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[Reviews]

Nuns, Fairies, and Revolutionaries

On Sylvia Townsend Warner

St. Catherine of Siena and the Beggar (detail), circa 1460, by Giovanni di Paolo © Heritage Images/akg-images

[Reviews]

Nuns, Fairies, and Revolutionaries

On Sylvia Townsend Warner
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Discussed in this essay:

Lolly Willowes, by Sylvia Townsend Warner. New York Review Books Classics. 230 pages. $16.95.
Mr. Fortune, by Sylvia Townsend Warner. New York Review Books Classics. 248 pages. $14.95.
Summer Will Show, by Sylvia Townsend Warner. New York Review Books Classics. 352 pages. $17.95.
The Corner That Held Them, by Sylvia Townsend Warner. New York Review Books Classics. 424 pages. $16.95.

Sylvia Townsend Warner’s novel The Corner That Held Them (1948) begins with a murder. It is the twelfth century in rural Norfolk, England. A young woman named Alianor regards the bloodied face of her lover—freshly slain by her husband—as she lies next to his body in bed, thinking only, idly, “What would have been the use of moving?” Alianor’s husband, Brian de Retteville, can’t be bothered to kill his faithless wife, or to heed a loutish friend’s suggestion to send her to a convent. But when Alianor dies ten years later during childbirth, he astonishes everyone by founding a nunnery “in commemoration of her soul.” This is the book’s setting: the incommodious convent, Oby—damp and flood-prone and shoddily conceived by an improvident cuckold called Brian.

What follows is a novel that, lacking anything like a main character—or, for that matter, a plot—pays more or less equal attention to a cast of dozens. Spanning more than two hundred years in the life of the abbey, this strange chronicle is more concerned with the petty travails of a small community than with the great events of the plague, the Peasants’ Revolt, or any other historical convulsion. The black death itself, an “extravaganza of death,” suggests to the nuns “no changes . . . except the change from being alive to dead.” They make a point of remaining punctual at mealtimes as well as holy sacraments. Woman cannot live by bread alone, but a reader might suspect that between the two, dinner and holy rule, the former is more important. Like the Waxle Stream, which runs by the nunnery, “full of loops and turnings, and constantly revising its course,” the narrative meanders. What lends the novel vitality and inestimable charm is the fullness of Warner’s love for characters as unholy as us all. Her attention alights completely on a single character, granting them a rich interiority usually only reserved for a book’s heroine, then she leaves them, on to the next.

Warner, who lived from the 1890s to the 1970s, undertook her extraordinary work with mildness. Despite being a Communist who defended Stalin long past his show trials of the 1930s, and despite considering herself married to a woman for forty years—the short-haired, trouser-wearing Valentine Ackland, whom fellow villagers sometimes mistook for a handsome young man—Warner was not one for flouting, subverting, or defying. It seems truer, instead, to say that she simply ignored convention. She produced poetry, more than a hundred short stories, a translation of Proust’s On Art and Literature, and a highly praised biography of T. H. White. Her greatest achievement, however, is her corpus of seven novels.

Modestly famous for most of her life, Warner had a genial indifference to her readers that did much for her art and little for her career; John Updike lavished praise on her first novel, Lolly Willowes—“witty, eerie, tender but firm”—while lamenting that her “brilliantly varied and self-possessed literary production never quite won her the flaming place in the heavens of reputation that she deserved.” For one thing, her novels lacked the overt formal experimentation of her more famous modernist contemporaries. She also wrote historical fiction and fantasy (including a collection of tales about anarchic and amoral elfin kingdoms) at a time when both were considered outmoded. But perhaps the greatest cause of her neglect, as Updike’s “varied” implies, is that no two of her books were sufficiently alike—as her biographer Claire Harman puts it in her introduction to The Corner That Held Them—to “produce the impression of coherence upon which a loud reputation demands.” The crucial word here is “impression,” for though setting and subject matter vary (including, but not limited to, witchcraft in rural England, missionary work in the tropics, revolution in nineteenth-century Paris), Warner’s novels do share a striking coherence: a distinguishing blend of radical politics and mild sensibility.

Warner was born on December 6, 1893, the only child of Nora Hudleston and George Townsend Warner, headmaster of Harrow, one of England’s poshest boys’ schools. She was “abnormally intelligent . . . even at an early age,” in her aunt’s words, and “solitary and agnostic as a little cat” in her own. A teacher at Harrow described the teenage Warner as “the cleverest fellow we had.” Another, the school’s music master, Sir Percy Buck, later became her lover. She was nineteen, he was forty-one and married with five children, and they kept the affair secret for seventeen years. Buck also encouraged her talents as a musicologist, a skill that enabled Warner to secure her first proper job, in 1917, as one of the editors of Tudor Church Music, an acclaimed ten-volume compendium published in installments throughout the 1920s.

By 1923, aged thirty, Warner had given up on marriage and was living alone in a small apartment in London, where she began to write a novel, astonished to find that it was “as easy as whistling.” This was Lolly Willowes (1926), her lone bestseller, in which the author’s casual disregard of convention has already begun. The novel follows forty-eight-year-old spinster Laura Willowes (“Aunt Lolly” to her nieces and nephews), who after twenty years of living with her patrician brother and his family, cramped by the drudgery of their respectable lives, finds herself “groping after something that eluded her experience.” This “something” is both “menacing, and yet in some way congenial,” an “ungodly hallowedness.” After an epiphany in a flower shop, she ditches her extended family and moves to rural Dorset. There, in the ostensibly unremarkable village of Great Mop (more broomstick than mop, it turns out), she becomes a witch.

Finding herself closer to that “ungodly hallowedness,” Laura flourishes. That is, until her nephew visits, presenting an insupportable reminder of the past. She’s particularly enraged by his response to the countryside, his “reasonable appreciative appetite, a possessive and masculine love.” In a state of simmering fury, her latent powers begin to manifest, driving away the unnerved nephew. First, Laura finds a blood-lapping kitten in her kitchen and intuits this creature to be her familiar. Soon she meets Satan, who takes the form of a chatty gamekeeper, then she joins a coven. We understand that Laura has been “a witch by vocation” all along. Sitting in her cottage, stroking her diabolical kitten, she acknowledges her contentment: “Room, house, village, hills encircled her like the rings of a fortification. This was her domain, and it was to keep this inviolate that she had made her compact with the Devil.” After Laura’s first demonic Sabbath, a well-attended bacchanalia of music, masked dancing, and sorcery, she simply observes: “It had been a surprising night.” The fine English understatement is enhanced by the peckish thought that follows: making her way home, Laura anticipates “cutting large, crumbling slices from the loaf in the cupboard, and spreading them with a great deal of butter and the remains of the shrimp paste.”

This transmogrification of a middle-aged, middle-class Englishwoman into a witch is presented as the most natural thing in the world—and also the most joyful. “One doesn’t become a witch to run round being harmful, or to run round being helpful either,” Laura reflects. “It’s to escape all that—to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to you by others.” A life of one’s own was of course a fantasy for most of Warner’s female readers. Among them was Virginia Woolf, who, three years away from writing A Room of One’s Own, was so taken by this tale of a woman claiming her own space that she summoned Warner to dinner.

Lolly Willowes is more than sympathetic to queer readings, but in her next novel, gayness is explicit. Set on the imaginary South Pacific island of Fanua, Mr. Fortune’s Maggot (1927) concerns a luckless Protestant missionary, the eponymous Timothy Fortune, who begins to fall hopelessly in love with a young and beautiful boy, Lueli, his only convert—a development as obvious to the reader as it is surprising to Mr. Fortune. In her mode of arch despair, Warner described her hero to a friend, the novelist David Garnett, as “fatally sodomitic.” She added: “I love him with a dreadful uneasy passion which in itself denotes him a cripple.” Love, both Warner’s for Mr. Fortune, and his in turn for Lueli, shades this story of a ludicrously failed missionary (one is supposed to teach the natives love of God, not fall in love with the natives) with melancholy. So it is that the book registers less as a mordant satire than as an indulgent character portrait. Something like a fourth wall is splintered by Warner’s own heart-rent cry of a final line: “My poor Timothy, good-bye! I do not know what will become of you.”

By the mid-Twenties, financially secure from the sales of these novels, and courted by the fashionable and literary, Warner emerged as one of London’s bright young things. Her friends included the photographer Cecil Beaton, who made several portraits of her. In the best of these, she smiles with mild imperiousness, as if acknowledging but in no way disavowing the eccentricity of her outfit: crimson tights, embroidered coat with extravagant fur cuffs, cloche hat, round, black-rimmed spectacles. By the end of the decade, however, as her relationship with Buck came to an end, Warner began to feel despondent and unattractive. On a weekend visit to the village of Chaldon, in Dorset, a friend pointed out a cottage for sale, which the surveyor’s report described as “a small, undesirable property situated in an out of the way place and with no attractions whatsoever.” Warner bought it for a song.

Through a mutual friend she met Ackland, and an uncertain acquaintance began—neither Warner nor Ackland was particularly taken by the other. Nonetheless, knowing that Ackland’s marriage had been annulled, Warner thought it only decent to offer an essentially homeless twenty-four-year-old woman one of the cottage’s two bedrooms. A little over a week into their cohabitation, Warner heard Ackland say through the partition wall, “I sometimes think I am utterly unloved.” Ackland’s voice, as Warner wrote in her diary, “had me up, through the door, and at her bedside.” By the morning, already calamitously in love, Warner wrote a farewell to “this death I have sat so snugly in for so long, sheltering myself against joy, respectable in my mourning, harrowed and dull and insincere to myself.”

Ackland had a hand in “converting” her partner to Communism; they joined the party together, in 1935, the same year that Warner began writing her fourth novel, Summer Will Show. So robust was their mutual revolutionary fervor that in 1936 the two undertook a trip to Spain, where they volunteered with a British medical unit supporting the Republican army. Upon returning, Warner wrote to a friend about the beauty of anarchism. She sighed: “The world is not yet worthy of it, but it ought to be the political theory of heaven.” Communism, Harman writes in her biography of Warner,

underlined the sense of ostracism she and Valentine had been made to feel because they were lesbians. Rather than being slightly outcast, they could move themselves beyond the conventional altogether. Thus Communism conferred a blessing on their marriage and, because it was so closely tied up with their love for each other, became sacrosanct.

Summer Will Show was published that same year. It follows the stolidly Tory Sophia, a member of the English gentry, as she sets off for Paris to confront her feckless husband, planning to demand another child, having lost her son and daughter to tuberculosis. Both children have died while Frederick (the feckless) has been gadding about on the Left Bank with his demimondaine—the charismatic storyteller, Minna. Sophia enviously observes that Minna “lives on her own applause.” “Yes, she is an artist, what they call a Bohemian. And I, in this strange holiday from my natural self, am being a Bohemian too, she thought with pride.” Disarmed, Sophia finds herself drawn to Minna; soon her “strange holiday” begins to feel like home, and her “natural self” emerges.

When Warner’s cherished editor at The New Yorker, William Maxwell, ventured that Summer Will Show was “the least cautious and most prodigal of your novels,” he no doubt meant both the most explicitly lesbian, as well as the most Communist. In one sense, however, it is the most conventional, certifiably a bildungsroman: radical content is given traditional form and treatment. Its heroine must confront the truth about herself, in much the same way Laura (albeit more fantastically) did before her. Early in her correspondence with Maxwell, Warner confessed, “I fancy we must be made out of much the same clay—quiet characters, with a simple savage delight in cataclysms.” Sophia’s transformation is such a cataclysm, but one as slow and quiet as that of Laura’s before her. Sophia is at first profoundly unconvinced by the high-flown idealism of the 1848 revolution. We find her captious after being dragged about by Minna to places “where the Revolution might be expected to make a good showing.” Wearily, Sophia suggests they try the Champs-Élysées because at least there she might find somewhere to sit. In a later scene, after she’s collected some money—“twenty five good golden English pounds—a reassuring weight, a comfortable gravity”—Sophia takes a stroll, fortified. “ ‘I love money,’ she told herself, walking obliviously past shop windows. ‘There, perhaps, the true unexplored passion of my life awaits me.’ ”

Her true passion is not, as it turns out, money. The story turns on a scene in which we understand our heroine to be renouncing her old life and committing herself politically and romantically to Minna. The two discoveries, love and revolution, are inextricable and sacrosanct. Poor old Frederick, the nugatory husband, has been ditched. (“Instantly forgetting his existence, save as a character in her narrative, Sophia went on talking.”) Seeing Minna in the Luxembourg Gardens, Sophia steels herself: “Yet perhaps to accost her under those trees, and within the spell of the fountain’s melancholy voice, would have been too elegiac. For this was real life . . . ” The phrase “real life” has recurred with increasing frequency as we approach this moment. Nothing is as real as money, and when Sophia offers the destitute Minna those twenty-five solid English pounds, she accepts them, walks to a collection box marked for the polish patriots, and “when the last coin had fallen through the slit,” turns to Sophia with “a look of brilliant happiness.” Minna cries, “Vive la liberté!” and when Sophia answers in kind, we sense an exchange of vows. Their ensuing romance is rendered matter-of-factly. The women’s conjugal intimacy is suggested by Sophia sitting up in bed beside Minna and eating a biscuit in order to marshal her thoughts. Minna encourages her to have another. It all feels very English.

Left: Photograph of Sylvia Townsend Warner by Howard Coster © National Portrait Gallery, London. Right: Photograph by Alexey Bednij © The artist

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Throughout her relationship with Warner, Ackland suffered from alcoholism, poor health, and crises of self-esteem. By 1952, she was hungering for a different, or at least supplementary, belief system from Communism, a quest that culminated in her conversion to Catholicism. This was one of the great trials of their relationship. Before her conversion, Ackland wrote of Warner:

She bears most patiently with my excursions into various Faiths, and is interested in many of them, and sometimes charmed by the outward trappings: but always because of their association with Man as a creative artist . . . the imagination that conceived the idea, the fancy that contrived the ritual, the social forces of the time, which conditioned this or that form of Faith or worship.

Here, Ackland illuminates one of the most remarkable qualities of her partner’s fiction—Warner’s surprising sympathy for religion. Despite her Marxism, her preoccupation with faith had no satirical animus; she didn’t so much excoriate religion as an opiate of the masses as instrumentalize it as an indication of human fallibility. It is, she implies, a forgivable delusion—we all need a little consolation, after all.

Nonetheless, like any good Marxist, she believes in history. The Corner That Held Them is Warner’s masterpiece and her favorite of her novels, perhaps because it is the work which, in doing away with plot, most blatantly disregards convention. She seems to have become free to experiment, as Harman puts it, “purely for herself.” Warner writes, with great wryness, in The Corner That Held Them: “A good convent should have no history. Its life is hid with Christ who is above. History is of the world, costly and deadly, and the events it records are usually deplorable.” The book is concerned very much with the costly—in the nonmetaphorical, economic sense; the nuns struggle to keep their minds on the superlunary when there are so many earthly aggravations. The novel was a project begun, she wrote, with “the purest Marxist principles.” Specifically:

I was convinced that if you were going to give an accurate picture of the monastic life, you’d have to put in all their finances; how they made their money, how they dodged about from one thing to another and how very precarious it all was.

The impecunious nuns fret endlessly over dowries, lawsuits, and expenses. Spirituality is something of a luxury in a world where things always need repairing and disasters strike with frequency. Half a deplorable century is briskly dealt with thus:

In 1208 came the Interdict.

In 1223 lightning set fire to the granary.

In 1257 the old reed and timber cloisters fell to bits in a gale.

It’s not until 1345—“when Prioress Isabella choked on a plum-stone”—that “peace and quiet returned, followed by four ambling years of having no history, save for a plague of caterpillars.” As a succession of abbesses shuffle off their mortal coils, Warner’s tone remains one of dry forbearance. Death, in its accretion, takes on a comic quality. At one point, a pair of nuns enter into amiable bickering as they count the dead in the same manner that they might conduct an inventory of the larder:

They began to reckon again, and had brought the count to eight when Dame Beatrix recollected old Dame Roesia who died before the pestilence and Dame Helen recollected Dame Joan.

Things fall, among them nuns participating in a dubiously holy game of levitation, one of the funniest episodes of the book. In the case of a misbegotten spire, hope collapses even before the structure itself. The abbess who conceived of this architectural addition, having long been monomaniacal about her project,

did not try to hide from herself the sense of anticlimax which accompanied the completion of her spire. . . . It was her life-work; but her life persisted, a life filled with beef and mutton, clothing and firing, cavils and quarrels.

Even the potentially lurid is swiftly worn down to the shabbily banal. Insanity itself, for example, soon proves humdrum: “A mad priest became part of the routine of the house, an accustomed nuisance, like the washhouse door which for so long had been warped and would not close properly.” This is fat, old, going-to-seed Ralph, who comes to the convent of Oby for want of a good breakfast; even he, however, is granted moments of grace. (Warner had a special tenderness for her male characters, especially the middle-aged and gormless.) We find Ralph strolling in the benediction of springtime and landing on an edible metaphor: “Life was durably sweet, it improved like a keeping apple.”

Warner is careful to honor the human needs for beauty, kinship, and fulfillment. You sense her sincerity, in The Corner That Held Them, when she writes, “Every nonentity must have a moment when it flashes into something positive, the immortal soul is not housed in flesh for nothing.” It is clear enough as we watch a young clerk called Henry Yellowlees lying awake after hearing ars nova, a new style of polyphony. He’s at the leper house that is his lodging for the night, dwelling on a moment earlier that day, when he and the house chaplain sang the new music with a leper. The experience leaves him feeling “astray, bewildered by the unexpected progressions, concords so sweet that they seemed to melt the flesh off his bones.” But as always in Warner, the unlovely and lowly crawl in to interrupt the numinous. There Henry is, “with half of his mind in a rapture and the other half wishing that there were not so many and such ferocious bugs.” The book’s dramatis personae consist of characters like Henry. There are no minor characters, however trifling their lives appear, since there is no hierarchy. There’s a communistic bent to all this: individuals matter, but only as part of society. The novel, as its foundational instantiations show, is the arch form of individualism, a bourgeois and anti-communal form, in which a single consciousness—Madame Bovary’s, say, or Jane Eyre’s—is elevated above all others. Through a bunch of bumbling nuns, then, Warner upends our experience of the form.

E. M. Forster, seeking to distinguish between story and plot in Aspects of the Novel, referred to the former as “the chopped-off length of the tapeworm of time.” “Story,” in other words, is a matter of mere duration, whereas “plot” is time made meaningful through an ordered sequence of events. Forster’s image—somewhat grisly, certainly banal—seems chopped straight out of the lice-riddled world of The Corner That Held Them. The book has no ending; it just ends. An equally conclusive ending could be found by closing your eyes, riffling back any number of pages, and designating a spot with your finger. Just as death so often does, the end comes abruptly, without fanfare.

is a novelist and cultural critic. She is the author of the 2018 novel Neon in Daylight. Her second novel, Virtue, is forthcoming from Riverhead Books.

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August 2020