feelings at the ending of WWII seem to echo the feelings that Angela Thirkell gave many of her characters in Peace Breaks Out. Some readers/reviewers complain about their lack of joyful expression at "Peace", but Warner's diary and some other sources seem to indicate that the end of the war, while desirable, was a complex thing.

    That biography does sound like a very interesting read.


    1. I always think I want to read bios to know more about favorite authors and the literary "scene" of the day, but the later bits are always difficult. This one particularly so, I think, because Sylvia lost Valentine and then went on, productively but bereft, for nine more years, carefully analyzing her increasing infirmity along the way. Yikes.

    2. I started to say I actually have the bio of Delafield out from the library at the moment, and am hesitating to read it because I know her final years were very difficult as well.

  4. A good bit of reading here. I've read Lolly but never, somehow, fancied her other books. But Mr Fortune does look like a good one.

    1. My other favorite is Summer Will Show, Liz, historical but with more of a real plot than some of her work, and it uses its setting in the 1848 revolution in Paris very effectively.

  5. Coming late to the party, & I don't know if it's relevant here, but 'Maggot' was often used in the name of country dances - There is a 'Mr Beveridge's Maggot' for instance. In that context it is meant to mean a miscellany, but it was also, at the time of the dance - late 17th century - a recognised short or pet form of Margaret - where we might now use Maggie or Meg.


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