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Posts Tagged ‘Sylvia Townsend Warner’

thecatscradle book

What a fabulous quirky constantly inventive writer Sylvia Townsend Warner was! I am already a massive fan of her writing, and The Cat’s Cradle Book collection is really something quite different.

The premise essentially is to tell us the stories, that have been passed down from cats to their kittens for generations. Fairy-tales from cats, giving us, an unusual cat’s eye view of the world. It isn’t a perspective we are used to – and the cynical reader may need to suspend belief and just enjoy the ride. These stories are joyfully different, tapping into our long-held love of traditional stories.

“For ages the Cat language has been catholic, explicit, unvarying. I understand it, you understand it, every child picks up an inkling of it. When cats creep into children’s cradles and old women say that they are sucking the child’s breath, what do you suppose they are doing? Keeping them quiet with a story – and better than their mothers can!”

It is a shame that this collection remains out of print, although this pretty 1960s edition of a collection first published in 1940 seems widely available from the usual places, a perfect gift for a fairy-tale loving cat person. A little warning though cat lovers, a few of the cats in this book don’t survive – but you would probably expect that.

The collection begins with an introduction from the editor of these special tales. This forty-four page ‘introduction’ was my favourite part of the whole book, in which STW describes perfectly, a house, its feline inhabitants in fine and glorious prose. The ‘editor’ comes upon a house, nestled deep in the countryside, here she meets a particularly handsome man, living alongside many cats and kittens. The young man is astounded to find the author can understand the language of cat – far better than she can speak it. The cats have plenty to tell her, introducing her to their kittens, they rub against her in welcome. Our narrator stays to tea, and the remarkably handsome young man begins to tell his own story. Having finished Oxford, the young man embarked upon a diplomatic career, while in Turkey he fell hopelessly in love; with a Siamese cat called Haru. Look, these things happen! Haru is technically the property of the naval attaché’s wife, though Haru soon makes her feelings perfectly clear. Haru captivates the young man; William with her stories. The young man is destined for heartbreak, and thereafter dedicates himself to re-telling the traditional stories of cats.

“The following stories are chosen from the collection of traditional narratives current among cats, made by the late Mr William Farthing of Spain Hall, Norfolk. The selection is the editor’s.”

The stories which follow tell a variety of tales, and not all of them are about cats. Like Odin’s Birds in which we have a couple of ravens competing over the eyes of a corpse; the body a man they have just witnessed two women fighting over. In another we find ourselves among the marquisate of The Castle of Carabas who for generations have been born with a cat’s paw shaped birthmark and a natural horror for cats. Virtue and the Tiger tells the story of a hermit a man of great learning and holiness, and his strange meeting with a tiger, a meeting that will have a profound effect on them both. The Fox Pope tells the story of a fox unwillingly named as the next pope – who enlists the help of a stable-boy to free him from the papacy. The Phoenix; tells the story of the legendary bird acquired by Lord Strawberry a big collector of birds, after his death The Strawberry Phoenix fund is launched, and the bird acquired to be shown – at a price – to the marvelling public. In Bread for the Castle, the lives of a baker and his daughter are changed when a great family comes to the neighbourhood and takes up residence in the castle. The man and his daughter bake night and day to fulfil the order from the castle.

“ ‘Surely she has grown smaller,’ thought the baker. ‘Or do my eyes deceive me?’
Looking at her more attentively he saw that his daughter had changed into an owl.
‘But this is frightful,’ thought the baker. ‘My poor girl, with such brilliant prospects, and such a good daughter into the bargain, so handy and willing! What shall I do without her?’
He opened the oven-door and turned the bread. The bread was alright: nothing untoward had happened to the bread.”

The final story in this collection is Bluebeard’s Daughter, Djamileh is the daughter in question. Her father had been adoring and kind, none of her step-mothers lived long enough to cause her any problems. She had however, inherited her father’s colouring which causes the girl to not want to look at herself in the mirror. Her father dies, and Djamileh guardianship is undertaken by her father’s solicitor, she will inherit everything, and grows up to be very wealthy young woman. In time she marries Kayel, and the couple return to Shady Transports – where as a child Djamileh had lived with her father. The palace still has secrets to reveal.

The Cat’s Cradle Book is a lovely collection, at turns dark and humorous Sylvia Townsend Warner understands perfectly the tradition of old tales passed on, and these stories are wonderfully inventive.

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Whether she is telling the story of a newly married couple, a level crossing keeper and his badly disfigured niece, incestuous siblings or the oddly magical world of elves and fairies, Sylvia Townsend Warner is a consummate storyteller. Her writing is beautiful, sometimes surprising, frequently rooted in an England long vanished from view – she is both witty and perceptive. She explores with great tenderness, the passions, oddities and quirks of all sorts of people, and there is sometimes a suggestion of delicious irreverence.

“She planted a high Spanish comb in her pubic hair and resumed her horn-rimmed spectacles.
‘There! That’s as much as I shall dress’
‘You look very improper.’
‘I am improper.’ Her young voice was quelling.
Love warmed her. It did not warm him. He moved nearer the gas fire and repelled the thought of his overcoat. He would soon be in it and on his way home. But politeness requires that after making love one must make a little conversation.”
(The Forgone Conclusion – 1961)

During her writing life Sylvia Townsend Warner produced an incredible number of short stories – they appear to run to something like eighteen volumes – though some stories may appear in more than one volume. This selected Stories collection first published in 1989 contain forty stories from across those collections dating from between 1932 and 1977. Through them one can see the author’s own slightly shifting perspectives as the world around her changed – culminating, at the end of the collection with her foray into fantasy with some of the stories from her world of fairies. As probably happens with all large collections of stories there were a very small number that didn’t quite hit the spot – though only four or five in the entire collection – overall this is a superb collection, and could be for some a brilliant introduction to the work of Sylvia Townsend Warner.

I have always found it very difficult to write reviews of story collections, but this one is particularly difficult. Firstly, I read it over a two-week period, setting it to one side for my book group read of Warner’s Lolly Willowes – (I know you wait ages for a Sylvia Townsend Warner review and…) and then Another Little Christmas Murder. Secondly of course, forty stories are far, far too many to write about in detail. As ever all I can hope to do is give a very slight flavour, helped along by a few quotes from Sylvia Townsend Warner’s delightful prose.

The collection opens with A Love Match, the story of a brother and sister, so damaged by the horrors of that war to end all wars, that they turn to one another for comfort, companionship and love. It’s a union which lasts years. Incest – the great taboo – it’s really quite the opener.

The Level Crossing a wonderfully atmospheric story of an old, country level crossing keeper. A former Londoner – he still recalls with a sharp nostalgia the comings and goings of the London streets of his past. His life is now set to the rhythm of the railway, a railway timetable now disrupted by war.

“With a kind of homesickness he would recall the night turn in the goods-yard, the figures under the raw arc lights, his mates shouting, the soft whine of the wind along the metals and how once, seeing a train come in with a white crust still lying on the tarpaulins, he had said to himself: It’s snowing in the country. And picture was in his mind, a picture based on a Christmas card; a white landscape, a church spire, a sunset glowing between bars of cloud like the coals in a grate.”
(The Level Crossing 1943)

He watches with concern, his niece, distressingly disfigured by facial burns, she works in silence alongside her uncle. The two make for an odd family unit – turned on their heads by a group of soldiers billeted with them for a few weeks. It is a beautifully memorable little story.

In one of my favourite stories; But at the Stroke of Midnight, a woman walks away from her home and her dull inattentive husband. Lucy completely disappears without a world and assuming her cousin’s identity, adopts a cat and takes a cottage. It is a story about the finding of freedom, of throwing off the bonds of dull domesticity, but there is quiet despair here. Lucy is no Lolly Willowes though, and when the shine wears off this new life things take an altogether sadder turn.

Cats do play a big role in much of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s fiction – she wrote a whole collection called The Cat’s Cradle though none of those appear in this collection. In another sad story Total Loss; a child’s beloved old pet cat must be put to sleep – her parent’s send her off on a day out with relatives while the merciful, necessary deed is done by the vet. It’s an especially cruel piece of deceit with which I am sure even none pet owners can empathise. cats

In other stories we see an elderly musician living for others – as he carefully creeps away from his own home, upon arriving home unexpectedly and discovering his cook in his bed with a married man. A bored, bitter woman stitches a widow’s quilt. In One Thing Leading to Another, a housekeeper to a couple of priests finds all kinds of unexpected things follow when she accidentally puts snuff in the priests’ curry. This is a tongue in cheek, little story, with an ending which made me smile. A Red Carnation sees the disillusionment of a German soldier sent to help the Francoists during the Spanish civil war.

“Portents accompany the death of monarchs. A white horse trots slowly along the avenue, a woman in streaming wet garments is seen to enter the throne room, vanishes, and leaves wet footmarks; red mice are caught in palace mousetraps. For several weeks five black swans had circled incessantly above the castle of Elfhame. It was ninety decades since their last appearance; then there were four of them, waiting for Queen Tiphaine’s predecessor. Now they were five, and waited for Tiphaine. Mute as a shell cast up on the beach, she lay in her chamber watching the antics of her pet monkey.”
(The Five Black Swans 1977)

The last few stories come from the Kingdoms of Elfin collection. Here Warner played around with fantasy, taking us to the world of elves and fairies. We learn their lore, meet the Fairy Queens and changelings. These stories are fantastic in every sense of the word, weird, wonderful colourful and extraordinarily imagined.

The Libraything Virago group have been reading the work of Sylvia Townsend Warner during December, and you can read Jane’s review of A Cat’s Cradle here (which I have just bought a copy of).

 

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It doesn’t seem five minutes since I last wrote a review of Lolly Willowes – well it’s a little longer than that, but it is only about two years.

Coincidentally, my very small book group chose to read Lolly Willowes (my suggestion, I admit) for our December meet up, the very same month that the Librarything Virago group are reading the books of Sylvia Townsend Warner. Despite having a pretty good recollection of Lolly Willowes, I decided I would re-read it. It was just lovely meeting up with Laura again – one of my friends in my book group, said last night when we met, that she wanted to be Laura Willowes when she grows up – I think that’s exactly how I felt about her too when I first read the book.

Apologies but due to feeling a bit under the weather I haven’t completely re-written my old review – I am simply pasting (and editing) parts of my old review here for anyone who may have missed it. If you want to see what the book group thought of the novel – jump to the end. (There may be mild spoilers).

“…she looked with the yearning of an outcast at the dwelling so long ago discarded. The house was like an old blind nurse sitting in the sun and ruminating past events. It seemed an act of the most horrible ingratitude to leave it all and go away without one word of love. But the gates were shut, the time of welcome was gone by.”

The story itself is tender and a little magical, and I adored the character of Lolly Willowes herself. Laura Willowes (to allow her, her given name) is a dutiful unmarried daughter of twenty-eight when her beloved father dies. Laura had always enjoyed her quiet life in the country, sometimes gathering herbs and making distillations with them. Laura is at one with the countryside, and its yearly round of traditions. Born some years after her two elder brothers; Henry and James, Laura grew up almost as an only child, the apple of her father’s eye. Laura has run her father’s home with ease, helped by the servants, people of good old country stock, who make beeswax furniture polish and pigeon pie. Upon her father’s death Laura is devastated; everything she knows and feels secure in is lost. Her elder brothers and their wives take control, it is quickly decided – that despite Laura having a good income of her own left to her by her father – she should go away from the country to London and live with Henry and Caroline and their two young daughters. Between them; Henry, James and their wives make all the decisions, what furniture Laura will take with her, and how useful she will be. London life will be very different, but Laura submits to the decisions made for her.

Of course, Laura is useful, for that is how she is made, she proves herself invaluable. It is one of Henry’s young daughters who bestow the name Aunt Lolly on Laura – and the name sticks, and Laura is Laura no longer, her life no longer her own. Laura settles her things into the small spare room in the London House that she will now call her own, while her brother and sister-in-law set about introducing her to potential, suitable husbands.

For twenty years Aunt Lolly makes herself indispensable to family life in London. Holidays are taken at Lady Place, her former home where her brother James his wife and son Titus live. Aunt Lolly is taken for granted, she is so very reliable. The years slip by quickly – the girls grow up and begin to make lives for themselves. A war is fought; the world is a different place. In the 1920s Laura finds, at forty-seven, that she wants something different for herself. She has the feeling that something is pulling her towards the countryside again, she longs for woods, and hillsides. Laura decides to break free of the life which has been organised for her realising suddenly that she can have a life of her own. Laura’s realisation coming in a greengrocer’s shop of a quite old-fashioned kind;

“Laura looked at the bottled fruits, the sliced pears in syrup, the glistening red plums, the greengages. She thought of the woman who had filled those jars and fastened on the bladders. Perhaps the greengrocer’s mother lived in the country. A solitary old woman picking fruit in a darkening orchard, rubbing her rough fingertips over the smooth-skinned plums, a lean wiry old woman, standing with upstretched arms among her fruit trees as though she were a tree herself, growing out of the long grass, with arms stretched up like branches. It grew darker and darker; still she worked on, methodically stripping the quivering taut boughs one after the other.”

Laura finds herself drawn to the countryside of Buckinghamshire, and the tiny village of Great Mop. Her family are both horrified and astonished at Laura’s announcement, and at first, they don’t take her quite seriously. Meekly accepting the outrageous mismanagement of her money by Henry; Laura realises she can only afford to rent a couple of rooms in the cottage of Mrs Leek. Here in two small rooms and roaming free in the countryside that surrounds the cottage, Aunt Lolly becomes Laura again, her happiness is complete, and she finds within herself the woman she should always have been. There appear to be unusual forces around the village of Great Mop and the nearby countryside, forces with which Laura is at one. Here the story does get a little odd – the reader has to suspend belief a bit, that’s all. When Titus turns up to stay with his good old Aunt Lolly; his presence upsets the delicately balanced atmosphere of the area, and unleashes forces, that finally bring Laura to an understanding of who she really is.

Published three years before Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, Lolly Willowes is Sylvia Townsend Warner’s assertion that all single women should have their own liberty and lives of their own not dictated for them by others.

There are now six regular members who meet as part of what I have come to call my very small book group. Five of us I think it is fair to say loved Lolly Willowes. The sixth member while not actually hating it, was less enthusiastic, but not every member of a group can feel the same about a book, that’s what makes book groups interesting. Being December, the city centre gets very busy which gives us a good excuse to swerve our usual Café Nero haunt and book a table at Pizza Express. So, there is just a chance that Romano pizzas, dough balls and cheesecake got in the way of literary discussion. However, we get around to discussing the novel as well.

We discussed how Laura had been treated almost like a child by her family, who swept her up in their decision making for her, never allowing Laura an opinion. One member suggested that she is treated like a piece of old furniture, removed to London for the family’s convenience. There was some discussion about whether Laura would have had more of a role in life had she not been born into a relatively prosperous family. I suspect had Laura been working lass she would have revelled in a supervisory role of some kind, more able to lead her own life at least. It didn’t occur to anyone in that conventional household, that Laura might want a different life – that she might enjoy being on her own, and not dancing attendance on her brothers’ children. One of the most enjoyable elements of course for all of us – and I am sure many readers of Lolly Willowes is witnessing that re-emergence of Laura (no longer Aunt Lolly) – a woman at one with the natural world – a woman who makes a pact with the devil to free herself. Several of us found Laura’s acceptance of Satan into her life quite entertaining, I loved the way she just looked down at that kitten that appears in her rooms and knows exactly from where he has come. Another question we asked – and I’m not sure I entirely know the answer – was just what the reaction to this novel was in 1926 when it was first published – Wikipedia suggests that it was well received.

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One of the best things about social media is how it allows us to share our enthusiasms and discover new ones.

Over on Twitter just lately I have been very much enjoying the #NeglectedLadyNovelists tweets from writer Judith Kinghorn – and the conversations resulting from them. Now I do like a good bit of Twitter banter.

I found the World cup of #NeglectedladyNovelists particularly good fun. Several rounds and a semi-final have come and gone – with Twitter folk having to vote for who they consider the most neglected of the lady novelists in each round. Now, I have always taken my democratic responsibilities very seriously – and so I naturally thought very carefully over my choices. For women writers of a certain period – whether neglected or not – are very much my thing. It was really, really hard – and sparked a bit of debate – for instance in group 1 we had Elizabeth Taylor pitted against Anita Brookner, Jean Rhys and Rosamond Lehmann, while in group 3 the choice was between Sylvia Townsend Warner, Flora Mayor, Storm Jameson and EM Delafield, to me it seemed quite impossible to choose. In each group there were at least two writers I wanted to vote for. In all seriousness I want all these writers to enjoy a resurgence in popularity, that is why I love Persephone books and the VMC publications of the 1980 and 90s so much.

I began to wonder how people were voting – surely if we were looking for those women writers who have become truly neglected then I would have expected the likes of Flora Mayor, EH Young or May Sinclair to have made it through to the final. May Sinclair made it to the semi-finals but neither of the other two did terribly well. It’s hardly surprising that people ended up voting for writers they loved most – and I was guilty of this myself. I couldn’t help but vote for Sylvia Townsend Warner and Rosamond Lehmann as I love them so much. I do, also consider them to be rather neglected, however in truth some of their novels are still in print. Virago still publish three or four Rosamond Lehmann titles – and Selina Hastings’ biography of her is also available. VMC print on demand editions of some Sylvia Townsend Warner novels are available – as well as some NYRB editions (though why they felt it necessary to change the title of Mr Fortune’s Maggot is a mystery) – so are these writers truly neglected? Knowing all this I cast my votes – perhaps wrongly. In truth it is perhaps those writers who work is only to be found on second hand book sites, and on the shelves of (very good) second hand bookshops that are truly neglected – so in some rounds I voted with my heart and not my head. I do feel a little guilty – but at least it has got us all talking about these wonderful women writers, and that can’t be a bad thing. I didn’t vote for Elizabeth Taylor despite my great love of her writing because I can’t honestly say she is as neglected as she once was – that is definitely a good thing. How many of these writers’ works can be found in high street bookshops though is another matter – easily bought from a certain online seller perhaps – but how many times do readers get a chance to idly pick up Sylvia Townsend Warner or Rosamond Lehmann in their local branch of Waterstones I wonder?

When I start thinking about the list of #Neglectedladynovelists I would compile – it begins to get very long. Two writers I have been enjoying during this past week would definitely be on the list; Pamela Frankau and Pamela Hansford Johnson, both very good writers and excellent storytellers.

Many of the other novelists considered under that hashtag however – are exceptionally good writers, women who really did have something to say – they were not merely the tellers of good stories – although they did that too. When I consider the likes of Rebecca West, Olivia Manning, Antonia White and Winifred Holtby and others I am reminded what amazing, varied lives, they all lived. They each had so much to tell us – worlds to show us, so much to say – of course I want more people to read them.

I have wondered before how it is that some writers fall out of favour – while others endure – fashion and tastes change I suppose, and new writers come along. It is sad how many wonderful writers get forgotten during that process – when it comes to books I might sometimes be swayed by a pretty new edition, but I don’t much care about fashions. It is probably unrealistic to expect lots of these writers to be re-issued in shiny new editions – the cost for a publishing company would I suspect be prohibitive.

Still no reason why we who love these #NeglectedLadyNovelists shouldn’t continue to scour the bookshelves of second hand bookshops and celebrate our finds on our favourite social media sites. That way these wonderful voices will still be heard – at least by some of us.

Should you still want to get involved in the chat – the final of the world cup of #NeglectedLadyNovelists is at the end of the week. Make sure you are following @Judithkinghorn if you don’t want to miss it.

The original list has now been whittled down to Sylvia Townsend Warner and Jean Rhys – both truly wonderful writers – but I wonder if you can guess where my vote will be going? If neither of them take your fancy (and why wouldn’t they) who would be your choice of most NeglectedLadyNovelist?

(Incidentally, Sylvia Townsend Warner will be the Libraything Virago Group’s author of the month in December – and I am going to be re-reading Lolly Willowes as I have persuaded my very small book group to read it in December.)

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Recently – last month in fact I read The True Heart by Sylvia Townsend Warner which I loved, it reminded me how much I enjoy her writing. I already knew that her short stories are highly thought of but it was this collection of all of them that I particularly liked the sound of.

“It is nothing to children to lose their illusions, tadpoles are much more put about when they lose their tails.”

Scenes of Childhood and other stories – as the title suggests draws heavily upon STW’s own life, especially that of her childhood. Throughout this wonderful collection – Sylvia Townsend Warner appears as herself, as do other members of her family. It is hard to remember sometimes that this a collection of stories – however autobiographical, it often feels more like a collection of memoirs. Therefore, I suppose we must assume that STW been a little creative here and there, bringing her own great gift of storytelling to the entertaining stories within her own family. Although STW never wrote an autobiography, these pieces which were written at periods throughout her life – compiled into this volume after her death – make for a fabulous alternative.

Scenes of Childhood contain a large number of pieces and it would be impossible I think to talk about each of them, many are very short. In its entirety, the collection leaves the reader with a wonderful sense of the woman behind the stories and the family she came from. Her father was a housemaster at Harrow (where she was born) her mother an artist. In this collection, they are re-created with huge affection and humour. The woman who emerges from this collection is one who grew up deeply loved, within a family which gave her the room to develop into the woman who wrote the glorious Lolly Willowes.

We accompany the Warners on holiday to Wild Wales, where Sylvia was reunited with Johnnie and Nanny Blount – “a monolith devoted to duty” as STW describes her. Taking very seriously the moral welfare of her young charges Nanny Blount is especially fond of morning and evening worship. Sylvia’s most joyous remembrance of her is seeing her chased by cows after an altercation in a country lane. This opening story gets us off to a fine start, introducing us to a family it becomes a pleasure to spend time with. Sylvia remembers her mother’s artistic preparations before they set off.

“Before our summer holiday in Wales, with mountains and hydrangeas in mind, she laid in so many tubes of cobalt, ultramarine, and cerulean that I too young to have any geographical notions as to where we were going, knew for a certainty that Wales would be blue.”

Other stories, bearing such titles as: My Father, My Mother, the Bentleys, the poodle, Lord Kitchener and the mouse – relate small eccentric goings on in the Warner household. Lord Kitchener is a cat, the poodle was always just called the poodle. When Mrs Warner is disturbed on several nights by a mouse ‘gnawing’ and shaking the foot of the bed, her husband, the poodle and the cat are each called in to lend a hand, much to the bewilderment of their house-guests who are woken by the ensuing chaos.

As an older child, Sylvia recalls in a story called How I left the Navy – that one day arriving home in her lovely dapper little sailor suit she wore while enjoying winter activities with the British Navy – her mother suddenly ripped the little hat off her head and banned all further association. It was years before she knew why – that Mrs Warner had learned from a local gossip that the ship depicted on her daughter’s little hat, had been turned into a hospital ship for sailors with venereal disease. Mrs Warner is wonderfully reproduced here –in Fried Eggs are Mediterranean we see her and the family holidaying in the Devon countryside – experimenting with self-sufficiency (no servant), she spends each day trying to perfect boiled eggs – eventually hitting on the idea of reciting the fifty-first psalm in Latin as a means to time the perfect boiled egg.

Then there’s Stanley Sherwood; the story of a dreadful butler, who having loomed over the family with his ghastly smile for years, too good to be sacked but universally loathed, he returns as a fireman and takes his own peculiar revenge.

“My mother’s butler was named Stanley Sherwood. He was a slender, sallow man. His expression was at once ravenous and demure; he had a profile as accurate as though it had been snipped out of a piece of paper; his tread was noiseless; he had a tendency to fold his hands. His memory was as accurate as his profile, he was punctual to the minute, he never forgot a duty or a commission; his clothes were always brushed, his demeanour was always correct. he was like some baleful drug, which, once you have imbibed it, you cannot do without. My father referred to him as Ignatius Loyola.”

How much of these stories are strictly true, I suppose we can’t really know – but I sort of hope (and now firmly believe) that they are absolutely all true; Nanny chasing cows, bedstead gnawing mice – I believe. Happily, these stories don’t just stop at childhood, we see Sylvia Townsend Warner as a young woman, organising a home for Belgian refugees, exploring churches and their bell towers while her dog barks furiously at the vicar. She recalls with gentle humour, arguments which ensue as members of a Dorset village organise celebrations for a coronation, which in the wake of the abdication must be changed to celebrate a George instead of an Edward.

This is a glorious collection; one I am certain I will revisit. I really don’t think Sylvia Townsend Warner is capable of writing anything that is not brilliant, though I still have two novels and several collections of stories to read.

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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.

sylvia Townsend warner

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lolly willowes

 

“One doesn’t become a witch to run around being harmful, or to run around being helpful either, a district visitor on a broomstick. It’s to escape all that – to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to by others.”

I have wanted to read Lolly Willowes for ages, and yet for some unknown reason I read three other Sylvia Townsend Warner novels before tackling the one I have always assumed is her best known. It’s not an especially long book, but it wasn’t just the length which made me gobble it up in great gulps. Sylvia Townsend Warner’s writing is wonderful; she was a gifted, imaginative storyteller whose use of language is really quite lovely. Having read The Corner that Held Them, Mr Fortune’s Maggot and Summer will Show, I was already a fan of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s writing, so I had big expectations of Lolly Willowes which I know a lot of people love. Thankfully I wasn’t disappointed, hence the gobbling up of it. Even in the midst of the gobbling up however I was often stopped in my tracks by the most glorious prose, descriptions of utter perfection.

“…she looked with the yearning of an outcast at the dwelling so long ago discarded. The house was like an old blind nurse sitting in the sun and ruminating past events. It seemed an act of the most horrible ingratitude to leave it all and go away without one word of love. But the gates were shut, the time of welcome was gone by.”

The story itself is tender and a little magical, and I simply adored the character of Lolly Willowes herself. Laura Willowes (to allow her, her given name) is a dutiful unmarried daughter of twenty eight when her beloved father dies. Laura had always enjoyed her quiet life in the country, sometimes gathering herbs and making distillations with them. Laura is at one with the countryside, and its yearly round of traditions. Born some years after her two elder brothers; Henry and James, Laura grew up almost as an only child, the apple of her father’s eye. Laura has run her father’s home with ease, helped by the servants, people of good old country stock, who make beeswax furniture polish and pigeon pie. Upon her father’s death Laura is devastated; everything she knows and feels secure in is lost. Her elder brothers and their wives take control, it is quickly decided – that despite Laura having a good income of her own left to her by her father – she should go away from the country to London and live with Henry and Caroline and their two young daughters. Between them; Henry, James and their wives make all the decisions, what furniture Laura will take with her, and how useful she will be. London life will be very different, but Laura submits to the decisions made for her.

Of course Laura is useful, for that is how she is made, she proves herself invaluable. It is one of Henry’s young daughters who bestow the name Aunt Lolly on Laura – and the name sticks and Laura is Laura no longer, her life no longer her own. Laura settles her things into the small spare room in the London House that she will now call her own, while her brother and sister-in-law set about introducing her to potential, suitable husbands.

For twenty years Aunt Lolly makes herself indispensable to family life in London. Holidays are taken at Lady Place, her former home where her brother James his wife and son Titus live. Aunt Lolly is taken for granted, she is so very reliable. The years slip by quickly – the girls grow up and begin to make lives for themselves. A war is fought; the world is a different place. In the 1920’s Laura finds, at forty-seven, that she wants something different for herself. She has the feeling that something is pulling her towards the countryside again, feeling herself at one with the natural world, she longs for woods, and hillsides. Laura decides to break free of the life which has been organised for her realising suddenly that she can have a life of her own. Laura’s realisation coming in a greengrocer’s shop of a quite old fashioned kind;

“Laura looked at the bottled fruits, the sliced pears in syrup, the glistening red plums, the greengages. She thought of the woman who had filled those jars and fastened on the bladders. Perhaps the greengrocer’s mother lived in the country. A solitary old woman picking fruit in a darkening orchard, rubbing her rough fingertips over the smooth-skinned plums, a lean wiry old woman, standing with upstretched arms among her fruit trees as though she were a tree herself, growing out of the long grass, with arms stretched up like branches. It grew darker and darker; still she worked on, methodically stripping the quivering taut boughs one after the other.”

Laura finds herself drawn to the countryside of Buckinghamshire, and the tiny village of Great Mop. Her family are both horrified and astonished at Laura’s announcement, and at first they don’t take her quite seriously. On finding her brother has mismanaged her money; Laura can only afford to rent a couple of rooms in the cottage of Mrs Leek. Here in two small rooms and roaming free in the countryside that surrounds the cottage, Aunt Lolly becomes Laura again, her happiness is complete, and she finds within herself the woman she should always have been. There appear to be unusual forces around the village of Great Mop and the nearby countryside, forces with which Laura is at one. Here the story does get a little odd – but I knew that before I started – the reader has to suspend belief a bit, that’s all. When Titus turns up to stay with his good old Aunt Lolly; his presence upsets the delicately balanced atmosphere of the area, and unleashes forces, that finally bring Laura to an understanding of who she really is.

Published three years before Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, Lolly Willowes is Sylvia Townsend Warner’s assertion that all single women should have their own liberty and lives of their own not dictated for them by others.

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