Sylvia Townsend Warner

Sylvia Townsend Warner was born in 1893 in Harrow and died in Dorset in 1978. Educated at home she worked in a munitions factory during the First World War, moving on to become a versatile writer whose career spanned poems, short stories, novels, music reviews, a biography, translations of Proust and a guide to Somerset.

Her work as an expert musicologist and co-editor of Tudor Church Music (1922-29) kept her in London in the 1920s but she escaped for weekends and vacations to the Georgian family villa, Little Zeal, on the southern slopes of Dartmoor near South Brent, which her mother and father had built in 1914. One of her fellow editors at Tudor Church Music – and long-time lover – was Percy Buck, a married man twenty-two years her senior.

Warner first bought a house in Dorset in 1930 and lived in the village of Chaldon Herring. Here she met the young poet Valentine Ackland, with whom she would live until Ackland's death in 1969. The couple wrote a volume of poetry together, Whether a Dove or a Seagull (1933), and were part of the literary set in the county. As leading members of the Communist Party of Great Britain they were, from the 1930s onwards, on the radar of the security services and investigated by MI5 for 'communist activities' – Ackland's masculine dress sense attracting the most attention.

In 1937 Warner and Ackland settled in a cottage by a river bend in the village of Frome Vanchurch, eight miles north-west of Dorchester. This is where Warner produced many important works, including her 1948 novel The Corner That Held Them. West Country landscapes and characters inspired and informed Warner's writing and attracted comparisons to Thomas Hardy. From the 1930s through to her death Warner wrote more than hundred and fifty short stories for The New Yorker, many of which she set in the Devonshire or Dorset countryside. In 2006 a collection entitled Dorset Stories brought many of these together, plus a number of previously unpublished short stories.

Country estates, village shops and parish gossips all appear regularly in Warner's work, yet amidst these provincial details her writing was politically charged and she was considered a controversial international figure. She worked for a Red Cross unit in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War, protested against nuclear power and openly lived in a lesbian relationship for most of her life.

Her first book of verse, The Espalier, was published in 1925 and followed up by the publication of the novels Lolly Willows (1926), Mr Fortune's Maggot (1927) and The True Heart (1929), gaining her immediate recognition as a novelist. In all, Warner published seven novels, eight volumes of poetry and eighteen volumes of short stories.

In the 1970s she became known as a significant feminist and lesbian writer and her novels were among the earlier ones to be reprinted by Virago Press. Selected letters of Warner and Ackland have been published in 1998 under the title I'll Stand by You: The Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland. The ashes of Warner and Ackland lie buried under a single stone in Chaldon churchyard.

Vike Martina Plock and Hannah Wood

Archive

The Sylvia Townsend Warner Archive is housed at the Dorset County Museum, in Dorchester. This rich resource contains more than 5,000 items including letters, manuscripts and typescripts, diaries, drafts of stories and poems, photographs, music manuscripts, reviews, paintings and other memorabilia.

Bibliography

Novels

  • Lolly Willowes (1926)
  • Mr Fortune's Maggot (1927)
  • The True Heart (1929)
  • Summer Will Show (1936)
  • After the Death of Don Juan (1938)
  • The Corner that Held Them (1948)
  • The Flint Anchor (1954)

Short Stories

  • Some World Far From Ours (1929)
  • Elinor Barley (1930)
  • A Moral Ending and Other Stories (1931)
  • The Salutation (1932)
  • More Joy in Heaven (1935)
  • A Garland of Straw (1943)
  • The Museum of Cheats (1947)
  • Winter in the Air (1955)
  • The Cat's Cradle Book (1960)
  • A Spirit Rises (1962)
  • A Stranger with A Bag (1966)
  • The Innocent and the Guilty (1971)
  • Kingdoms of Elfin (1977)
  • Scenes of Childhood (1981)
  • One Thing Leading to Another (1984)
  • Selected Stories (1988)
  • The Music at Long Verney (2001)
  • Dorset Stories (2006)

Poetry

  • The Espalier (1925)
  • Time Importuned (1928)
  • Opus 7 (1931)
  • Whether a Dove or Seagull (with Valentine Ackland) (1934)
  • Boxwood (1957)
  • King Duffus and Other Poems (1968)
  • Twelve Poems (1980)
  • Collected Poems (1982)

Letters and Diaries

  • The Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner, edited by William Maxwell (1983)
  • The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner, edited by Claire Harman (1994)
  • Sylvia and David: The Townsend Warner/Garnett Letters, edited by Richard Garnett (1994)
  • I'll Stand By You: The Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland, edited by Susanna Pinney (1998)
  • The Element of Lavishness: The Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, edited by Michael Steinman (2001)

Biographies, Translations and Other

  • The Portrait of a Tortoise, extracted from the Journals and Letters of Gilbert White, with an Introduction and Notes by Sylvia Townsend Warner (1946)
  • Somerset (1949)
  • Jane Austen (1951)
  • By Way of Sainte-Beuve, translation of Proust's Contre Sainte-Beuve (1958)
  • A Place of Shipwreck, translation of Jean René Huguenin's La Côte Sauvage (1963)
  • T. H. White: A Biography (1967)