This is the second Warner novel I’ve read, and it’s utterly fascinating. It’s incredible to think it was published in 1936. Sophia Willoughby is a wealthy English landowner, raising her two children with strict Tory values, perfectly happy to be separated from her dissolute husband, who’s living with his Jewish mistress in France. But then her children die, and Sophia’s life falls apart. She travels to France in attempt to rebuild her crumbling identity, arriving in Paris on the eve of the 1848 revolution. Instead of patching up her failed marriage, Sophia falls passionately in love with the mistress, Minna, who lives a radical, bohemian artist’s life. What surprised me was how upfront Warner was about Sophia and Minna’s intense feelings for each other—this is clearly a love affair, full of romance and sensuality, although there’s no explicit sex. There is plenty of obvious symbolism for the queer reader, though: Sophia and Minna gaze at each other intimately, stroke their lover’s hair, fondle roses (lots of rose fondling!), admire each other’s hands. They have long conversations in bed together, and the narrator declares their mutual love repeatedly. I’m not sure how Warner got away with it, really, considering the drama around Radclyffe Hall just for the line “That night they were not parted.” I can only assume that Warner was so overlooked at the time that nobody paid much attention to her.
This is not just a lesbian novel though: it’s a novel of ideas, ideas about race, class, and politics. Minna is involved with the communist revolutionaries in Paris, and Warner’s ability to show Sophia’s evolution from Tory landowner to communist sympathizer is brilliant. You believe in Sophia’s transformation completely, because Warner makes her a complex being. Minna’s Jewish identity is a central focus of the novel (there’s a long digression when Minna describes surviving a pogrom as a child that is totally gripping), and Warner cleverly shows up Sophia’s anti-Semitism by her continual surprise as Minna (and the other Jewish characters) fail to live up to the stereotypes. One of the strengths of the novel is the diversity of the characterizations. The revolutionaries are a motley group of workers, artists, slumming bourgeousie, and political idealists. Throughout Warner (herself a member of the Communist Party at the time the novel was published) maintains a clear-eyed perspective of her characters. The revolution falters because of the infighting and lack of pragmatism in the movement. Sophia’s political awakening doesn’t prevent her from being miffed that the workers don’t thank her adequately for the help she provides. The idealists, in their zeal, do as much damage as the bourgeois dilettantes.
The only fly in the ointment is the character Caspar, Sophia’s biracial cousin from the West Indies. He’s only in the novel to highlight certain points about the main characters, and I feel Warner does a disservice to his character. This short novel doesn’t really have room for him, and you’re left feeling disappointment that Warner didn’t extend the same richness and complexity to her black character.
There’s a lot in the 300-odd pages of this novel that’s worth exploring. Sylvia Townsend Warner is quickly becoming a favorite writer of mine; she deserves more attention.