Saturday, August 17, 2013

Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner, edited by William Maxwell

A few months ago, I shipped an antique Bhutanese dressing gown from Kuala Lumpur back to its owner in Aberdeenshire, Scotland.  By way of thanks, he sent me three books by Sylvia Townsend Warner, including this collection of her letters.  Not only did Professor Davidson hit my literary tastes right on the nose, the gift card offered an example of his exquisite penmanship.  The combination of these two items makes me realise that both are on the cusp of oblivion:  so few of us write anything by hand any more that our collective penmanship has gone to the dogs. Moreover, the advent of e-mail has made letters seem more archaic than Peter's dressing gown. My generation is the last to have corresponded by post on a regular basis, and I've always loved reading collections of letters, a genre that is now extinct.  I suppose publishers could collect authors' e-mail messages, but I doubt they'll be of the calibre that writers previously committed to paper.

My dear, bookish friend Mark introduced me to STW. I was reading T. H. White's The Once and Future King at the time and was raving about it over cocktails. Mark mentioned that STW had written a remarkable biography of White, and had I read it?  I hadn't, and I immediately added it to my 'must read' list.  In early August, I came across a copy of Lolly Willowes so read that instead.  Shortly after that, the parcel arrived from Aberdeenshire with this collection of letters, The Kingdoms of Elfin (a collection of short stories published late in her life), and a book about Somerset.

Because collected letters are to a number of different recipients, they illuminate multiple facets of their writer, and these show STW to be a polymath, a polyglot, a generally erudite individual.  Her letters to Paul Nordoff, a composer, indicate her own knowledge of musical history and composition. To other writers and editors, she reveals the depth and breadth of her reading. Her passion for nature bubbles up in nearly every letter she wrote, and her unshakeable love for Valentine Ackland is as constant in her correspondence as it was in her life.

Sylvia met Valentine, a poet, in 1930.  Except for a short hiatus (when Valentine carried on with a younger American woman), they lived together until Valentine's death from cancer in 1969.  As I read the letters, it struck me how openly Sylvia discussed their relationship, making clear in her letters that they not only shared a house and a life but also a bed -- all the more remarkable when contrasted with Alan Turing's prosecution for homosexuality in 1952.  Although certainly never solemnised in a church, Sylvia and Valentine's partnership was a marriage, and the letters Sylvia wrote at the time of Valentine's death reduced me to aching tears.

To Paul Nordoff (composer), 5 January 1946.  Rest assured she read "the whole of Balzac" in the original French.
Last winter I read the whole of Balzac -- except Seraphita; and was left with my mouth as open as the Queen of Sheba's... Have you ever thought of making an opera from Balzac? La Duchesse de Langeais, for instance, or Ferragus, any of the impassioned social ones, ought to work up into a grand opera like eggs into a sauce Bernaise, the duchesses so shrillingly soprano, the villains so profoundly basso, the situations floating in moonlight and limelight, and Balzac's genius roaring through it all like a quartet of saxophones. A total absence of refinement... I suppose that is his secret. All I know for certain is that the works of Balzac kept me from death last winter.  
Again to Paul Nordoff dated 1 December 1946 she writes about her Somerset book project. (A copy of the result is now on my bookshelf, and at first glimpse, I would say she did in fact "manage to do better".)
... a commission to write a small book about Somerset. Just now I am in the midst of reading the many books about Somerset which have already been written. I am consoled for the numerousness by not finding one among them that I can enjoy. They all hurry like anxious Satans over the face of the earth, and never once do these breathless authors stop in a wood and smell the smell of the country. I hope I shall manage to do better.  
 Editor William Maxwell (who, as editor of the New Yorker also published many of STW's short stories) labels one letter as "To a friend who had inconveniently fallen in love", dated 11 May 1951.  Sylvia and Valentine had just recently reunited after the latter's dalliance.
...say no more, think no more, about perhaps losing [    ] to someone else. To think of losing is to lose already. To consider a rival fattens an insubstantial into a real being. Since you are in the river, darling, SWIM! And if that hypothetical younger person comes into your mind, think of me. Here I am, grey as a badger, wrinkled as a walnut, and never a beauty at my best; but here I sit, and yonder sits the other one, who had all the cards in her hand -- except one. That I was better at loving and being loved.  
As a woman who lived outside the social norms, STW was sympathetic to others who did the same, especially women. This is a letter to Dorothy Hoskins on 30 July 1954.
...I find drinkers very congenial. There is a generosity in their recklessness. We had a drinking old lady as a neighbour for many years, and I had the greatest esteem for her because she knew what she wanted (not many women do), and was so grandly ready to hazard her health, her last thirty shillings (she was very poor), her peace of mind (for, pious pressure being what it is, she was always exposed to waking up in the middle of the night and thinking, I've done for myself, I shall fall into the oilstove or get cancer), for what she really wanted. As for respectability, and all that, she had thrown it away long ago. In the upshot, she was very well thought of by all the village boys, who ran her errands and ate her apples, and died as tidily as you could wish of heart failure. If there is a heaven, I am sure she went there like a cork from a champagne bottle.   
The letters that STW wrote at the time of Valentine's death are truly remarkable. Her grief takes on a beautiful form, and her love just radiates from them, undiminished. She wrote to William Maxwell on 11 November 1969, two days after Valentine died in their home.
...This evening her coffin was carried out of the house and put in a forget-me-not blue van -- which would have surprised her. I heard her spirit laughing beside me.
I am passionately thankful that she is out and away, and that in a fashion we are back where we were, able to love freely and uncompromised by anxiety and doubtful hopes and miseries of frustration. One thinks one has foreseen every detail of heart-break. I hadn't. I had not allowed for the anguished compassion and shock of hearing her viola voice changed to a pretty, childish treble, the voice of a sick child.
Death transfigured her. In a matter of minutes I saw the beauty of her young days reassert itself on her blurred careworn face. It was like something in music, the re-establishment of the original key, the return of the theme.
Don't think I am unhappy and alone, dear William. I am not. I am in a new country and she is the compass I travel by.  
And on 27 November 1969, she wrote to two sisters and long-time friends, Marchette and Joy Chute.
My dear Darlings,
Your kind hearts will want to know how I am getting on.
Well, not too badly for a one-winged partridge (did you know the partridge is the emblem of fidelity?). There is a great deal to do, which I am thankful for, but as I slog on doing it I am revived by coming on fragments by her, letters, passages copied from everyone you can think of, feathers (she loved all small feathers) deposits in pockets, always including a pencil & a pocket comb, but also including lumps of sugar in case of a deserving horse, chocolate drops for dogs, interesting pebbles, small notes from me on the lines of 'Remember to have coffee' 'Keep warm' 'Come back soon'.
Her love is everywhere. It follows me as I go about the house, meets me in the garden, sends swans into my dreams. In a strange, underwater or above-earth way I am very nearly happy. 
This is a book that one can (and I will) pull off the shelf, open to a random page and be sure of finding something delightful. Given the prodigious numbers of letters that STW wrote, William Maxwell did an outstanding job of editing this collection, both in terms of selecting letters and passages and leaving the original text intact. STW once groused, "USA publishers have a habit of what they call 'editing in accordance with American procedure'. This means they rearrange one's paragraphs, alter one's punctuation, and generally bedevil the text."  Mr. Maxwell, her long-time editor and friend, humbly remarked, "I have tried not to bedevil the text."


  1. There are publishers who would ruin Shakespeare if given the chance, sigh...

    1. Remember dear, frumpy old Mr. Bowdler, who gave his name to the word 'bowdlerize'? He was an Englishman who published "The Family Shakespeare" -- a version with all the naughty bits excised. I would guess it was rather short. I think of him every time I see that infuriating black rectangle on the cinema screen here in KL, blocking out the meeting of lips. [Horrors!]

  2. What a lovely and appropriate thank-you gift! Now I must go and find some of STW's books to read. I have hitherto only known her as a friend and contemporary of John Betjeman and Evelyn Waugh, and quite a fine leftist.


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