Sylvia Townsend Warner: A Biography (book #162)

Cover of book - image of Warner

Claire Harman, 1989.

I’ve been meaning to read this for years, ever since hearing Harman speak (about food in literature). My book club read Lolly Willowes recently so I thought it was time to read the biography. Which is really good, particularly on Warner’s troubled, devoted relationship with Valentine Ackland (problems including Ackland’s other relationships, her lack of literary success, their imbalance in earnings, Ackland’s alcoholism and later religious faith). Also good on the houses they lived in, often inconvenient and cold. And good use of Warner’s and Ackland’s writing in the text. And I know this should be commonplace but it’s also good to see a lesbian relationship where the women, and the biographer, seem to have very little interest in what others thought about their sexuality.*

Some pieces I liked:

Ackland’s letter about bomb damage in London (she’s writing about Inverness Terrance and Mecklenburgh Square in October 1945):

completely flattened … smell of smoke and fire still hanging over the streets and pieces of the fixtures of the houses still littering the basements and gutters. Front doors ajar, and stately rooms beyond, with pit-holes down to the earth instead of floors, and small trees and jungles of dying loosestrife grown up almost to the front windows.

Ackland’s poem (included in her posthumous 1973 collection The Nature of the Moment, but mentioned by Harman in her section on 1948) “Journey from Winter”:

As days become shorter and the cold ghost of the North
leans across from the Pole to strike us, and winter appears in the sky,
it is time to consider our journey. Take down the guide,
the schedule of trains and of sailings, the smart list of ‘planes;
and here by the first fire, our comfort and warning, consider:

The ways of coming at truth, attaining creating or re-discovering,
need no special equipment of faith or unfaith;
the amateur party about to set out to-morrow
will follow one route of the three; but all run together
somewhere in country uncharted, and all reach the end.

There are no true maps of the kingdom; guides have been and returned,
but some will not venture again, while others will shepherd part-way
and still others travel as exiles working a passage home.
The natives are foreign to us and will offer no kindness,
being without interest in strangers and unable to speak our tongue.

They say the first stages are easy; civilised travel
and pleasant companions en route. But once over the frontier
there’s nothing to help you except your own wits, and the wish
to reach your objective. Once over the frontier the others
who started out with you scatter, and each one travels alone.

Guide books agree that the contry is full of silence;
no written words to be found, no signposts, no place-names, no roads,
and scarcely a living man met. All you can do
is watch for the flight of birds or study the slant of the stars
or try to decipher the hieroglyphs drawn by sheep on the hills.

You can live on the country, they say, and do better so
than to carry provisions which, under that sky, will rot.
You can travel fast or slow; there is nothing to tell you
how much further you have to journey until you arrive,
how much further before you reach –

Reach what? I do not know.
All I know is the blight of the North wind, the carrion
patience of winter hanging up there in the sky,
and the blow that is aimed from the Pole, that is aimed to destroy us.
These things, and the date of starting, are all I know.

Also this bit on love – the letter is from about 1950:

there was a sombre truth as well as a simple one in what Sylvia wrote to a friend at about the same time, imploring him not to be tormented by fantasies of losing his lover: ‘think of me,’ she said. ‘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.”

I’d like to know more about the Blitzed Libraries scheme, for which Warner and Ackland sorted books at a National Salvage Depot in 1943.

*I know that’s 4 x good in one paragraph, but it’s the right word for this book.

Links:

Review at Shiny New Books.

NY Times review of the letters of Ackland and Warner, with a link to the first chapter of the book.

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