Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Sylvia Townsend Warner - Harrow Radical Heroine

With the Hunted: Sylvia Townsend Warner 
Selected Writings Black Dog Books, £16.99
 Friday 31 August 2012
 by Angel Dahouk With the Hunted:

Sylvia Townsend Warner Selected Writings Best known for her 1926 prize-winning novel Lolly Willowes, Sylvia Townsend Warner is Harrow's hidden heroine, a fiercely intelligent woman whose quiet defiance earned her great respect among her contemporaries. 

But following her death in 1978 - aptly on May Day - Warner's name is remarkably absent among the literary avant-garde. Her prolific narratives of working-class exploitation and her portraits of radical activists such as Rosa Luxemburg and Countess Markievicz are important contributions to an ongoing historical struggle. 

Yet together with her lover Valentine Ackland, Warner was also committed to a wider critique of post-war "normative" societal structures. Famously ridiculed by a number of her male counterparts, particularly Stephen Spender, her radicalism - she was an active member of the Communist Party which she had joined in 1935 - a fact often seen as irreconcilable with her "formalistic" style. 

Warner's Selected Writings bring together an impressive display of articles, essays, talks, journal entries and letters. These showcase a broad range of interests from English country living to Victorian literature to the Spanish civil war. Arranged into eight sections, the selection includes her earliest published article in Blackwood's Magazine in 1916 describing her time as a munitions factory worker during WWI. 

Even as an elementary piece, the characters are vivid and the demoralising conditions are real. The war, Warner makes clear, did not unite workers. "'Scrap' was written coldly and briefly on some of them," she comments. The section titled Dispatches contains some of Warner's pivotal writing, triggered by her time in Barcelona during the Spanish civil war. Here, Warner is roused by the republican cause and writes with clarity and passion about the people and events. 

The church represents a refuge of oppression, "used as arms-dumps and machine-gun nests" and scenes of savagery and murder are committed in allegiance with faith: "There, by the church, the firing squad was waiting, trim and powerful," she writes. Warner is unsympathetic towards the religious agenda in Spain, which she describes as subjugating an otherwise naturally intellectual nation. 

While a number of articles reveal a love of the English countryside and a depth of description which can only come from sustained exploration, Warner claims that she is "unfitted by nature to compose a guidebook." And she was right. Her writing is not about the wonders of nature but the nature of people. Raymond Williams once pointed out that in the English language "the country" can refer to a rural area or it can denote a whole society. 

Warner take us on a journey that is sharper and more reflective than mere travel writing - it is a journey into consciousness and culture. "Even when people tell me I am a lady novelist," explains Warner, "it is the wording of the allegation I take exception to, not the allegation itself." Her extraordinary flair can be both comic and caustic at once - she challenges dominant thought on a number of levels so that she cannot be readily indexed as one type of writer. 

The scope of topics in this collection defy any single categorisation but, throughout her writing, she consistently champions the marginalised. "When we can publish rich, vigorous and varied stories," declares Warner, "this will be the finest propaganda for the working-class cause." 

Sylvia Townsend Warner
Born Harrow
December 6, 1893 and Died 1 May 1978