How could I not love the author who created Laura (Lolly) Willowes and Mr Fortune? – who enthralled me with Summer Will Show and captured my imagination with The Corner that Held them (not a book I expected to love at all). My devotion, however is now fully assured after reading The True Heart – which I believe is every bit as good as Sylvia Townsend Warner’s famous novel Lolly Willowes.
My knowledge of old myths is pretty sketchy – I know the basic outline of some but I have never had much interest in them if I’m honest. The True Heart is apparently a (very loose) re-telling of the story of Cupid and Psyche – though don’t let that put you off. If you weren’t aware of that then it wouldn’t matter – and it wouldn’t alter the delightfulness of this imaginative love story.
The story is set in Victorian Essex, the Essex marshes, Southend and London in 1873. Sukey Bond is just sixteen when she leaves the Warburton Memorial Female Orphanage. A positon has been found for her as a farm maid in the Essex Marshes. Sukey is taken part of the way with Mrs Seaborn, the wife of the rector of Southend. Sukey – whose record of behaviour at the orphanage was so exemplary she won prizes, is immediately impressed with Mrs Seaborn.
“…raising her eyes to Mrs Seaborn’s face she knew that this lady could only take her where it would be good for her to go. Mrs Seaborn’s grey silk dress, as it swept over the lawn, seemed to sing a low tune. Her shoulders were rounded and drooping, her voice stroked the ear. She was like a dove, and the small onyx buttons on her dress were like doves’ eyes.”
New Easter is the farm where Sukey is sent, the landscape charms her, and though young, she is quite capable of the work. Prudence is the young woman who greets her, she used to have Sukey’s job but now she is about to become engaged to one of the sons. Sukey mistakenly believes there to be three sons in the family, though one, Eric is treated with derision by the other two and their father. In time, we learn that Eric is not a member of that family, he is in fact the son of Mrs Seaborn, sent to live at the farm, out of the way, as gentle, country loving Eric is deemed ‘an idiot’ and subject to seizures. Mrs Seaborn is ashamed of her son, and Sukey soon must revise her previous opinion of the woman who had so charmed her previously.
Sukey is drawn to Eric, he leads her to an abandoned orchard and gives her sour apples as a gift. Their love is innocent, but real, and Eric wants them to climb through the church window to be married. Sukey must explain about vicars and banns. When their relationship is revealed Mrs Seaborn arrives and takes Eric away, back to Southend where he was never happy.
“So this was love: – she wished that she were not so ignorant about it. This love was so sweet a thing that it seemed almost an ingratitude never to have thought about it, never to have looked forward to its coming. If she had known, she would have prepared herself, she would have made her heart into a nest for it, but here she was, a girl who scarcely knew how to kiss, unpractised in endearments save those which she had given to Tansy the heifer or to the funny little pigs, accepting love without any of the repaying graces which are love’s due.”
Sukey is determined to find him, she knows that only she can love him, and care for him the way he needs to be cared for. Sukey leaves the farm, walking to Southend, sleeping in barns, befriended by an old tramp, the first of a host of characters who Sukey meets in her quest to get Eric back. She gets another job in Southend, a servant in the home of a family with seven children, it is here that Sukey hears more news of the Seaborn family, and realises the only person who can help her is Queen Victoria herself. Holding the memory of Eric in her mind, Sukey sets out for London, for an audience with her Queen.
“In the moment between getting out of the carriage and entering the Palace, Sukey received a violent disjointed impression of what a fine day it was. The warmth of the air seemed in an instant to have clothed her with a new body; she saw tree tops above a wall, stirring under their May-time plumage with a wanton grace and laziness, and it was as if she had never seen such things before; she glanced up, and instead of looking at the blue sky, she thought she was looking into it.”
The novel is deceptively simple, but it is a glorious non-sentimental celebration of love, and the wonderful capacity of the human heart. Sylvia Townsend Warner’s writing is superb – as always, I actually find her very readable, and I defy anyone not to absolutely love Sukey and her Eric. There is a wonderful fairy-tale quality to this novel – there’s a feeling that all is possible. Despite Sukey being young, orphaned, friendless and a servant she is determined to marry outside her class. She knows that only she can love Eric, and so in the way of fairy-tales, so much that should be impossible, becomes possible.
It won’t be long before I read more Sylvia Townsend Warner, I think she is a really superb writer.