Biography


Sylvia Townsend Warner


Valentine Ackland

Sylvia Townsend Warner was a highly individual writer of novels, short stories and poems. She contributed short stories to the New Yorker for more than forty years, translated Proust's Contre Saint-Beuve into English, wrote a biography of the novelist T.H.White and a guide to Somerset.

Born in 1893, Sylvia was the only child of Harrow School housemaster George Townsend Warner (remembered as a brilliant teacher) and his wife, Nora. After an unsuccessful term at kindergarten she was educated at home. Sylvia was an accomplished musician, and it is said that the outbreak of War in 1914 alone prevented her from going abroad to study composition under Arnold Schoenberg. In 1917, she joined the Committee preparing the ten volumes of Tudor Church Music published by Oxford University Press between 1922 and 1929. One of her fellow committee members - and long-time lover - was Percy Buck, a married man twenty-two years her senior.

Tall, thin and bespectacled, Sylvia was a disappointment to her mother, with whom she had an uneasy relationship. After her mother's remarriage (George Townsend Warner died suddenly in 1916) matters improved, but mother and daughter were never to be close.

In 1922, Sylvia, at the instigation of Stephen Tomlin, a charismatic if manipulative figure who later became part of the Bloomsbury Group - and who was a former pupil of her father's - went to Chaldon Herring in Dorset to visit the writer Theodore Powys. This melancholic, withdrawn man, whose large family included John Cowper and Llewelyn Powys, had been writing unsuccessfully for years.

Along with Tomlin and the writer David Garnett, Sylvia Townsend Warner was instrumental in the publication of Theodore's novels and short stories which had languished unseen for years. First to be published was "The Left Leg", three stories dedicated to his trinity of supporters. Powys and Warner became great friends and for a time there was almost a "school" of Chaldon writers, quirky, droll and rustic, which included Sylvia's novel "Mr Fortune's Maggot", Garnett's "The Sailor's Return" and many of Powys's short stories.

Also in Chaldon, at Theodore Powys's house, Sylvia first met the poet Valentine Ackland. When in 1930 she bought "the late Miss Green's cottage" opposite the village inn, she invited Valentine to live there. So began a love affair which lasted until Valentine's death from breast cancer in 1969. The couple's joint collection of poems "Whether a Dove or Seagull" was published in 1933. Although most of their life together was spent in Dorset, they also travelled widely and lived from time to time in Norfolk notably at Frankfurt Manor, Sloley and Great Eye Folly, Salthouse (which was later destroyed by the sea).

In 1935, Sylvia and Valentine became committed members of the Communist Party, attending meetings, fund-raising and contributing to left-wing journals. They twice visited Spain during the Civil War. Their lives at this time and most of their writings - like Warner's "After the Death of Don Juan" - were charged with politics.

In 1937 the two women moved to a house on the river at Frome Vauchurch in Dorset. Here Sylvia produced many of her most important works, including "The Corner That Held Them", (1948) set in a medieval East Anglian nunnery. Valentine met with less success in her own painstakingly-sustained career. After her death, Sylvia published a collection of her poems, "The Nature of the Moment". Sylvia lived on for another nine years, dying on May Day, 1978. The couple's ashes lie buried under a single stone in Chaldon churchyard.

Although there has been a revival of Sylvia Townsend Warner's work in recent years, she remains an under-appreciated figure. The Sylvia Townsend Warner Society aims to create a wider interest in this brilliant, original and witty writer.

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