Sylvia Townsend Warner: A Biography by Claire Harman

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Reviewed by Simon

Sylvia Townsend Warner: A Biography

This marks the third biography I’ve reviewed in Shiny New Books that is about a major figure in my doctoral thesis – three out of three of them. With Harman’s biography, though, I could (and should) have read the biography while studying, but somehow never got around to it. I knew (thought I) enough about Warner’s life from reading her diaries and letters, and essays about her; the biography could wait.

Thankfully Penguin have recently republished Sylvia Townsend Warner – possibly for those looking for more by Harman once they’ve enjoyed her new biography of Charlotte Brontë. This was the excuse I needed to take my copy off the shelf, and I’m glad I did. Though Harman is about as far from showy as you can get, I would certainly seek her out; she has a way of presenting information about a subject that is all-enveloping and almost majestic.

Sylvia Townsend Warner was certainly an interesting character. Harman doesn’t spend a great deal of time focusing on her childhood, and it does seem as though it were rather ordinary, but she leapt into adulthood with abandon. Warner’s first entry into the world of books was editing Tudor Church Music volumes for Oxford University Press with a team of others. This was an avenue that enabled her to explore a love of music and precision, but perhaps not creativity (as she realised fairly early that composing was not going to be her main avenue). Oh, and her time was also occupied with the affair she was conducting with Percy Buck, also working on the volumes and significantly older than her.

Besides music, Warner’s first love was poetry – indeed, to an extent she does not appear to have divided the two. Her poetry met with some success, but it wasn’t until she wrote her first novel that really achieved notoriety. In 1926, Lolly Willowes was published to great interest and acclaim – deservedly so; it is a fantastic novel in every sense of the word ‘fantastic’, and remains Warner’s best known work. As Harman calmly writes, ‘The sales of the book were very high’. She became a sought after figure on both sides of the Atlantic, writing articles for many magazines and being chosen for the first ever Book-of-the-Month Club. Harman writes about her success without any undue excitement, but manages (do I read too much into it?) to sneak snark into a few comments:

Sylvia also had dinner with Virginia Woolf, summoned by fame and mutual friends, at which Mrs Woolf asked how she knew so much about witches. ‘Because I am one,’ Sylvia replied.

I rather love the ‘summoned by fame and mutual friends’, and that mildly caustic ‘Mrs Woolf’. Harman’s personality intrudes so seldom in this book that it feels a tiny bit shocking when it does; a little frisson of realising that the biographer is a person too. Indeed, considering Warner was a biographer herself (of the writer T.H. White), Harman says little on the topic and never compares their approaches. The nearest we get to an admission of her role is a single line, in relation to T.H. White and not to the book in the reader’s hands: ‘A biographer is both master and servant to his subject, and the servant can be extraordinarily possessive.’

When each of Warner’s subsequent books is mentioned (incidentally, none live up to Lolly Willowes in my opinion, though that is not one shared by all), Harman details the plot briefly and the reception at greater length (where appropriate), but this doesn’t always seem like a writer’s biography. Warner didn’t dwell on her creative processes in letters and diaries, to the best of my recollection; there is not the material to craft an insightful examination of her drafting and redrafting. Which is a shame, but permits us to look instead at the complications of her life. Harman may not have the apparatus to write a critical biography, but she does permit herself the occasional judgement in passing – saying that a certain short story is not a success, or that a particular novel shows her writing at its finest. Again, these judgements jolt the reader a little.

Where Harman does not judge is regarding Warner’s private life, though I found it hard not to do it myself. Significant amounts of the biography concern the love of Warner’s life: Valentine Ackland, a woman who instinctively disliked her at first sight, though (of course) the impression did not last. Having read Ackland’s astonishing memoir For Sylvia, I already knew about her one-day marriage, her alcoholism, and her extraordinary selfishness. The peak of this comes when Ackland decides she may be in love with another woman, an American named Elizabeth, and moves her into Warner’s home. Sylvia, meanwhile, moves to a hotel in Yeovil (ignominy enough at any time, one would think) and waits for Valentine to decide which of the women to choose. I already knew Warner’s anguish from this period (from her letters and diaries) and can’t help thinking angry thoughts about Ackland – but Harman, admirably, is more dispassionate. She gives the facts, and lets the reader think what the reader will. (This reader thought plenty.)

Having said that, writing about Warner’s loves and affections offers the only times that Harman approaches the emotional. This is perhaps more often true when pets are under consideration (Warner was a devoted animal lover, chiefly of cats) but this section on Sylvia and Valentine is representative:

When Charles Prentice arrived at Miss Green [the name of one of their cottages] for Sylvia’s birthday on 6 December 1930, Valentine began to wonder whether or not her own position was in jeopardy – an idea which would have shocked Sylvia had Valentine put it into words instead of into her diary. Sylvia’s ease with her many friends, her sharp, often cutting wit, made Valentine uneasy. It was the private and not the public Sylvia she had fallen in love with, and when they settled into a way of life together, Valentine deliberately chose not to accompany Sylvia to parties, dinners, and friends’ houses except when attendance was absolutely unavoidable.

The dominance of the Valentine relationship in the biography rather sidelines some of the others – I know how important William Maxwell and David Garnett were to Warner, for instance, but would have to turn to their collections of letters to discover this, as they appear relatively fleetingly in this book; it makes me wonder which other significant friendships aren’t delved into. But I am also always an enthusiast for a short biography – this one is relatively short, I suppose – so shouldn’t complain; the essentials are certainly here. In an ideal world, I’d also have liked more about Warner’s writing processes, but Harman can only work with the material she has. What is particularly impressive is that, though Harman remains unobtrusive throughout, I finished the book not only enthralled in the events and relationships of Warner’s life, but firmly believing that nobody else could have written the biography so well. Perhaps this is an invisible biographer, but she certainly leaves her mark nonetheless.

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Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors.

Claire Harman, Sylvia Townsend Warner: a biography (Penguin, 2015). 978-0241964439, 368pp., paperback.

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