A Sylvia Townsend Warner books round-up

A host of marvellous new books about Sylvia Townsend Warner and her circle are currently being published.

English Climate: Wartime Stories (21 May 2020)
Persephone Books have collected twenty-two of Warner’s stories dating from 1940 to 1946 and have republished them as English Climate. Some were reprinted in two volumes, A Garland of Straw in 1943 and The Museum of Cheats in 1947, and one or two have appeared in anthologies since. Lydia Fellgett, who runs Persephone, writes in her Preface: ‘These stories show a writer seeking to understand what life was like in Britain at war. She worked quickly, without the haze of nostalgia, and (unlike her novels, which moved between the centuries) they were always contemporary, reflecting the texture of what was happening at that moment in time. Almost all the stories are set in English market towns and villages, with a few recurring characters providing snapshots of communities of women throughout the war. Funny, brilliantly written, at times utterly heart-breaking, delightfully sharp, dry, intelligent and full of memorable characters: they are stories that strike the reader as somehow true as only the best fiction can.’

Women Writing for Women: Life-Writing, Genre and Criticism in the Texts of Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland (27 May 2020)
In her academic monograph, Ailsa Granne explores Warner’s relationship with Ackland by closely examining the women’s letters and diaries alongside a selection of other texts, in particular their poetry, to reveal the crucial role writing played in establishing, maintaining, and defending their intimacy. Warner and Ackland’s need to speak as women, writers and lovers shaped their texts, so that they became not simply records of events, nor acts of communication, but complex documents in which love is won and lost, myths are created, and lives are changed. Examining how Warner and Ackland exploited the distance between their lived life and their written accounts of it, Ailsa Granne explores the fluidity of the boundaries between letters, diaries and fiction and provides a fresh perspective on these life-writing forms.

Side-stepping Normativity in Selected Short Stories by Sylvia Townsend Warner (1 August 2020)
In another academic book, Rebecca K. Hahn attempts a comprehensive study of Warner’s short stories, showing how Warner’s innovative narrative style refused to conform to conventional modernist standards, and thereby contributed to the canon of queer modernist and post-modernist writers.

Bloomsbury Stud: The Life of Stephen ‘Tommy’ Tomlin (24 September 2020)
Michael Bloch and Susan Fox give a fascinating account of the life of Stephen ‘Tommy’ Tomlin, one of the most enigmatic figures of the Bloomsbury Group. Tomlin attended Harrow School, where Warner’s father, George Townsend Warner, was a housemaster and Master of history. At Harrow and afterwards in London, he formed a strong friendship with Warner, introducing her to the Dorset village of East Chaldon and the writer T.F. Powys, though the pair were to eventually stop speaking. Bloomsbury Stud looks at Tomlin’s career as a sculptor, and his relationships with Bloomsbury and other friends, stories of which are posted dynamically on Instagram at @bloomsburystud.

Valentine Ackland: A Transgressive Life (20 May 2021)
Published on what would have been her 115th birthday, Frances Bingham’s biography of Valentine Ackland reveals the remarkable cross-dressing woman, poet and activist with whom Warner shared her life. Alongside the story of the couple’s relationship and Ackland’s radical politics, the biography celebrates Ackland’s queer identity and recovers an important story from British lesbian history.

Frances Bingham was interviewed by the Guardian on Ackland’s communism, and tells why the poet was blacklisted by MI5.

Sylvia Townsend Warner published as a Penguin Modern Classic

Beginning with the publication of Lolly Willowes this autumn, Penguin are releasing all seven of Warner’s unique novels as Modern Classics: Mr Fortune’s Maggot, The True Heart, Summer Will Show, After the Death of Don Juan, The Corner That Held Them and The Flint Anchor.

To celebrate the release, Peter Swaab and Harriet Baker were invited to speak about Warner’s novels on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme.

Lolly Willowes will also be released as an audio book in April 2021.

Squabbling pilgrims, altar candles, and an ageing nun

The latest Journal of the Sylvia Townsend Warner Society is now available to read online from UCL Press. The issue includes Peter Swaab’s 2019 lecture, ‘Sylvia Townsend Warner and the Possibilities of Freedom’; an essay from David Trotter titled ‘Posthuman? Aeroplanes, Animal Corpses and Very High Frequencies in the Work of Valentine Ackland and Sylvia Townsend Warner’; and the first of a two-part sequel to Warner’s 1948 novel, The Corner That Held Them.

The Corner That Held Them was Warner’s own favourite novel. ‘I think it is the best book I have ever written,’ she wrote to Paul Nordoff. ‘It is certainly the book that I have most written, the one that is most me.’ She worked on it between 1941 and 1947 and found it hard to let go. ‘It has really been agony doing the final proofs of the novel. I love it so much I can’t bear to part with it.’ So much so, indeed, that she didn’t completely part with it but instead began a sequel, of which the Warner–Ackland Archive houses 58 typed pages, published here for the first time.

The narrative of the sequel carries on almost immediately after the conclusion of the novel, following Dame Sibilla after she has decided to abscond from the nunnery at Oby to join a pilgrimage headed for Jerusalem. Warner wrote to a friend that ‘I love him [Chaucer] so much that I had the greatest difficulty keeping him out of Oby’. Indeed, the sequel embraces the Chaucerian setting of a group of pilgrims on the road, in this case heading beyond Canterbury to Jerusalem. As in the novel, in which the centre of consciousness moves fluidly from one figure to another, the narrative shows the group of pilgrims first from Sibilla’s perspective, before moving on to two of the other pilgrims, Martin Hawte and Wilkin Shaw. We see the pilgrims join in singing – the last voice falling silent ‘as a frozen bird falls off the bough before the first rays of the thawing sun’ – squabbling, and comparing the taste of faggots in a cathedral town against the previous year.