Sylvia Townsend Warner came to a literary career after first pursuing music and musicology, encouraged in this later ambition by David Garnett and T. F. Powys. A slender volume of poems in 1925, Espalier, was followed by a novel, Lolly Willowes (1926), her first but by no means last foray into the supernatural. The distance between these early productions and the last volume published in her lifetime, Kingdoms of Elfin (1977), is at once enormous and yet small. Like so many writers of the 1920’s, she showed a preference for the delicate and fanciful, which she abandoned in midcareer for a more worldly and naturalistic style, only to return to the original manner late in life. During these more than fifty years, she published seven novels, nine volumes of stories, four volumes of poetry (and a fifth in collaboration with Valentine Ackland), innumerable essays, and a brilliant biography of T. H. White. She could hardly be called a prolific writer, however, often laboring through several revisions before releasing a novel or story. Her style is marked by the utmost clarity and smoothness, music to the eye and ear, and her gift for metaphor is startling and original.
In spite of these qualities, there is nothing precious, arty, or fin de siècle in Warner’s matter or manner, although she was sensitive to people of all kinds, to nuances of gesture and emotion, and to nature. It is sensitivity, in fact, that makes her such a charming correspondent—charming in the sense that she desired to please and hence wrote to and for her recipients. Moreover, these are intensely personal letters; those looking for tidbits about the famous and infamous figures of her time will be disappointed. Recipients are often well-known figures such as David Garnett, Llewelyn Powys, and Marchette Chute, but a great many more are unfamiliar—American composer Paul Nordoff, Mrs. Chute’s daughter Joy, and Vogue artist George Plank. To read these letters, therefore, is to be taken into the private world of their author, not the public arena of literary politics; and because the author is Sylvia Townsend Warner, the letters stand in their own right as examples of the dying epistolary craft and as mementos of an extraordinary life.
The early letters are those of a struggling young author, grateful to David Garnett and Charles Prentice for encouragement, excited by new books and writers, enthusiastic about a new acquaintance or residence in the country. In the background at this time is Warner’s developing relationship with the poet Valentine Ackland, with whom she lived for nearly fifty years. Already one ascertains the jumble of contradictions that make up a person of character: confidence and humility, gratitude and disappointment, delicious parody and sympathetic criticism. Through the 1920’s and early 1930’s, Warner’s tone is often gaily humorous or bemused; the reader finishes a letter with a quiet smile at a clever observation, a turn of phrase, a metaphysical image. In a moment of anger, Warner swears eloquently. By the time of the Spanish Civil War, her tone is more serious, though nevertheless engaging. She finds pleasure in learning to heckle at political rallies and to speak publicly; there are serious letters about writers’ congresses and an appeal to fellow artists for money to aid Republican Spain. She becomes furious at being denied a passport by the British government and visits the front anyway. Between these public concerns are semiprecious gems of character study, recollection, nature description. After a brief flight to New York at the outbreak of war, she is impelled by a sense of duty to return to England.
The war, Warner found, was a “middle-aged pursuit,” but it failed to dampen her sense of humor. There is a comic description of the house she shared with Ackland being requisitioned by the armed forces, a wry and amusing rumination on the future occupation of those who censor the mail, and a hilarious passage that describes Red Cross...
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