Thomas Hardy and Sylvia Townsend Warner Study Weekend in Dorchester, 10-11 February 2024

By Jan Montefiore

The study weekend organised jointly by the Thomas Hardy Society and Sylvia Townsend Warner Society, led off on Saturday 10th Feb with a day-long mini-conference in the Learning Room of Dorchester Library (which some members may recall from the AGM we held there in 2018), attended by c. 30 people, including members from Cornwall, Lancaster, Manchester, Cambridge and Canterbury (Judith Bond, Gill Davies, Hannah Berry, Maud Ellmann and John Wilkinson, and myself) as well as Peter Swaab and six students from University College, London. I gave a paper on Hardy and Warner: ‘Affinities and Differences’ concerned both writers’ lives in Dorset, their musicianship and how this played out in their works, and their shared interest in ghosts. There were excellent papers on Hardy from two poet-critics: Mark Ford on ‘Hardy’s Elegies for Emma’ and Peter Robinson on ‘Hardy and Warner Haunting Churchyards’. After the lunch break, Mark Chutter of the Hardy Society spoke interestingly on ‘Warner’s Journals’, and Peter Swaab gave an admirable paper on ‘Hardy, Warner and Life’s Little Ironies’. There were lively questions and discussion after each paper, from members of both societies. There was also a book sale, mostly of Hardy books but also copies of the JSTWS, Mark Ford’s new book Woman Much Missed, and Peter Robinson’s poetry collection Retrieved Attachments, all at bargain prices. 

Max Gate exterior, with sundial under turret on the right

At 4pm, Mark Chutter led a guided tour of ‘Hardy’s Casterbridge’, including the former office of John Hicks, the architect, whose apprentice the teenage Hardy had been, and the grand house of the ‘Mayor of Casterbridge’ (now the Dorchester branch of Barclay’s Bank) together with the less affluent Fordington area. After a short break, most of us reassembled at 6pm in the Casterbridge Room of the now renovated King’s Arms in Dorchester High Street for a group reading of poems by both writers and by those they had influenced (including John Cowper Powys, Seamus Heaney and Bill Manhire, and also Mark Ford and Peter Robinson themselves), chosen by the readers and chaired by Peter Swaab, followed by the conference dinner.

The whole day was as one member said, ‘really fun and educational’. We were lucky with the weather that weekend, and on Sunday Feb 11th, we gathered again at Hardy’s self-designed home Max Gate on the edge of Dorchester on a morning of early spring sunshine. Our guided tour had been arranged by Mark Chutter. Max Gate was officially shut for the winter but especially opened for us. Several furniture items were covered with dust sheets – for which the volunteers apologised, but which I rather liked as the winter arrangements gave the feeling of a lived-in house rather than a museum. I took a photograph of the outside, with the sundial encircled by its strange Latin motto Quid de nocte? ‘What of the night?’, and Sarah Pattison took a better one of the front hall.

Max Gate entrance hall (note the model of Hardy’s terrier Wessex in the easy chair)

After our tour of Max Gate we went to The Sailor’s Return in East Chaldon, where we enjoyed our group pre-booked Sunday lunch. For this we needed two tables, and I found myself at the table of the Hardy Society, and greatly enjoyed meeting several members there as well as seeing old and new friends from the STW Society. Peter Swaab then led a guided tour through East Chaldon to the parish church of St Nicholas, where we admired the lovely appliqué Nativity made by Betty Muntz and the East Chaldon children, with its portraits of Chaldon animals known to the children. Sarah Pattison and I both took photographs of it, neither of which is entirely successful (we had problems with the reflections on the glass in front of it) but both give some idea of its charm.

We then went to the churchyard, and viewed the STW and VA stone with its motto non omnis moriar: ‘I shall not wholly die’.

Beth Carr

We then saw the once sinister building that’s now the red-brick Rectory, in the 1930s an orphanage in which servant girls were notoriously exploited by the Rector’s wife, arousing concern in the village and a petition organised by the writer Llewellyn Powys and signed by Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland. This led to a national scandal and a summons for libel in 1935, whose costs of £1000 were awarded against the three (£1000 in 1935, equivalent to £89,120 in 2024, was a vast sum especially for freelance writers – but the scandal got the orphanage closed: a victory of sorts, however expensive). Lastly we stood outside TF Powys’ house, Beth Car, designed and built by Hardy’s brother – now with a conservatory extension, but still the same red brick villa.

Then the majority of us went home; but because I was staying the Sunday night for an appointment in Dorchester on Monday, I was able to visit the marvellous Elisabeth Frink exhibition in Dorchester Museum. This is on until April 24th and I urge anyone living near enough not to miss it. Here are two items: a photo of a large print, and of her maquette for her 15-foot statue Risen Christ over the porch of Liverpool Cathedral, her last sculpture.

 

Thomas Hardy and Sylvia Townsend Warner: Wessex Writers

A Joint Study Weekend between the Sylvia Townsend Warner Society and the Thomas Hardy Society

From 09:30, Saturday 10th February until 17:00, Sunday 11th February 2024 

At Dorchester Library, South Walks House, Charles St, DT1 1EE

Although not born in Dorset, the author and poet Sylvia Townsend Warner fell in love with the county when she visited Chaldon Herring and the surrounding area in the 1920s. The weekend will consider Hardy and Warner’s writing against the backdrop of a Wessex Landscape. Speakers will include Professor Jan Montefiore, Professor Peter Swaab and Mark Damon Chutter.                

Book Tickets Here    Detailed Programme Here

  • £40 Non-Members
  • £35 Members
  • £30 Students

 

There will be a three-course meal (£35) served in the evening in the Casterbridge Room, King’s Arms, Dorchester. Please contact Kings Arms to book directly on 01305 234 234.

Mary Jacobs Memorial Essay Prize 2022

Mary JacobsThe Sylvia Townsend Warner Society is pleased to announce the Mary Jacobs Memorial Essay Prize 2022. The aim of the Prize is to encourage further study of the writings of Sylvia Townsend Warner, in honour of the distinguished work of Dr Mary Jacobs.

There are two optional themes for the 2022 essay competition, namely Warner’s writings after 1945, and Warner’s relations with another writer or writers. However, the Society will gladly accept essays on any aspect  of the life and work of Sylvia Townsend Warner, and the prize will be awarded on merit whether or not the submitted essays address the optional themes.

The Award
The prize for the winning essay will be £300, publication in the Society’s  Journal  and one year’s free membership in the Society. There will be two runners-up prizes of £100 each.

Procedure
Essays should not be more than 6000 words, including notes.They should preferably be submitted in electronic form, or else in hard copy, and should be submitted in two parts – 1) the essay without any identifying details, and 2) a separate document with author’s name, title of the essay, and email and postal addresses. Entries should be sent electronically to p.swaab@ucl.ac.uk or in hard copy to The Editor of the Sylvia Townsend Warner Journal, English Department, UCL, London WC1E 6BT.

The deadline for receipt of entries is 31 December 2022. The winners will be notified by the Chair of the Society in January 2023.

The winning essay will be published in the Sylvia Townsend Warner Journal in 2023.

Terms and Conditions
• The competition is open to all, with the exception of the officers of the Society.
• The judges’ decision will be final and no correspondence will be entered into.
• The Committee reserves the right not to award the Prize or runners-up prizes if entries are deemed not to merit the award.
• Essays entered must not have been published elsewhere or have publication pending.
• The Society will not contribute towards any expenses incurred by entrants to the competition.

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.