I’ve been meaning to write about Sylvia Townsend Warner here for literally years now, but to really do her any justice I need to go back and re-read many things of hers I read fairly recently. Which is hard to make myself do when I’ve got such a large pile of other, new-to-me things I’d like to get to first. (Same problem with various films, which I’d never write about after having seen only once). I will indeed do it anyhow at some point because I think it’s important, but in the meantime I see no reason not to send you off about your business without a few enticing little scraps of Sylvia to tuck in your pocket.
This first one in the series is from the short story “Furnivall’s Hoopoe,” which appears in the collection The Music at Long Verney. If you’re a New Yorker subscriber you can read it in their archives here, as it was published in their Jan. 3, 1970 issue. They published a great many Sylvia Townsend Warner stories over the years — she became very good friends with her editor there, William Maxwell, and you can and should read some of their correspondence in The Element of Lavishness — and in my opinion being able to plunder their archives at one’s leisure for her alone is well worth the cost of a subscription.
the Jan. 3, 1970 cover
There are plenty of other passages I might have opted to start off with, and loads of them where she’s doing something more dazzling in a writerly way, but this one captures some very true things about love and that’s been on my mind lately. Particularly the other day, when I found myself thinking about The Great Gatsby in connection with a food blog post (spoiler alert: it’s somehow just as depressing miniaturized and briefly outlined with clams as it is as a novel), and again just a couple of hours after I’d written it, when I found myself having a long talk with an unhappy friend about her married girlfriend. Maxwell wrote the foreword to The Music at Long Verney well after Townsend-Warner’s death in 1978 and briefly but rather heart-breakingly describes her own love troubles with her very long-term girlfriend Valentine Ackland:
Sylvia was not distressed by Valentine’s casual infidelities, but when she fell in love with a spoiled American woman who thought she might (and then again thought she might not) want to live permanently with Valentine, Sylvia suffered deeply and even made herself homeless until the crisis had passed. As she wrote a friend, ‘I was gray as a badger and never at any time a beauty but I was better at loving and being loved.”
Having read much of her work, I find her believable on this point. Fortunately the crisis did pass and they went on living together until Ackland’s death from breast cancer in 1969. Ackland opened an antiques shop in their home in 1952, which is an interesting background tidbit about The Music at Long Verney; five of its stories are set in the same (fictional) antiques shop. According to Wendy Mulford’s This Narrow Place: Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland Life, Letters and Politics, 1930-1951, Valentine and Sylvia had a routine worked out for dealing with annoying customers whereby Valentine would ring a little bell to summon Sylvia, who would then call her away for some important reason or other. Anyhow, on to the little scrap of Sylvia, which fortunately is far more economical and humorous than my introduction to it. I regret having to give it to you in two pieces but those are the breaks.