Sylvia Townsend Warner

The December Countryman is now out, available in all good newsagents, or by subscription. I have reproduced my column below, with an added footnote.

I have just come across a fascinating collection of essays by Sylvia Townsend Warner, With the Hunted.[1] Warner enjoyed early literary success in the 1920s but by the time of her death in 1978 she had largely disappeared from view. As her biographer puts it, ‘being a woman and a lesbian and a Communist’ did not endear her to the literary establishment.

But as well as these things, Warner was a regular columnist for the Countryman, which she welcomed as a radical voice for change in the countryside. Of the five Countryman pieces reproduced in the book, the most personal is ‘The Way By Which I Have Come’. She recalls the ‘meadows of heavy clay (that had once grown good corn), massive hawthorn hedges, and a few slouching farmhouses’ around her childhood home in Harrow.

Later she came to regard the countryside as a dark place, as well as a beautiful one, where ‘iniquities … thought of as rare vestigial occurrences in crime-sheets persisted and were taken as a matter of course’.[2] Her interest in her neighbours turned from enjoyment of ‘the wisdom, the good friendships, the traditions, the racy speech, the idiomatic quality of the English country worker’, to concern about their poverty – ‘the average number of sleepers per bedroom and of rats per sleeper’.

Throughout the essays radical politics go hand-in-hand with great lyricism and humour. I like her description of her guidebook to Somerset as more of ‘an err-and-stray book’. And I was fascinated by the contrast between her elegiac nostalgia for a rural Middlesex she never really knew and her excitement about change and modernity. Writing from Spain during the civil war she sees a rank of pylons – ‘ghostly silver, their delicate geometrical beauty most perfectly assorted to the austere landscape of Castille’ – as a promise ‘speaking of power and light coming to the darkened and exploited’.

I recommend Sylvia Townsend Warner. And if you cannot get hold of the book, listen to her on the website of the Poetry Archive reading, in old age, ‘Gloriana Dying’. Quite wonderful.

[1] With the Hunted: Selected Writings, edited by Peter Tolhurst, Black Dog Books, Norwich, 2012, £16.99

[2] I cut the full passage for reasons of space, but it is interesting, particularly in light of the scandals about child abuse in close (or closed) communities such as the BBC or the Catholic Church.

Warner recalls visiting her grandparents on the Surrey-Sussex border, where her grandfather had a country living. ‘Long afterwards my grandmother told me that not till she went to this village – she was an elderly woman then – did she realise that iniquities she had thought of as rare vestigial occurrences in crime-sheets persisted and were taken as a matter of course among the cottage homes of England. One punctual church-goer lived in open incest with his daughter. Rape and bestiality accompanied the course of true love, children had the upbringing of little hell-fiends. Worst of all was the indifference of public opinion and the ignorant hopeless resignation of the victims.’

This does not encourage rural nostalgia (Warner suspected the English pastoral was ‘a grim and melancholy thing’) but I thought of this passage when I read Andrew O’Hagan’s piece, ‘Light Entertainment’, in the London Review of Books: ‘There will always be a certain amount of embarrassment about Savile, not because we didn’t know but because we did.’

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