Rex Warner was described by the distinguished British author and literary critic V. S. Pritchett as “the only outstanding novelist of ideas whom the decade of ideas produced.” Warner was preeminently a novelist of ideas, a translator from Greek and Latin of great distinction, and a classicist of uncommon breadth and style. Reginald Ernest Warner was born in 1905. Educated at St. George’s School in Harpenden, he there showed his prowess at cricket and rugby football as well as in debating contemporary issues and in writing poetry, all the while excelling in classical studies. He was awarded a scholarship to Wadham College, Oxford, and was tutored by the renowned classicist Sir Maurice Bowra. While he obtained a first-class pass in classical moderations, he had to take a leave of absence and did not distinguish himself in his final examinations; as a result, he had to dismiss the possibility of a university appointment in the classics.
While at Oxford, however, Warner became close friends with Cecil Day Lewis, Stephen Spender, and W. H. Auden, who encouraged his writing of poetry and included his work in journals and anthologies. It was there, too, that his interest in politics (the Great Strike of 1926) and philosophy developed. An immediate result was his essay on education in The Mind in Chains: Socialism and the Cultural Revolution (1937), edited by Day Lewis. Another was his pamphlet We’re Not Going to Do Nothing (published under Day Lewis’s name in 1937), a reply to Aldous Huxley’s open question, What are the British going to do about the growing imminence of war in Europe? Huxley advocated nonviolent resistance to war, violence being morally wrong. Warner advocated a world alliance of socialist states under the leadership of the labor movement in Great Britain, guided by the principle of production for use rather than for profit. This belief lasted throughout his lifetime and informed his fictions, though it became more generalized in the later novels; in all of them, however, there is seen the same tension between individual freedom and public authority.
The “classical” novels (loosely described as historical fiction) complement the early ones (usually considered allegorical novels) by showing that humankind has always been concerned with the problems of power, responsibility, and motivation: The past is used to illustrate (and provide parallels to) the contemporary condition. Always the model is the Greek democratic ideal; always Rex Warner is a novelist of political relevance. He is also socially responsible; he was the child of a dissenting clergyman and a teacher, and so he is always concerned with the moral choices available and is motivated by concern for the public good. (It is not insignificant that he edited selections from Gerard Manley Hopkins and John Bunyan.) The final speech of George, one of the principal characters in The Wild Goose Chase, seems to sum up the values that are extolled in all of Warner’s work, whether in poems, essays, or fictions: “We attach great value—to comradeship, and to profane love, to hard work, honesty, the sight of the sun, reverence to those who have helped us.” Warner was intensely loyal to his Oxford (and, later, American) friends; he never lost faith in the possibility of international peace and national tranquillity if the public good was advanced before private profit. He loved nature, and he had an ineradicable (though perhaps inchoate) sense of religion. His commitment to literature as the index of high culture was absolute. For his dedication to the classics, he was awarded the Order of the Phoenix by the king of the Hellenes.
Some of Warner’s special interests, other than Greece and Rome, were Egypt, English village life, Charles Dickens (whom he praised for his “extraordinary fecundity of creation”), Fyodor Dostoevski (whom he thought to be the Russian equivalent of Dickens), and the modern fascination with the cult of power—the worship of violence, lawlessness, and the setting-up of the individual against the community and even the universe. The cult of power, he wrote, takes the hero out of tragedy and begins by denying the reality of the religious background—God, necessity, law, social conscience. As he admired Dickens and Dostoevski, he deprecated others—including D. H. Lawrence and Adolf Hitler—as “moral anarchists” committed to blood, sex, virility, and violence. In many ways, the 1946 nonfiction work The Cult of Power is the key to understanding Warner’s political and social thought; like all of his writing, it is remarkable for its clear, inimitable Attic style.
Warner was director of the British Institute in Athens from 1945 until 1947; he then taught in the Berlin Technical Institute. Later, he taught for a year at Bowdoin College and, from 1963 until his retirement in 1974, at the University of Connecticut. He was awarded the degree of doctor of letters, honoris causa, by Rider University in 1968.
McLeod, A. L. Rex Warner, Writer: An Introductory Essay. Sydney: Wentworth Press, 1960. Devoted to Warner’s writing, has chapters on his poetry, fiction, belles lettres, and classical studies. Includes bibliography.
McLeod, A. L., ed. A Garland for Rex Warner. Mysore, India: Literary Half-Yearly Press, 1985. Has essays by scholars from throughout the world on Warner’s juvenilia, novels, and “fictional biographies.”
Reeve, N. H. The Novels of Rex Warner: An Introduction. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. A critical overview.
Tabachnick, Stephen Ely. Fiercer than Tigers: The Life and Works of Rex Warner. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2002. Deeply researched biography of Warner.