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The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner -- Ed. Claire Harman
fairytale horse
andygrrrl wrote in queerlit50

After reading Summer Will Show, I’ve become a big fan of Sylvia Townsend Warner. I picked up her diaries in a used bookstore and they were as delightful and witty as I expected, but also deeply moving. The diaries take us from 1927 to 1978, from the tail end of Warner’s affair with Percy Carter Buck, through her life with Valentine Ackland, to her widowhood and final illness.

The woman in these diaries is funny and passionate, self-assured and comfortable in her bohemian lifestyle and Leftist politics. Cheerfully atheist, she was an authority on English sacred music; as she  remarkes dryly in August 1930, “The Church has lost a great religious poet in me; but I have lost an infinity of fun in the church, so the loss is even.” Fun was important to Warner, her diaries are full of good friends and good conversation, food, music, art, and travel. It’s a fascinating record of social history, too, watching the Great Depression, the Second World War, and the cultural upheaval of the 20th century play out in Warner’s every day life:

January 26, 1942. At Boots Library the young woman put into my hands Virginia Woolf’s last book. And I received an extraordinary impression how light it was, how small, and frail. As though it was the premature-born child, and motherless, and literally, the last light handful remaining of that tall and abundant woman. The feeling has haunted me all day.

January 19, 1959. To Dorchester. There we saw Monica [Ring], looking so ill, so withered, so lifeless, that my heart staggered…I said something must be done to rescue her. One cannot see anyone so drowning and just sigh on the brim. And, as I said, she has everything, husband, child, home, that is supposed to constitute a woman’s happiness. Pooh!

But mostly, the diaries are full of Valentine. I haven’t read a biography of Warner, and the diaries don’t indicate if she ever had previous female lovers, but she’s remarkably unconflicted about her sexuality. She never hesitates for a moment once Valentine starts courting her. I thought it was surprising how little angst she had about falling in love with a woman in 1930; but then she was part of that latter-day Bloomsbury artistic circle, where bisexuality was perfectly acceptable. Valentine, however, came from an aristocratic Anglo-Irish Catholic background, raised as a surrogate son (shades of Stephen Gordon), and struggled with depression, alcoholism, and self-destructive behaviors all her life. She was was obviously an incredibly charismatic and sexy woman:

October 18, 1930. There was even more disorder in my black hair than in my thoughts, indeed my thoughts were as secure as trees — the poplar twittering outside, shaking the light off its leaves, like flashes of joy — as I sat on the floor with her looking at me with that lappet of smooth hair, such inequity, hanging over one eye like a very young, fastidious, urbane pirate.

Warner tends to deliberately overlook the unpleasant side of Valentine’s personality (throughout the diaries she refers to Valentine’s drunken binges and hangovers as “migraines”).  Valentine really doesn’t come across very well, but Sylvia accepts, even loves her complex and difficult nature. Valentine’s on-again, off-again relationship with Roman Catholicism caused Warner almost more pain than her infidelities (reading between the lines, I think it’s because Valentine tried to be celibate when she was a practicing Catholic). There’s an incredible entry when a jealous ex-lover of Valentine’s violently assaults her and threatens to kill herself, which Warner records with her typical acerbic humor: “Oh, I forgot. She also seized Valentine’s tie and tried to strangle her. One loses oneself in this lavish programme of vile behaviour”.

What also comes through, despite the turbulence of their relationship, is Warner’s uninhibited, whole-hearted love for Valentine. I totally sobbed when Valentine died; Warner’s ability to record the event, and her own grief, in simple but beautiful prose is a real tribute to her talent as a writer. Personally, what I appreciated most about the diaries was seeing two women build a life together, watching the evolution of a lesbian love story over decades, despite enormous obstacles. The country villages they lived in seemed to keep them at arms length, partly because they were well-known as Communists, partly because Valentine was so openly butch. It’s also clear that some of their friends didn’t know they were lovers, and not just spinsters keeping house together. There’s also a poignant moment when they decide to what to put on the 1931 census, and settle on “companion” and “spinster”.

I kinda wish I had read a biography first, just so I had a clearer idea of who’s who and what happens when. Warner left 38 complete diaries, so Harman has been pretty ruthless in getting it all down to one volume. Which means there are large gaps of information, especially 1940s, when her relationship with Valentine was in crisis. Also, I really hate the caricature of Sylvia they put on the cover of my copy. She was a striking-looking woman, I think a photo would have been more respectful. Aside from those criticisms, I loved every page. Highly recommended if you’re interested in lesbian history, or just plain good writing.

March 15, 1957…Alyse, enquiring on about to what purpose does one strive against mobs, officials and atom bombs, asked how I should feel about such vain strivings when I come to die. I said, “When I die, I hope to think I have annoyed a great many people.”


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Wow, what a fabulous review! I must bump the "read Sylvia Townsend Warner" item further up my to-do list!

Thank you so much for posting this thoughtful and detailed review! The quotations work so well to give an idea of Warner's style and really made me want to read her.

Thanks! I'm glad you liked it. It was actually really difficult to choose which quotes to use, there's so many good ones. I'm turning into a real STW pusher these days, she's so awesome and unappreciated.

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