For several weeks I’ve been hunting up works by the English writer Sylvia Townsend Warner. Her long career, dedication, and daring—her uncompromising will to lead a life of her own, writing fiction that can’t simply be cornered by the term “eccentric,” crafting in her eighties some of the strangest stories ever to appear in The New Yorker—she’s one of the spine-stiffening writers. She makes a perfect quarantine companion.
I don’t think it’s uncommon for the world to cooperate while you’re working intensely on a long piece of fiction. Slivers of what you imagined may emerge right in front of you, ready to be observed. You keep seeing a character’s name. Or a stranger looks like a character you created. Or a word in the story’s title keeps showing up when you’re reading online. That happens too with the writers who emerge for us. I’m at a point where I especially need Warner’s sentences with all their power and quirky mischief. I need, as well, the imaginative company of a writer with a long career, who took chances at each bend along the way.
Warner was born at Harrow-on-the-Hill in 1893. A musicologist who contributed to the multi-volume Tudor Church Music, she was a poet, translator, biographer, and an immensely productive fiction writer, the author of seven novels and numerous short stories, 144 of which appeared in The New Yorker. For over forty years she shared her life with the poet Valentine Ackland, a union that must have been trying, for Ackland was candid about seeking affairs with other women while still living with Warner. While Warner was devoted to her writing and friends and the woman she loved, she often found herself on the side of those who were anything but dutiful. As she wrote to a correspondent: “The worst injury one can do to the person who loves one is to cover oneself from head to foot in a shining impermeable condom of irreproachable behaviour.” Her powers of invention went uninterrupted into advanced old age. Her work has had an underground, winding influence, although often indirect, in the fiction of Angela Carter, Shirley Jackson, Rachel Ingalls, Jeannette Winterson, Kelly Link, and Helen Oyeyemi. Nevertheless, Warner is one of those writers who, when her name comes up, attracts the words “underappreciated” or “under-read.”
I fell in love with Warner’s work, first of all, for its heady, bristling, incandescent sentences, adept at turning against expectations and pickled in her incomparable wit. Thinking that maybe I was meeting a typo, I kept rereading the first sentence of her short story “The Foregone Conclusion”: “She planted a high Spanish comb in her pubic hair and resumed her horn-rimmed glasses.” A character in Warner’s first novel makes currant scones in the shapes of villagers: “Laura felt slightly ashamed of her freak. It was unkind to play these tricks with her neighbors’ bodies.” Or look at this sentence from the title story of The Music at Long Verney: “The fiddlers did a little tuning, listening to their plucked strings like animals that hunt by ear.”
Or how about this, about nuns receiving letters: “(It was the breath of life to them, poor wretches, as good as a voyage to Africa or the death of an aunt.”)
There’s a photo of Warner that I like to look at: she’s standing, pen between thumb and forefinger, staring at her manuscript on a writing table. She’s wearing a long black skirt and a white ruffled blouse and serious eyeglasses, and apparently not giving the time of day to the photographer. Or that’s how it seems to me. But then I’ve been trained by her fiction. If Virginia Woolf, her contemporary, wanted a room of her own for women writers, story after story by Warner illustrates a wider principle: her characters prefer an entire woodland of their own. What often happens in her fiction: a woman goes to extreme measures to be able to think her own thoughts without interference. The wish not to be interrupted or meddled with, the yearning for radical imaginative freedom, gives shape to many of her stories.
In “Maternal Devotion” a woman who helps her daughter get rid of a suitor wishes “Moses had just boiled [the Ten Commandments] down to one compact little commandment—‘Thou shalt not interfere.’” The same woman owns a framed statement, “It is good for me that I have been in trouble.”
In “The Inside-Out” a child sobs and resolves to buy a slingshot when his patch of weeds is invaded by two other children.
In “The Foregone Conclusion” a man mistakenly thinks a woman’s note to him will contain one of her poems—poems which he disparages: “They reminded him of those small, solidified, semi-transparent blobs of resin which ooze from old plum trees and taste of rain.” Instead, the note announces she’s finished with the affair. A similar drama repeats itself often in Warner’s writing: a woman manages to be alone and likes it.
One of the best novels to start with is Lolly Willowes. Published in 1926, it narrates a woman’s pact with the devil and includes a scene that, however subtly expressed, amounts to a group orgy. When she submitted the manuscript to a publisher, Warner wrote, “If you like it well enough to think it worth publishing I shall be extremely pleased. If you don’t, I shan’t be much surprised.” The first Book of the Month selection, the novel met with broad success in both Britain and America.
The plot is relatively simple. After her father’s death, Laura Willowes (called Lolly by her relatives) serves her extended family as a reliable, unpaid caretaker, her own needs subsumed. In middle age, she discovers another sort of life for herself. Settling alone in the terrifically named Great Mop, intoxicated by the beauty and mystery of the woodlands around her, she gradually realizes she shares the village with a coven. It’s a happy discovery. Women, Laura Willowes states, possess powers that witchcraft liberates: “They know they are dynamite, and long for the concussion that may justify them. . . . [Witchcraft] strikes them real. Even if other people still find them quite safe and usual, and go on poking with them, they know in their hearts how dangerous, how incalculable, how extraordinary they are.”
Unfortunately, her nephew Titus moves in, having discovered a fondness for Great Mop. With the devil’s help, Laura rids herself of him—and all additional encumbrances. It takes a pact with the devil to have a mind uncorrupted by the expectations and demands of others. Better the devil than your officious nephew. As in much of her work, Warner registers an itchy desire to think a thought untainted. She knew how much energy it takes to learn to trust and respect your own mind.
Some of Warner’s strongest work is in her short stories. She insisted in her fiction that the lives of women and girls are worthy of the most scrupulous attention. One of her stories gave me an actual jolt. Called “Item, One Empty House,” it nearly went uncollected. First published in 1966 in The New Yorker, it was reprinted in her posthumous story collection The Music at Long Verney (2001).
It’s an odd duck of a story—almost an essay: a call to rethink how we assign value to a writer’s work. The story concerns a woman (it seems like an autobiographical piece—which makes me assign the narrator’s identity to Warner) who wonders why a certain writer—another woman—is undervalued. The American writer in question—an actual writer, Mary E. Wilkins, not an invented character—is dismissed by a man at a dinner party and, a few days later, never mentioned by anyone at an “artistic party” in Connecticut. The narrator considers Wilkins’s craft and reputation and resists the gendered dismissal that awaits women who write.
The story’s reverie about Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (referred to as Wilkins in the story) amounts to an act of sympathy and in some ways identification. Freeman (1852–1930) was a prolific author relegated to the status of a regionalist, a writer of “local color” about New England villages. Like Warner, she wrote with authority of the unapologetic desire to evade the roles and routines assigned to women, married and unmarried.
The narrator describes her exposure in childhood to Wilkins’s story “A New England Nun,” which led her to discover qualities she hoped to emulate in her own fiction. “Though I could not have defined what I had found,” she wrote, “I knew it was what I wanted. It was something I had already found in nature and in certain teapots—something akin to the precision with which the green ruff fits the white strawberry blossom, or to the airy spacing of a Worcester sprig. . . . I had not so far noticed it could happen in writing too.” She admires Wilkins’s ability to depict scenes with tactile exactness and “riveting authenticity.”
After the narrator reflects on Wilkins’s writing, “Item, One House” shifts to a walk the narrator takes the morning after the party. She sees a house apparently empty in the snowy distance. This is the ending that jolted me:
A week ago or three weeks ago someone had gone into the house and not come out again. I stood for a while registering this in my memory—so well that I can see it to this day. Then I turned back, walking briskly because I had grown cold. I did not speculate at all. This was no business of mine. I had come on a story by Mary Wilkins—a story she did not finish.
That swift turn and clean stop took me aback. Earlier the narrator describes the American author as remarkably accomplished in writing “about food, about hunger, privation, starvation even.” Suddenly, that focus becomes a perceptible reality in her own outside world: what the narrator encounters replicates the images of deprivation in Wilkins’s stories. As an homage to another writer’s power, this final paragraph presents fiction as a framing device that is completed and “finished” by readers; it enhances our ability to see the things of this world. Yet the ending goes a step farther. The house isn’t like an unfinished story by Mary Wilkins. It is that story.
The ending tells us so much about Warner’s faith in fiction, for here a work of the imagination attains solidity, tangibility, and vivid particularity—characteristics ascribed by the narrator to Wilkins’s writing. What Warner admires in another writer she achieves herself—a profound confidence in the reality of the mind’s projections.
While she was in her eighties, Warner began composing some of the most peculiar stories produced in modern English—stories of elves, brutal little beings. She was so engaged in the project that she created a whole cosmology and genealogy for these severe, unpitying creatures, collected in Kingdoms of Elfin (1977). The project must have seemed doomed at first by common assumptions—the unfortunate expectation of the fey and delicate and winsome in fairy stories, especially those written by a woman, let alone an elderly one. Warner’s creations are nearly the opposite. A changeling, for instance, performs autopsies on living flesh. An elfin queen’s “faculties remained in her like rats in a ruin. . . . She was long past being comical, and smelled like bad haddock. Some said she was phosphorescent in the dark. She found life highly entertaining.” A fairy has a vision of apocalypse: “I saw trees blighted and grass burned brown and birds falling out of the sky. I saw the end of our world. . . . I saw the last fairy dying like a scorched insect.”
As strange as the stories are, it seems almost as strange that The New Yorker published so many of them. She had what any writer would wish—a discerning editor, no less than the brilliant fiction writer William Maxwell. When they met, it was writerly love at first sight: Maxwell wrote, “Her conversation was so enchanting it made my head swim.” If her letters are any indication, despite all she wrote in her fiction about the craving for privacy, for the time and space and solitude required to think your own thoughts, she had to be a hilarious, generous friend. She wrote as many as three letters a day—some of which Maxwell gathered into a collection. They’re funny, elegant, disarming, and fiercely observant. Like her conversation, they’ll make your head swim.
Sylvia Townsend Warner died in 1978 at the age of eighty-four. Those elfin stories she began in her eighties? Imagine the sustained discipline, the wild imaginative energy required. And think of this: she wrote about twenty of them.
Lee Upton is the author of fourteen books, including the poetry collections The Day Every Day Is (Saturnalia, 2023) and Bottle the Bottles the Bottles the Bottles: Poems from the Cleveland State University Poetry Center (2015); the story collections Visitations (Yellow Shoe Fiction Series, LSU Press, 2017) and The Tao of Humiliation, which won the BOA Short Fiction Award, was a finalist for The Paterson Prize, and was named one of the best books of 2014 by Kirkus Reviews; a collection of essays, Swallowing the Sea: On Writing & Ambition, Boredom, Purity & Secrecy (Tupelo Press, 2012); and the novella The Guide to the Flying Island (Miami University Press, 2009). (updated 4/2023)
Her poem “Drunk at a Party” from AGNI 69 was chosen for The Best American Poetry 2011.