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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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."'
'Theodore,' repeated Mr. Fortune impressively.
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.
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.
a problematic sort of teacher to have if one wants to get anywhere in
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
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.
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.
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.
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…