THE CAT IN THE HAMPER:
WARNER AND THE ART OF NARRATING A BIOGRAPHY
by Morine Krissdóttir
In 2009 Richard Garnett gave the STW Archive
copies of letters which he had omitted from the published Sylvia & David: The Townsend Warner/Garnett Letters.[i] More recently, the archive has been given a cache of holograph letters from Sylvia Townsend Warner to Michael Howard, Chairman of Cape.[ii] These gifts
prompted me to review the other material in the Collection connected with her writing of the biography of T.H. White. It is extensive, and includes copies of the letters written to and from Michael Howard and Warner as well as correspondence between Howard and the literary agent, the printers and other publishers.[iii] Warner’s comments in her diary and her manuscript notes add further insight. Taken as a whole, the archival material pieces together a rather remarkable story of the writing of that biography with all its attendant difficulties. It tells of recalcitrant executors, of the labour of writing innumerable letters to people who knew
White, of Michael Howard’s unusual role, of the overwhelming amount of material to be read, of the worry about determining what could be put in and what must be left out, of the technical problems of
producing a final draft.
In March 1964, Sylvia Townsend Warner received a letter from the publishing firm, Jonathan Cape. It was one of those unexpected happenings in an older writer’s life. Seemingly out of nowhere she was offered the commission to write a biography. Warner was 70 years old, feeling her ‘age and failing powers’. (Warner, 7 April 1964) Although notable for her novels, short stories and poetry, she had never written a biography. She knew virtually nothing about the man she was asked to write about, the person who wrote her the request was a stranger and she had had no dealing with his publishing company.
The person was Michael Howard, son of Wren Howard, the co-founder of Jonathan Cape Publishers. Cape died in 1960 and when Wren Howard retired in 1962 he handed the direction of the company to his son, Michael Howard. During his tenure Cape became an immensely successful publishing company.[iv]
The man was Terence Hanbury White. He was the author of twenty books, but was best known for his retelling of the legend of King Arthur, basing it on Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. The Once and Future King was first published in 1958 by Collins and was mostly a composite of earlier works written between 1938 and 1941. It was a run-away best seller, making the 52-year-old White a rich man for the first time in his life. White had a serious falling-out with Collins[v] and thereafter Jonathan Cape added White to their list of authors and published all his subsequent books. In 1960, The Once and Future King was made into Lerner and Lowe’s musical, Camelot, and in 1963, a year before White’s death, Walt Disney made the first book of the chronicle, The Sword in the Stone, into a movie. So it was not surprising that when White died on 21 January1964, Michael Howard was eager to bring out a biography of him at the point of his greatest commercial success.
There was an urgency to find the right biographer. White’s literary agent, David Higham, ‘was doing all he could to persuade the trustee-executors to give the job to a very inferior flashy protégé of his’. (Element, 22 July 1967) Cape and especially Michael Howard, who had become a friend of White, was determined to forestall this. Howard asked the advice of David Garnett, who had known White for almost 30 years. Garnett recommended another old friend, Sylvia Townsend Warner. So it came about that less than 2 months after White’s death, on 16 March 1964 Michael Howard wrote to Warner suggesting she should write White’s life. There is no indication that she knew anything about White except for reading some of his poems which he had sent her unsolicited. However, she wrote back the next day:
Dear Mr Howard,
I feel profoundly honoured by your suggestion that I should undertake T.H. White’s biography. Alas, we neither met nor corresponded. […] But if there is this body of material – letters and diaries and the memories of his friends – for me to draw on, the fact that I did not know him should not be too much of an obstacle. (Archive, 17 March 1964)
After a further exchange of letters, Howard was invited to lunch at Frome Vauchurch to talk about the project and about White’s diaries. Herself an inveterate diarist, Warner felt she was ‘hooked’. (Element, 25 November, 1965) Possibly she was unaware at this time why Jonathan Cape was so eager for a biography, but in any case she had her own reasons, some personal, some professional, for jumping at the chance.
For more than a decade, the proverbial bricks had been falling on Warner’s head. The 1950s had been years of unremitting dreariness, with threats of war, continued rationing, the death of old friends. Her mother died in February 1950 leaving Warner with a ‘moderate competency’ but Warner felt that she herself was ‘a dying person,’ and that ‘probably I shall not write another book for creation is no part of dying’. (Warner, 17 March 1950) She did of course: Her fine novel The Flint Anchor was published in 1954 and a volume of short stories, Winter in the Air, came out in 1955.
Her partner of many years, Valentine Ackland, had embarked on a long-drawn-out affair with an American woman and although it ended in March 1950 the relationship with Valentine inevitably changed. Valentine’s return to the Catholic fold in 1956 was another blow, as Valentine was well aware, writing in her diary that it could be ‘a maiming of her, coming on top of so much else she has borne, and somehow weathered’. (Ackland, 17 February 1956).
Somehow she weathered that brick as well and during the next years continued to write, despite ‘agonizing interim(s) of fret and complete drought’. (Warner, 10 May 1962) The winter of 1963 was bitterly cold and Valentine’s health was of increasing concern. Her editor at the New Yorker, William Maxwell, who esteemed her work highly, nonetheless had had to return several short stories and asked corrections for others.
In July, 1963 came another devastating blow. Warner’s beloved cat Niou died. He had been her constant during those years of uncertainty and his death left her totally bereft. The diary entries that chronicle his last days, his death and the aftermath of grief are amongst the most moving she ever wrote. She did what was perhaps for her the only thing possible under such circumstances – she wrote a short story. Many of the small details of Niou’s death are rehearsed again in this piece. A month after his death she had finished it and sent it to the New Yorker. She called the story “Total Loss.” Maxwell rejected it.
In early March 1964 she noted bleakly in her diary, ‘dead-alive as usual’. However, an unexpected creative challenge always had a stimulating effect on Warner. Perhaps it was the spur of Howard’s invitation, but on 26 March 1964, a few days after his letter, she began a long story, “A Love Match.” She was excited by the writing of it, after months of drear, and the New Yorker cabled immediate acceptance.
Given this background of events, accepting Howard’s invitation was in a sense inevitable. As she told a friend, Paul Nordoff, writing for her had always been ‘a secure private life’ without which she felt ‘desolate and oddly unprotected’. (Letters, 18 October 1956) Now she needed the challenge of something completely new and a project that would demand immersion in the impersonal details of research. Not least she needed a valid reason to withdraw into herself or, as she phrased it to another friend, ‘to reroot myself in my own faculties’. (Yale, Box 39)
Warner went up to London on 4 June and stayed with Michael Howard and his wife Pat. By now they were on first name basis and White was ‘Tim’. The next day they took Warner to Alderney, White’s last home. Howard tactfully left her alone in White’s house in Connaught Square, St Anne’s:
His suitcases were at the foot of the stairs, as though he had just come back.[…] His clothes were on hangers. His sewing basket with an unfinished hawk-hood; his litter of fishing-flies, his books, […] his vulgar toys bought at Cherbourg Fairs, his neat row of books about flagellation – everything was there, defenceless as a corpse. […] I went back to the hotel and drank a brandy and told Michael I expected I’d do the book. (Element, 22 July 1967)
Two days later they flew back ‘with 8 enormous cartons’ that another of Tim’s friends, Harry Griffiths, had removed from the house for safe keeping.
Before she could begin, there were obstacles to overcome. She was already painfully aware of the pitfall of dealing with copyright holders and literary executors. In 1961 her publishers, Chatto and Windus, asked her to do a new translation of À La Recherche du Temps Perdu as Scott Moncrieff’s famous translation was based on a defective text. She had done a significant amount of work on it when she was told that the descendents of Moncrieff would not consent to any changes in his translation. She found the entire episode, which dragged on for some months, ‘very tiresome, and painful and disgraceful’. (Element, 12 May 1961)
Similar hitches threatened the White project: ‘The complications are indescribable. T.H. White left no literary executor, his estate executors are the Alderney Bank, who naturally rely on the agent. There are a great many difficulties of copyright, and very likely the whole project may bog down’. (Element, 14 May 1964)
In order to convince the Alderney bank trustees and to ‘quell the agent,’ Howard (Cape) had to generate ‘some awe-compelling statements’ and, rather mortifying for someone of her reputation as a writer, she had to produce several pieces of evidence that she was not ‘only a novelist’. (Archive, 4 May 1964) She sent Howard by return mail Portrait of a Tortoise and Sketches from Nature. (Archive, 5 May 1964) A further delay occurred when Howard suggested to her own publisher, Chatto and Windus, that the biography be ‘a joint affair’. (Archive, 5 June 1964) Negotiations were edgy if polite, but in the end, as Warner phrased it, they ‘agreed to share my favours’. (Element, 18 January 1967) With remarkable speed, the persistent Howard managed to overcome all further stumbling blocks, the three-way contract was signed, and on 20 June he came again to Frome Vauchurch with the material’-‘a wagon load of it’. (C 2 March, 1965) [vi]
On her way to Alderney she had written to Valentine ‘I wish I had never consented to the project of T.H.W. There was a new vitamin in it – or there seemed to be – and I snapped at that. Instinct should not have been my guide’. (Stand, 5 June 1964) Despite her misgivings, she had known when she was alone in ‘White’s persisting house, his uneasy suspicious ghost everywhere,’ that it was settled: ‘I was the cat in the hamper’. (Element, 25 November 1965)
There is no doubt that the project was tempting. A biographer only too often must write about someone long dead and to base the work on scant material. White had just died; she would have access to many of his friends - and enemies - still alive; she had a copious amount of material to work with. Howard wrote to her:
I have done a good deal of spade work on the T.H. White project. I have been in touch with a number of people. […] I have also collected a large quantity of letters and made copies or extracts of them to retain for the biography.[…] I have worked over the journals he left me, which indeed provide a mine of material which, though it could not be reproduced for many years to come, will nevertheless be invaluable to a biographer. It lays his character bare. (Archive, 1 May 1964)
This is a situation that a biographer dreams of. It is also the situation a biographer dreads. She soon became aware that what she might find in the mass of papers and his journals would be hurtful to his friends and admirers. The diaries were an especially sensitive issue. Howard made it clear to the agent and to Warner herself that ‘Tim made this bequest to me and to my heirs, instead of leaving this material with his other papers to the Estate, because he did not want the Estate to have it. […] They have no responsibility towards the people who could be harmed by the contents of the journals becoming known, nor even to Tim’s reputation’. (Archive, MH to DH, 11 June 1964)
Howard’s fight to keep the diaries, the later ones
especially, from prying eyes inevitably was to influence her treatment of White
himself. She wrote to David Garnett: ‘So far, I only know
what I want to do. I won’t cheat; and have a
beginning idea of what I can’t do, which is a
bottomless pit. […] After all the years intelligent people like ourselves have been
illuminating English society it is still totally impossible to be honest’. (S&D, 8 June 1964)
An early comment indicates one of her worries:
I have remembered the name of that playful little book about flagellation. It is called THE WHIPSTER and it is in the middle shelf of the bookshelves. […] It would be none the worse for burning, I think. One would not like the wise world to mock him with it. Perhaps the group of flagellant books in his bedroom should be checked for annotations? (Archive, 10 June 1964)
The next day Howard wrote to Harry Griffiths, and asked him to remove the books ‘and perhaps a sack and a rock somewhere on the way to Cherbourg might provide the best means of disposal’. (Archive, MH to HG, 11 June 1964)
On 25 August she wrote to Howard, who had asked her for a synopsis: ‘I’m afraid my ideas are so simple that I can’t produce a synopsis that would appeal to anyone. I propose to begin at the beginning, and go to the end’. This she did, deftly tracing White’s life – his birth on 29 May 1906 in Bombay, India; his education at Cheltenham and Queen's College; his time at Cambridge; the period from 1930 to 1936 when he was an English master at Stowe School; his decision to devote himself full time to writing; his move in 1939 to Ireland where he remained during the Second World War; then finally, on the advice of his friend, David Garnett, to Alderney where he lived for the rest of his life.
There were 198 pieces of material that Howard had brought down - letters, files, notebooks, irreplaceable manuscripts, early diaries and all his published and unpublished writings. She read everything in the crates, remarking: ‘It seems exorbitant but since they are available it would be silly to miss them because of a scruple about exorbitance’. (Archive, 9 July 1964)
Her basic premise was ‘Wherever possible, I shall let him speak for himself, and for the rest, I shall write like myself’. (S&D, 27 July 1964) By the end of August, she had ‘got the shape of the book more or less planned, and I have begun to write some of it’. (S&D, 25 August 1964)
Although she had an immense amount of material written by White himself, she needed something more: ‘It is not possible to write a biography half of which is written by the subject. It is like blackbirds baked in a pie’. (C 3 March 1965) She found letters from all sorts of people mixed in with the files, bills and books: ‘It is a very interesting nightmare – and delights my propensity to archives,’ (Archive, 9 July 1964) but she felt she needed more, asking Howard for addresses of people who knew White. She soon got ‘informing letters’ from some; others indicated anxiety about appearing in a life of White. (Archive, 22 August 1964)
From the beginning, Howard played an unusually accommodating role for an editor, much less the managing director of a company. When she decided to cast the net even wider, she asked Howard to send a ‘trawling letter’ to the TLS: ‘I think the time has come for one of those appeal letters in the TLS. Could you do this? You know the ropes. I don’t. Love from Sylvia’. (Archive, 14 February 1965)
She was particularly eager to correspond with someone who had quarrelled with Tim. ‘Try to find me someone who remembers Tim with acrimony. Their name must be legion but everyone is so forgiving and overlooking towards the dead […] yet Tim’s rows are an essential ingredient in Tim’s portrait’. (Archive, 20 October 1964) In her quest for insight into his personality, she even asked an astrologer friend to cast Tim’s horoscope ‘It might turn out to be interesting, and would be a Feature!’ (Archive, 22 August, 1964) [vii]
As the biography progressed, she turned increasingly for advice and support to two friends - David Garnett and William Maxwell. Warner and David Garnett first met in July 1922 when she was 29 and he 30. They exchanged letters often until 1933 when the connection lapsed for reasons that can only be guessed at. The correspondence began again in 1955, tentatively at first, but once she began the biography she wrote to Garnett often, knowing that he was one of the few friends White confided in. She soon realized that the White/Garnett relationship would be ‘a King-post of the book’. (C 9 May 1966)
For more than 40 years Warner exchanged letters with William Maxwell, the New Yorker fiction editor. She came to trust Maxwell both as a fellow writer and as someone whose professional judgment she could rely on absolutely. She consulted him often about the writing of her White biography. By November 1965 she had finished the section about Tim’s sojourn in Ireland and wrote to Maxwell:
I long to hear what you feel about White in Ireland. You will see that it is a narrative, not a biography. He was interesting enough for a narrative but not important enough for a biography. I realised this at first with alarm, then with delight, since it allowed me to use the narrator’s devices of binds: references back and intimations forward. (Letters, 23 November 1965)
While this discovery freed her to use her well-honed skills as a story-teller, a ‘narrative’ approach presented another dilemma as the letters she wrote to Maxwell and Garnett indicate. Writing a life is difficult enough; writing the life of a writer presents particular challenges. A rather important one was that she soon found she did not have much respect for his writings. She admitted to Garnett ‘I often dislike his writing to the point of embarrassment’. (S&D, 14 November 1965) A year after she had begun the biography, she wrote to him again: ‘White is killing me. I don’t see how I can give the book any air of proportion. Do you realise that all his creative work was over by 1945? From then on, he splutters and gutters’. (S&D, 3 June 1965)
Her solution was to summarize the plots of his writings but generally refrain from much critical comment. Occasionally she could not resist one of her inimitable sly sideways thrusts: ‘[Earth Stopped ] is haggard with intellect, and the reader is left feeling ungrateful for not being more amused when the author was being so brilliantly amusing’. (White, p79) Although she was aware it may be damning with faint praise, of The Goshawk she wrote: ‘I think this is really Tim’s best book – an opinion which is perhaps not very flattering when analyzed’. (White, p244)
She could also be devastatingly direct:
It is difficult to read the fifth Arthur without exasperation. It could have been so good and it is so bad. […] The fault lies in the book’s schizophrenia. Giving the impression of being written by two different people it does not seem sincere. Written by one man, it seems demented. (White, p182).
Whenever possible she praised generously. She quotes from the story ‘Losing a Falcon’ which, she points out, is recollection embellished – something which Warner herself did supremely well. In this story, White revisits an episode in his past which was so humiliating he barely mentioned it in his diary. But here it becomes a light and amusing piece and she comments, paraphrasing Crashaw, ‘It is an instance of how by grace of technique wrongs will repent to diadems’. (White, p 290)[viii]
The ‘narrator’s devices of binds’ allowed her to concentrate instead on the writer, taking encouragement from a comment made by a close friend of White, L.J. Potts, who considered that ‘he was far more remarkable than anything he wrote’. (White, p46) However, turning from the writings to the ‘remarkable’ writer presented other difficulties. Garnett let her read the many letters between him and White and they became an essential ingredient in her biography. They revealed White’s humour, his charm, his touchiness and bad temper, his immense energy, his essential loneliness - and what Warner called his ‘dislikeability’. When Garnett berated himself that ‘I never asked myself the most obvious questions about Tim,’ (S&D, 21 August 1965) Warner’s response was: ‘I think your heart was constantly interposing between the questions you might have asked him and him. You didn’t want your head to plumb the depths of his dislikeability’. ( S&D, 24 August 1965)
She was aware that she was in a similar danger. She didn’t want to plumb the depths of his unlikeability either, but she admitted that ‘it is difficult to write about Tim without appearing to scorn him’. (C 16 February 1965)
As a biographer, where do you go from there?
She and Garnett wrote frankly to each other about what Garnett knew from personal experience of ‘Tim’ and what Warner was learning from ‘the crates,’ and particularly from his journals, which Howard had already warned her ‘lays his character bare’. From knowing nothing about White she now knew perhaps too much. She complained to Garnett, ‘White the diarist is often womanish – clever-womanish, i.e. self-deluding, giddy, lonely […] and shrewish’. (S&D, 7 February 1965) She compared White to Turgenev, a ‘mixture of brag and diffidence’. (S&D, 28 January 1965) Garnett disagreed, ‘I don’t think Tim was at all like Turgenev. He was to begin with far less intelligent. […] Turgenev was a masochist; Tim a sadist’. (S&D, 3 February 1965)
White himself had told his friend that ‘he was a sadist and that his sadism had wrecked his love life, because he never felt sure he was loved until he had been cruel to the object of his love’. (S&D, 9 June 1965) His homosexual tendencies as they are revealed in his diaries were another matter. She had told Michael Howard, ‘The fact that Tim left you his 50-60 run of diaries is a clear enough indication that he wished his heart’s affairs to be kept private, and I shall respect this as much as I can; while at the same time not mealy-mouthing the difficulties of his character’. (Archive, 5 November 1964)
She apparently decided to refer only indirectly to his sadism and his homosexuality (which during White’s lifetime was illegal) and instead she made judicious use of his letters and diaries to make the matter clear, referring to his notebook from August 16 to September 14, 1928 in which, she says, ‘he discussed the problem of how to live as a homosexual’. (White, p42)
When Howard read the typescript he told her that the agent, David Higham, had questioned whether there was any evidence for Tim’s homosexuality: ‘You are right not to give way. I wonder only whether the fact that David is able to persist in his doubts indicates that you should give some stronger indication that your diagnosis is based on evidence direct from Tim’s own channels’. (Archive, 14 March 1967)
Her response was to insert into the typescript a letter White wrote to Potts in January, 1936 in which he told his friend that ‘if I had any guts I should write and publish my sexual autobiography’ and that he was seeing a psychoanalyst daily who had been recommended to him by a man who ‘was a sadistic homosexual, and is now married and has a baby’. (White, p83) Howard had decided against footnotes ‘in an unspecialised book of this kind,’ (Archive, 18 January 1967) but there is a rare one in connection with this letter:
[…] Between 1957 and 1961 he kept an intimate record of his own poor devil state. He considered this the most important of his books and made a special bequest of it with the hope that its publication (at a date when it could no longer distress those it concerned) might contribute to a more enlightened and merciful outlook on sexual aberrants.
Certainly White had a huge capacity for both male and female friendships that had no hint of sadism, and to the animals he surrounded himself with he was kind-hearted almost to a fault. Warner, having acknowledged this fully and generously, goes on to make one of her one-sentence observations that take the breath away: ‘I suppose the true reason for all his fickle devotions was that he fastened his mind on any plank that would carry him across the snake-pit’. (S&D, 7 February 1965)
What she first thought of as a ‘playful little book about flagellation’ by now had become for her something much darker when Garnett stated ‘Tim was a flagellant and I think he was subconsciously longing to beat my sons,’ (C 18 February 1965) she was not sure how to deal with this aspect of White. Or, for that matter, how to deal with his penchant for young boys. In the event she left out his flagellation fantasies and only discussed in any detail his love for the boy ‘Zed’.[ix] Even this she handled this very circumspectly, again leaving a quote from his diary, 1 March 1959, for the reader to draw any conclusions.
If I had no insight into my condition, really I would say I was insane. I am in a sort of whirlpool which goes round and round, thinking all day and half the night about a small boy – whom I don’t need sexually, whose personality I disapprove of intellectually, but to whom I am committed emotionally against my will. […]What do I want of Zed? -- Not his body, merely the whole of him all the time. It’s equivalent to a confession of murder. (White, p288)
Inevitably events of the time seeped into her perception of him. She read in the papers about ‘the trial of the sadist couple who killed the children [Hindley and Brady] now being held,’ and wrote in her diary:
It hangs over my mind. It was this, exactly this sort of thing, the raped girl & boy, the tape recording of their cries so up to date that waited round every corner for White. This I must both grasp and STATE.
Such a vice would account for his queer infantilism: under such a burden one cannot wholly grow up’. (Warner, 21 April 1966)
Grasping is one thing; stating it in a biography is another. She knew there were people who would be embarrassed by any disclosures, and more innocent friends who had no idea of this darker side. She was also aware that White had legions of followers who adored his stories of Merlin and Arthur and who would be shocked by revelations of his secret life. She was always at risk, she felt, of ‘unloosing a hornet’s nest of disillusions’. (Archive, 12 January 1967) Presumably Cape wanted a biography that would increase White’s readership not repel it.
This left her in the quandary known to all good biographers: what to put in and what to leave out. What she could put in was his generosity, his enthusiasms, his moments of joy, his times of deep depression, above all, his love of animals. This she did with great dexterity and an infallible sense of form, depending on his diaries to reveal this man of many complexities. She could and did enlarge upon White’s long relationship with his dog Brownie. White admitted that the bitch was ‘the central fact of my life’. (White, p210)
Warner included an account of Brownie’s death ‘I intend it to be very moving. (Brownie) was the only person he ‘dared to love without qualification’. (C 21 July 1965) The dog was, Warner told Garnett, ‘his half-self’. (C 28 July 1965) She had some trouble with this account as the details of Brownie’s death differed. White’s diary gave one, friends gave another: ‘Craig’s spanner holds up the account of Brownie’s death (I am beginning to prefer Craig’s version, it makes a better story). In the end she accepted White’s diary account: ‘A diary must have priority over recollection, if it is written hot and hot. His was’. (C 8 August 1965)
She goes on to make a rare comment on her own diaries: ‘I am surer of this because on and off I have kept diaries. And when I read them to have a day to day account of something I remember, I am always surprised to find what an artist my memory is, how it extends and contracts calendar days into a shapely narrative’. (C 15 August 1965)
Much more difficult was deciding what to leave out.
She suspected from the beginning that she would be in ‘the infuriating quandary of knowing essential elements in the story which it will be impossible to state’ (Element, 9 June 1964) and that she would have to write ‘so much of it with one hand tied behind my back’. (C 18 November 1966) This difficulty became acute when she began reading his ‘agonizingly personal’ late diaries. She arranged with Howard to temporarily store them at the Dorset County Museum so she could ‘read and note them there while remaining on the boil’. (Archive, 18 June 1966) In her diary she notes:
18 July, 1966. To Dorch. museum, to open White’s box.[…]This is going to be very painful.
19 July, 1966. To Dorch. It was, increasingly.
9 August, 1966. I go deeper into the tin trunk as if I went deeper into dungeons. It is the attentive childishness of the private fancy volumes: the care with which the photographs of endless buttocks bare or scarred are stuck unto the page, that frightens me. Perversions like his are like a goblin child that will not quit the grown man’s being.
Reading these later diaries made an indelible impression on her. She wrote to Garnett, ‘I sit reading them in a large calm library with an old gentleman or two turning over the day’s Times and saying, Là tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté - and Tim raving in my ear’. (S&D, 3August 1966) It was, she told Maxwell, ‘like feeling at home in hell.’ (Element, 22 July 1967)
There was always the possibility of libel which meant material she may have wanted to use had to be omitted. She was written to and in at least one case visited by, people who threatened that they did not want to be mentioned in the biography. Garnett warned her: ‘There was that appalling painter full of grievances against Tim. […] Don’t mention him or we shall certainly get into a libel action’. (C 14 June 1966) He also warned her about ‘Josie’: ‘What are you putting in about Josie? […] She will bring a libel action if she can. At the same time she is an important incident in Tim’s life. I imagine that Josie and Rachel […] were efforts to have normal relations & that in later years he became more pederastic’. (C 1 March 1965) She could tell Garnet what she felt she could not put in the book: ‘She and Rachel were attempts to bring it off with a woman. He had a whore on tap in 1936, prescribed by his psychoanalyst I fancy. [Josie] occurs in some dreams of the period. In some she is a hermaphrodite: in other dreams he wears women’s clothes; in one is a girl.’ ( C 3 March, 1965)
The last chapter also proved tricky. Both Warner and Howard were worried about the Neapolitan episodes and Howard sent that section off to Cape’s solicitors for guidance. She agreed that ‘It must be re-done. But it can’t be left out’ and went on with further suggestions for ‘dodging libel actions’. (Archive, 12 January 1967)
What rescued the biography from being a life of a mediocre writer with an unlikeable personality was her sheer professionalism, her irrepressible wit and her sense of form. She tended to avoid any heavy psychological analysis (more biographers should). She admitted to Howard that his passion for shooting geese was ‘a safety valve for his sadism’ (Archive, 9 February 1967) but she did not suggest this in the biography. However, she could not resist the infrequent crushing aperçus such as ‘Insecure characters suffer a great deal from mortification but little and briefly from remorse’. Or in a consummate one-sentence summary of a psychoanalytical conversion reaction: ‘He went back to Alderney, where he was alone, with the broken heart in the calf of his leg for company’. (White, p147 and 308)
Occasionally she wondered whether this biography would prove too much for her. She sent Maxwell the Ireland chapter which she considered ‘the centre arch of the story’ (C 7 November, 1965) and when he did not respond immediately, she wrote despairingly in her diary, ‘I am passée’. (Warner, 21 November 1965) Fear haunts every biographer- the fear of knowing too much, the fear of knowing too little, of throwing the wrong things out and keeping the wrong things in. Above all, the fear of being ‘passée’.
It was Warner’s ability to shape a narrative that carried her through: ‘I am enjoying this book a great deal, now that I have realised the heart of the matter, which is, as usual, form’. (Archive, 22 January 1965) ‘Form’ allowed her to fit in ‘a great many details which had scattered like quicksilver before’. (S&D, 9 August 1969) Form also allowed her ‘stand back at a distance’ in order to ‘impose some sort of order & sequence on the disorderly creature’. (Archive, 14 February 1965) As a novelist, she was a master of knowing how ‘to fill the sentence in the right direction, to fill a form, not merely pages, to know when to press the tempo, when to relax it.’ (Letters, Warner to George Painter, 19 December 1967)
To Maxwell, however, she sent a more ambiguous comment about ‘form’.
When I was studying musical composition, on one occasion I took in an unfinished exercise in which I had left a gap of several blank bars; and the man who was teaching me remarked “Those are the most promising bars you have done so far, Sylvia.” […] If I hadn’t developed a sense of form before, I did then. (Element, 3 December 1961)
As a narrative, the biography was shaping as well as any of her stories, but that still left the question of the blank bars - what should be, what was, left out.
This was not a question of form but a more profound problem of the relationship that develops between a biographer and the person he or she is writing about. When Maxwell asked her why she took the biography on, she had answered ‘because it was a human obligation’. (Element, 22 July 1967) What responsibility did she have for Tim? Why did she feel protective of him? What effect did this sense of duty to the defenceless dead have on what she called ‘distinctions of difficulty’. On the biography itself?
By the time she began writing about his last years, she knew White very well as only someone who has read another’s most private thoughts does. She knew he was an inferior writer and a terribly damaged person, but his despair and anguish had seeped into her consciousness and a protectiveness entered into the equation.
Some years before she had praised Maxwell for his review of Kilvert’s diary and ‘dealing so humanely with Kilvert’s half-baked sadisms’: ‘You read the diaries and the diarist’s heart, and you have written the most sensitive and comprehending and perfect summary, and Kilvert’s ghost can rest in peace’. (Element, 30 May 1961) As she read White’s last diaries part of her wanted to let White’s ghost rest in peace but another part of her, her tough professionalism, argued against it. She had commented tartly on Holroyd’s biography of Lytton Strachey ‘It is a drudging performance. He has included everything he could and should, and some of the ingredients are marvellous. And it is like a plum-pudding with the brandy forgotten.’(S&D, 23 October 1967) She was aware that the same thing might be said of her biography.
If I could use his lust and rage and frenzy and defeat over the Arlott boy I could make a real dragon’s tail ending. But everybody’s bloody feelings are in the way, and if I observe them I shall be reduced to the portrait of a frustrated Scout-Master. And I feel so much affection for him (maddening and caddening though he was; and really he was a considerable cad), and so much compassion. (C 3 June 1965)[x]
Garnett’s interesting comment was:
You must write your book without thinking about anyone’s feelings. Then when you have completed your masterpiece, you can bowdlerise the 1966 edition, knowing that the whole thing will appear in 1996 and that there will be long reviews saying that you were not only a poet, not only master of the short story, but the most brilliant and perceptive biographer of the era. […] It is really the only sensible and practical way of dealing with him. (S&D, 9 June 1965)
She did not follow Garnett’s advice but instead omitted much: ‘I am still torn in the mind whether I should not have included some of his flagellatory fantasies.’ (C 26 October 1966) She knew she was treading a fine line between tact and truth. She must have agonized over this as she had had a similar experience with writing her short story, “Jonnie Brewer.” She had to cut the ‘sexual implications’ to make it ‘acceptable’ to the New Yorker but admitted to Maxwell, ‘What is bothering me is that the edited version is an entertaining perfectly publishable story, but Version #1 sticks in my mind and I keep thinking […] the original version was the better one’. (Element, 8 April 1964)
This conundrum drained her. As happens with all biographers, tiredness sets in - not just the emotional tiredness, but the physical exhaustion: She wrote to Garnett: ‘My book gets longer and longer. There are times when I feel as exhausted and hopeless of the end as God creating all those fishes’. ( C 21 July 1965) But suddenly (as also happens) ‘I am in a state of contained delirium with the last years of the biography. Something that isn’t me appears to be doing it irrefutably’. (S&D, 3 August 1966.)
Howard was politely but urgently asking when the biography would be finished. She had promised it in 18 months or at most 2 years, but it was 2½ years before: ‘the last pages of Tim’s book will be posted to Carol tomorrow. […] I can’t yet believe it is finished. I don’t know what I shall do without it. But finished it is’. (Archive, 16 December 1966) She confessed to Maxwell, ‘How I ever got to the end of it is only matched in marvel by how I ever had the audacity to set out on it.’ (Element, 12 June 1967)
Of course there was still the drudgery of actually getting the book into print. Warner’s long experience with the New Yorker meant she intended to be fully involved. Many of the letters to Howard at this time dealt with details such as the title (her suggestion “Portrait of White as a Confused Person” was rejected), what photographs to include and in what order, what should go on the front and the back of the book jacket. There were worries about permissions, about the accuracy of her transcriptions of Tim’s Greek. They discussed spacing for chapter breaks, dating conventions, the pros and cons of single and double quotes and the dreaded italics. Howard had an index done but for some unfortunate reason this was left out. She refused to write the blurb but insisted on reading the setting-copy (‘I enjoy reading STW’). (Archive, 23 February 1967) Even at this late date she changed the ending. Norah Smallwood of Chatto and Windus had written to say how moved she was by the penultimate sentence which STW had crossed out ‘because it held up the plain narrative effect I wanted. But now I incline to think it necessary; but right at the end. […] I don’t like to rob dear tear-jerking Tim of a sentence which moved the not very moveable Norah S’. (Archive, 16 June 1967) There was another late change when Howard asked her to delete the word ‘sodomy’ in the case of Zed. She replied. ‘I agree. Away with sodomy. Let it read “guilt; the relation had been a free, shameless consent in enjoyment.”’(5 August, 1967) But she could not resist changing that instead to ‘guilt; the relation had been a gay, shameless consent in enjoyment’. (White, p296)
During this last phase Michael Howard was an inestimable editor. He dealt personally with the many problems associated with the printing of the book (‘I never thought to see Butler & Tanner’s presswork and binding sink to so shoddy a level’. (Archive, MH to Butler and Turner, printers)) He also spent considerable energy in ‘pre-publication word spreading,’(Archive, 27 June 1967) and when the book was published, set to work finding reviewers.
Howard was delighted with the biography: ‘I really could not either be happier with it, nor more profoundly impressed by your achievement’. He added ‘I appreciate most clearly the stupendous effort you have put into this book and the enormous void which its completion must leave in your life. […] I wish we could at once find you some equally absorbing project in which to plunge yourself’. (Archive, 5 January 1967) He didn’t and Warner certainly felt the void, declaring her sense of loss over and over in the 1967 diary. ‘I have just done up Tim’s great diary, looked for the last time at the lock of Brownie’s gentle glowing hair & kissed it farewell. Well, my dear Brownie, […] I gave you my best writing. And as I sealed the parcel I felt a destitution’. (19 January 1967)
There were some excellent reviews, but possibly Maxwell’s letter of congratulation meant the most to her.
15 July, 1967
No one who is not a novelist could have […] used the passages from the journals in the way you have. […] Somehow, by making him understood, you have released him from the trap he was caught in. […] And it is just possible that the trap is the clue to everything – I mean, by his feeling for animals, he was one of them, and because he was one of them, you could do the book as you have done it.
Warner replied, ‘You say […] one thing which illuminates a motive I had in writing the book though I had not formulated it to myself: of course you are right. He was an animal, “one of them.”’ (Element, 22 July 1967) Warner understood better than most White’s all-encompassing love for his animals. She wrote in the biography that White ‘turned to them for a renewal and enlargement of his being. Even with Brownie, who refused with the whole unscrupulous force of a strong and supple character to be non-possessed, and whose death […] was to maim his heart’. (White, p139) Only someone who had written in her diary the loss of Niou could write that sentence.
She knew she had done a good job – her publishers, her friends, her reviewers had said so. But the blank spaces continued to haunt her. In her diary for 3 April 1967 she quotes Nicolas Chamfort, the 18th century French writer: ‘La plus belle femme du monde ne peut donner plus qu’elle a’ (The most beautiful woman in the world can only give what she has) ( Maximes et pensées #383) and goes on:
This, since decency demands, is almost true. I could say more about his aberrations – so puny in fact, so overwhelming in feeling – but there is a kind of ill manners about such discussions with strangers: and that is what the printed page means.
Maxwell referred to her ‘selfless accomplishment’ and Garnett praised ‘the gentleness with which you handle that feral creature’. (S&D, 2 May 1977) Was it her own love for animals that impelled her to treat White as gently as she did? If she released him from a trap, did she not perhaps recognize that White had caught her like the proverbial cat in the hamper, that in the end she had been hampered by her affection for him, restrained by her gentleness?
There may be another interpretation. It is possible that Warner was tired of being characterized as ‘dear gentle Sylvia, so understanding and compassionate’. (Warner, 29 September 1966) Indeed she may have used in the biography the technique she had discovered when in 1962 she wrote a long story “The Beggar’s Wedding”: ‘Writing it I have, after so many short stories, tasted the queer excitement of giving my characters enough rope to hang themselves’. (Warner, 13 February 1962). Did she savour the ‘queer excitement’ of appearing gentle while giving White enough rope to hang himself?
Or was she thinking of the rest of Chamfort’s maxim, which she did not quote: ‘This is entirely false. She gives exactly what the recipient thinks he has received.’
Did she, in the end and for whatever complicated reasons, rational and irrational, only give what she felt
the recipient should receive, or did she fool the reader into thinking he had
received everything? Did she release White from the trap or did she hang him? Such was Warner’s supreme art, it is possible that she had it both
ARCHIVE: The STW/VA Archive, Dorset County Museum. Unpublished letters to and from Michael Howard and Sylvia Townsend Warner. Unless otherwise indicated, the correspondence is between Warner and Howard.
C: “Conversing on Their Tomb”: Letters in STW/VA Archive to and from David Garnett & STW which are unpublished.
ELEMENT: The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner & William Maxwell, 1938-1978. (2001) Edited by Michael Steinman. Washington. D.C: Counterpoint.
LETTERS: Sylvia Townsend Warner Letters (1982) edited by William Maxwell. London: Chatto & Windus.
STAND: I’ll Stand by You: The Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner & Valentine Ackland (1998) edited by Susanna Pinney. London: Pimlico/Random House.
S&D: Sylvia & David: The Townsend Warner/Garnett Letters (1994) selected and edited by Richard Garnett. London: Sinclair-Stevenson. Richard Garnett left out of this selection a number of letters exchanged by STW and DG copies of which he subsequently gave to the Archive. These will be cited as “C”. The citation “S&D” indicates published letters.
WARNER: The diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner, 1927-1978. The STW/VA Archive, Dorset County Museum.
WHITE: T.H. White: A Biography by Sylvia Townsend Warner (1967) London: Jonathan Cape with Chatto &Windus.
WG: The White/Garnett Letters (1968) edited with a preface by David Garnett. London: Jonathan Cape.
YALE: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
Alyse Gregory Papers. Box 39
is the Honorary Curator of the Sylvia Townsend Warner/Valentine Ackland
Archive and for some years also curated the Powys Society Collection at
the Dorset County Museum. As well as many articles, reviews and prefaces,
she is the author of Shielding:People and Shelter and John Cowper Powys and the Magical Quest. She edited Petrushka
and the Dancer and The Dorset Year, as well as
co-editing the first complete edition of Powys’ masterpiece, Porius. Most recently
Duckworth published her Descents of Memory, the biography of John
[i] Richard Garnett only included a few of the letters concerning White in Sylvia and David. There were 85 surviving letters from Warner and 59 from Garnett which he did not include. He subsequently gave the Archive copies of the unpublished as well as the published letters.
[ii] The Archive has copies of the Warner/Howard correspondence concerning the biography which Howard gave to Warner. See above. In January, 2013 Hilary Hinckley gave the Archive the originals of much of this correspondence and, in addition, 52 letters which Warner wrote to Howard’s wife, Pat Marriott, illustrator.
[iii] ‘If we had known when we began what a lot of things we should write to each other about we should have agreed to keep the complete correspondence to be preserved for posterity to study as an example of perfect publisher-author relations’. (STW to MH, 29 June 1967) Fortunately Howard took the hint and had photocopies made not only of their letters to each other but also a large cache of letters Howard wrote to other people and firms in connection with the biography. This is now in the Archive.
[iv] Cape already had such heavy-weight authors as Robert Frost, Ian Fleming, James Joyce, T. E. Lawrence on their books. In the 1960s, the firm courted and published such authors as John Lennon, Kingsley Amis, Len Deighton and the went on to publish J. G. Ballard, Salman Rushdie, Roald Dahl, to name a few.
[v] The disagreement with Collins began in December 1941. Collins had been White’s publisher for 8 years. Previous to that, Chatto had been his publisher but he had quarrelled with them too. After tense negotiations, Collins and Cape arranged a partition. Collins finally published the first four Arthur books under the title Once and Future King. Cape added White to their list of authors and published all his subsequent books. However, all future editions and reprints of the Once and Future remained with Collins. Warner handled the matter delicately in the biography but wrote to Michael Howard: ‘By the time I had worked out Trouble With Collins my sympathies were strongly with Collins…But I consoled myself by remembering that Tim (contrary to Tim’s impression) was not his only author!’ (Archive, 24 September 1965.)
[vi] The Bank of Alderney were the trustees and legal owners of all the material in the crates, and it is not certain whether its removal to Frome Vauchurch was done with the knowledge of the Estate. It was removed from Alderney initially because Howard and Griffiths were concerned about hasty dispersal and sale. In any case, Howard needed the material for Warner to write the biography. Howard had his secretary make copies of much of the material and then set about convincing the trustees that it should be used. In June, 1964 Howard paid ‘a once and for all payment’ to the Estate ‘for use of the material in a biography’, but it was not until August the Estate signed the document ‘enabling us to make unrestricted use of all the T.H. White copyright material’.
[vii] Mark Lubbock, the husband of her friend Bea Howe, did cast White’s horoscope and the detailed analysis is in the Collection. Warner did not quote from it in the biography, but wrote in her diary, 12 January 1965 that ‘even without the birth-hour [the horoscope] fits disconcertingly and delightfully close.’ Many of White’s personality characteristics as derived from his horoscope are outlined in the report, characteristics which either Warner was guided by in her assessment or, more likely, which confirmed her judgement of his personality which she concluded from his work and diaries .Certain key characteristics have been marked on the margin by someone, such as ‘T.H. would be mentally active, quick at repartee certainly a bright & energetic conversationalist… clever but at the same time sometimes superficial… He would tend to take on too many projects… His thoughts would hark back readily to the past in which he would probably live. Gemini would make him restless, inquisitive, incessantly on the go…nervously excitable. Mercury in Taurus would give him strong determination but he would also be likely to be obstinate and self-opinionated. Jupiter square Saturn must have brought melancholy & disappointment into his life. Mars conjoined to Jupiter in Gemini would give him a great love of fun & probably a satirical tendency. An active, belligerent or disputative life is probable.’
[viii] 'Losing a Falcon' in The Godstone and the Blackymor. Her quote is from Richard Crashaw, A Hymn to St Teresa: ‘Tears shall take comfort, and turn gems/And wrongs repent to diadems’.
[ix] STW wrote in her diary on 1 January 1965 that John Arlott’s son, aged 20, was killed when his car skidded into a lorry. This was the “Zed” of the biography, and there was a question whether it was suicide. She goes on: ‘All the love, the fostering, the Merlin method, the passion, the frustration, the despair poured out on this boy who is now a dead young man.’ STW & MH discussed whether this should be mentioned in the biography and Warner felt it would be “too identifying” of the real Zed.
[x] Richard Garnett was equally careful about libel. In the published letters, an em dash was substituted for the boy’s name. In the unpublished letters he is named.