Posts Tagged ‘sylvia townsend warner’

anna karenina 2012blog
Keira Knightley as Anna Karenina (2013)

Dear friends and readers,

Although 20th century awarding of recognition for achievement in movie-making may not seem appropriate for a blog intended for matter Austen, 18th century and women writers, artists, and I admit I write just about all my film studies blogs on Ellen and Jim Have a Blog, Two; nonetheless it is rare that an art that can so exquisitely capture aspects of life’s fantastical array of qualities be treated on TV with the equivalent of “Hail Stupidity!” so that Pope’s Dunciad becomes relevant. Since I went to most of the movies I saw with Izzy, it’s no wonder I agree with her favored list, and her assessment of the prize-receiving fool’s gold and the way the program was handled.

I am just now listening to a recording of a dramatic reading aloud of the whole of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina; the reader is Davina Porter, and I see how brilliant and right was Matthew MacFayden as Stiva. And Knightley was as good as ever I’ve seen Emma Thompson, Hattie Morahan. Emmanuelle Riva was nominated for actress in a leading role (Haneke’s Amour). No one dared not vote for Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln. I assume the grave seriousness of the film was embarrassing to the voters. The great genius of film-making, Ang Lee, walked away with 3.

Still for the most part the choices and proceedings merit:

O Muse! relate (for you can tell alone,
Wits have short Memories, and Dunces none) [620]
Relate, who first, who last resign’d to rest;
Whose Heads she partly, whose completely blest;
What Charms could Faction, what Ambition lull,
The Venal quiet, and intrance the Dull;
‘Till drown’d was Sense, and Shame, and Right, and
Wrong— …
In vain, in vain, — the all-composing Hour
Resistless falls: The Muse obeys the Pow’r.
She comes! she comes! the sable Throne behold
Of Night Primæval, and of Chaos old! 148 [630]
Before her, Fancy’s gilded clouds decay,
And all its varying Rain-bows die away.
Wit shoots in vain its momentary fires,
The meteor drops, and in a flash expires.
As one by one, at dread Medea’s strain, [635]
The sick’ning stars fade off th’ethereal plain …


What new movie in a paying movie-house did I see this year in the movies worth seeing and great? The only ones that remain in my mind are Coriolanus, last February; Alfred Nobbs, last March. I admit since we go to HD operas, I don’t get to see enough new movies.


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Shell Cottage, Goodwood house, a creation of Louisa, Emily and Sarah Lennox (with more than a little help in the way of installation from their workmen)

Dear friends and readers,

Lisa Moore’s Sister Arts: Erotics of Lesbian Landscapes — and flower arrangements. This blog could be read alongside Amy Clampitt amid thrushes as both come from my reading the same Women’s Review of Books issue (Martha Vicinus, 29:1 (Jan, Feb 2012) as context. Moore’s volume is a companion to Donoghue’s Passions Among Women; both identify a pattern of life in the 18th century they call lesbian spinsterhood and claim was recognized by contemporaries. it reinforces or further supports sense from Austen’s letters that she loved Martha Lloyd more strongly than un-erotic friendship and the depiction of Charlotte Lucas contains memories of their parted relationship (see Letter 61). The value of Moore’s is her reading of texts and art, her identification of women and how her perspective has general application. This time I linked in the Lennox sisters as seen in Tillyard’s book, Aristocrats: Caroline, Emily, Louisa, and Sarah Lennox, 1740-1832; its adaptation into a mini-series, Aristocrats (which I loved as a kind of Little Women) and the Illustrated Companion to that (shell work!). This because we have another woman’s world which shows the same aesthetic patterns as those found in Moore and yet only one of the women was (possibly) a (closet) lesbian.


Moore’s four women are Mary Delany, letter writer and respected artist of botany and flower making (1700-88); Margaret Bentinck, Duchess of Portland(1715-85); Anna Seward, the poet and letter-writers (1747-1809); and Sarah Pierce, educator, writer (1767-1852). Moore finds in all these women a lesbian orientation which none of the women were permitted to follow openly, for one was coerced into marriage when young to an old man (Delaney), another was pressured to marry a rich powerful man who enabled her to become an important patroness of the arts (Bentinck). Like Donoghue, Moore makes a strong case and as with Donoghue, I can see Austen’s patterns with Martha, Anne Sharp and her sister more than conform to some of these Moore describes: they are closely similar.

This way of seeing Delaney makes sense of her urging Burney to become a lady-in-waiting to the queen and not being able to see how it was a death-in-life to Burney. Delaney even doubled-crossed Burney by going behind her back to the queen to get this to happen. Burney wanted to marry.

Obvious phallic detail from one of Delaney’s passion flowers

What most interested me was Moore’s interpretation of the flower and sea-shell art. I know that upper class women made these sea-shell caverns, had these picturesque caves built on their properties. I begin to see that Louisa Lennox, the sister who married the rather silly Irish man and lived all her life near her sister Emily who became Duchess of Leinster and supported the younger one, Sarah, when Sarah was ostracized for actually trying to live with a man she loved (he though took advantage of her real need and vulnerability) may reveals a hidden lesbian and sibling-erotic pattern. Louisa especially shows little interest in males and doesn’t care that her husband is child-like and obedient. One would have to read the letters to see what Tillyard might be discreet over here.

Lady Louisa Lennox by George Romney — a telling outfit? Louisa cared more about Emily than anyone else and Emily was fiercely loyal to Louisa.

Allan Ramsay (1713-84), Emily Lennox, Duchess of Leinster

Seward has long been seen as a lesbian from her relationship to Honora Sneyd (who was married to Maria Edgeworth’s father, who proceeded to impregnate her continually until she died). In Belinda, the treatment of Lady Delamar (who may stand for Honora Seyd), especially the fascination of the heroine with her breasts reveals a lesbian intensity and frustration. (See Patricia Smith, “Lesbian Panic in Narrative Strategies,” Modern Fiction Studies, 41 [1995], pp. 567-605.) What is generally known of Seward is how she cared for her father, inherited his money and used her disabled state to justify a life of retirement and socializing by writing to others.

Sarah Pierce was enabled not to marry because her brother supported her; he copied out some of her poems which would not have survived otherwise and they are love poems to other women, her friends.

We can reinterpret these artistic patterns of flowers, the letters and what has seemed “curiosities” and oddities (the shell work) become natural when we simply open our eyes to the strong gender element in the art.

Like Donoghue, what is valuable here is Moore’s book makes us understand yet other women. What this book seems to demonstate is how centrally gendered is art, and how art that we discuss as somehow universal is not and not only shaped by a particular culture but the product of the sexual outlook, experience, orientation, feelings whatever you want to call it of the artist. Using Moore’s perspective could not only shed light on the Lennox sisters’ lives but the botanical drawings and travel book and life, Chicoteau’s Chere Rose: A Biography of Rosalie de Constant (1758-1834) and imagery and activities of women in Ann B. Shtier’s Cultivating Women, Cultivating Science, Flora’s Daughters and Botany in England, 1760-1860


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Sylvia, with a loved and loving cat

Dear friends and readers,

Let me place this foremother poet blog with my Austen Reveries in honor of Austen’s possible lesbian spinsterhood, and yet regard it as an overdue extension of my other foremother blogs celebrating Jane Dowson’s Women’s Poetry of the 1930s: A Critical Anthology. There I told of five women poets of the left: Nancy Cunard, Winifred Holtby, Ruth Pitter and Valentine Ackland, the last of whom from 1930 on was the life-long partner of Sylvia Townsend Warner, who doesn’t need me to commemorate her: as, gentle reader, there’s a beautiful website, recordings of her reading her poetry, blogs which pick out her most beautiful private poems, to say nothing of a great biography by Clare Harman, and insightful essay on her and Valentine Ackland (see essay in comments).

Nonetheless, tonight I want to live through her poems as a poet of the solitary and solitude and at the same time echo others who have reminded the world that Townsend wrote and acted as a passionately politically committed woman of the left, tireless in her concern for the poor, deprived, and vulnerable, for cultural freedom and intellectual liberty, an anti-fascist, a radical spirit. Dowson’s selection omits the fairy poetry, everything that can be seen as twee, and offers strongly anti-war, Muriel Ruykeyser kind of verse, lesbian love poetry in the modern mode.

Some Make This Answer

Unfortunately, he said, I have lost my manners.
That old civil twitch of visage and the retreat
Courteous of threatened blood to the heart, I cannot
Produce them now, or rig up their counterfeit.
Thrust muzzle of flesh, master, or metal, you are no longer
Terrible as an army with banners.

Admittedly on your red face or your metal proxy’s
I read death, I decipher the gluttony to subdue
All that is free and fine, to savage it, knock it
About, taunt it to stupor, prison it life-through;
Moreover, I see you garnished with whips, gas-bombs, electric
          barbed wire,
And affable with church and state as with doxies.

Voltage of death, walking among my fellow men
Have seen the free and the fine wasted with cold and hunger,
Diseased, maddened, death-in-life doomed, and the ten
Thousand this death can brag have reckoned against your thousand.
Shoddy king of terrors, you impress me no longer.

Song for a Street-Song

What, do you plan for children now?
A child is a pretty thing,
A thing of promise, a tender thing.
Day by day, year by year,
You love it more. War is near,
And dogs and strangers choking in the gas fume
Is a calmer spectacle than the fruit of the womb.
There’s the sting
When the drums go rub-a-dub!
There’s the rub!

What, do you plan for marriage now?
Love is a handsome thing,
A thing of tenderness, a growing thing.
Day by day, year by year,
If It knits you more. War is near,
And flesh that lay beside you in marriage-bed
Mangles your own he an when it is ripped and shred.
There’s the sting
When the drums go rub-a-dub!
There’s the rub!

What, do you plan for freedom now?
Freedom is a noble thing,
The mind’s sanction, a vital thing.
Day by day, year by year,
It claims you more. War is near,
And freedom in muck of warfare maimed and defiled
Is a bitterer hazard than loss of mate or child.
There’s the sting
When the drums go rub-a-dub!
There’s the rub!

We plan for love and children now,
And freedom, that noblest thing.
We gather to us everything
That’s growing and tender, vital and dear,
To arm us more. War is near.
Against that enemy pang of the quickened sense
Is the swiftest weapon, is the surest defence.
There we cling
While the drums go rat-a-plan!
So we plan!

Drawing You, Heavy With Sleep

Drawing you, heavy with sleep to lie closer,
Staying your poppy head upon my shoulder,
It was as though I pulled the glide
Of a fun river to my side.

Heavy with sleep and with sleep pliable
You rolled at a touch towards me. Your arm fell
Across me as a river throws
An arm of flood across meadows.

And as the careless water its mirroring sanction
Grants to him at the river’s brim long stationed,
Long drowned in thought; that yet he lives
Since in that mirroring tide he moves,

Your body lying by mine to mine responded:
Your hair stirred on my mouth, my image was dandled
Deep in your sleep that flowed unstained
On from the image entertained.

West Chaldon, one of Sylvia and Valentine’s homes


A young Sylvia Townsend Warner, with kitten

I should say at the outset that until a few years ago I didn’t know that Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote poetry, nor that I had a volume of her Collected Poems, edited by Claire Harman in my house until Jim and I joined Library Thing and we catalogued our library. Then I discovered my treasure. I had thought of Warner’s books as Jim’s books: two volumes of fairy stories, biography of T. H. White, an Arthurian. Jim likes fantasy reading and enjoyed the tales especially Kingdom of Elfin. I believed he tried the T. H. White biography. This is not my thing. But then I read Claire Harman’s collection and introduction; Harman writes excellent biographies: her Fanny Burney is beautifully written, and has the merit of being the only one of the biographies frankly to demonstrate how fictionalized are the journals and diaries, and to argue this is inevitable, and does not detract from their greatness, indeed is partly responsible for it. Her Jane’s Fame commits the rare feat of providing new insights, new careful close reading — to show, among other things, that her family was generally against her having a vocation or career as a writer.

Sylvia Townsend Warner is known best for her fantasy stories and as a lesbian; her work is usually presented as belonging to the world of Arthurian Glastonbury romance of the type the Powys brothers were writing in the 1930s, a set of people and writing turning away from the modern technological industrial world. What is forgotten is the Powys brothers and those who wanted to turn away were often profoundly anti-capitalist, anti-materialist; they belong to the world described by Patrick Wright in his The Village that Died for England, and On Living in An Old Country, or (simply) Tank. She is not to be classed (as she sometimes is) with the kind of child-conservatism found in Dodie Smith’s comic masterpiece, I Capture the Castle.

Reading Warner’s poems reveals a Bronte-like undercurrent, grim, filled with despair, horror, quiet dread and the humor is hard. Harman says these poems could be fitted very well in one of Powys’s Arthurian romances; better yet, let us look at the currents as not unlike Thomas Hardy. And they are wholly unlike the child-like tone of Tolkien at times, and have nothing of the complacency of Sayers in her verse (who also was part of this upper class genteel set of the later period). They do seem a woman’s poems (the despair, melancholy, indirection) and often there is something strongly gothic in the pictures of the houses (haunted of course). Blake too, the brief ones with their sudden stinging protest (however muted what is being protested against is) with titles like “The Little Lamb.” Wonderfully she is outside what counts somehow and seeing futility and yet anguished over it. The best are very quiet.

Now here are two of these in her fairy vein:

From The Espalier (1925)

What voice is this
sings so, rings so
Within my head?
Not mine, for I am dead,

And a deep peace
Wraps me, haps me
From head to feet
Like a smooth winding-sheet.

Before my eyes
Reeling, wheeling,
Leaf-green stars
Have changed to purple bars

And flickered out,
Spinning, thinning,
Up the wall,
That has grown very tall

Only that voice —
Distant, insistent;
Like the high
Stroked glass’s airy cry;

Echoing on,
Winds me, binds me
As with a thread
Spun from my own head.

O speak not yet!
Forget me, let me
Lie here as calm
As saints that nurse their palm;

Whilst like a tide
Turning, returning,
Silence and gloom
Flow in and fill the room.

Some of her poems remind me of Elizabeth Bishop. This might seem a far-flung analogy, but the tone and indirect of the metaphoric surface are alike to me. So the following reminds me of Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room.” Warner is a poet of solitude:

Also from The Espalier:

Sitting alone at night
Careless of time,
From the house next door
I hear the clock chime

Ten, eleven, twelve;
One, two, three —
It is all the same to the clock,
And much the same to me.

But to-night more than sense heard it:
I opened my eyes wide
To look at the wall and wonder
What lay on the other side.

They are quiet people
That live next door;
I never hear them scrape
Their chairs along the floor,

They do not laugh loud, or sing,
Or scratch at the grate,
I have never seen a taxi
Drawn up at their gate;

And though their back-garden
Is always neat and trim
It has a humbled look,
and no one walks therein.

So did not their chiming clock
Imply some hand to wind it,
I might doubt if the wall between us
Had any life behind it.

London neighbors are such
That I may never know more
Than this of the people
Who live next door.

While they for their part
Should they hazard a guess
At me on my side of the wall
Will know as little, or less;

For my life has grown quiet,
As quiet as theirs;
And the clock has been silent on my chimney-piece
For years and years.

Sylvia Plath’s (yes the poet Sylvia Plath) Wuthering Heights

King Duffus

When all the witches were haled to the stake and burned,
When their least ashes were swept up and drowned,
King Duffus opened his eyes and looked round.

For half a year they had trussed him in their spell:
Parching, scorching, roaring, he was blackened as a coal.
Now he wept like a freshet in April.

Tears ran like quicksilver through his rocky beard.
Why have you wakened me, he said, with a clattering sword?
Why have you snatched me back from the green yard?

There I sat feasting under the cool linden shade;
The beer in the silver cup was ever renewed,
I was at peace there, I was well-bestowed:

My crown lay lightly on my brow as a clot of foam,
My wide mantle was yellow as the flower of the broom,
Hale and holy I was in mind and in limb.

I sat among poets and among philosophers,
Carving fat bacon for the mother of Christ;
Sometimes we sang, sometimes we conversed.

Why did you summon me back from the midst of that meal
To a vexed kingdom and a smoky hall?
Could I not stay at least until dewfall?

Her rhythms are insistent and strong. Not that I’m against the fairy poems: Townsend Warner created an internally consistent fantasy world — perhaps Tolkien would be comparable in this. Perhaps little known are her individual books of poems and how these intertwine. These two come from Boxwood (1960). In the first you see that Warner was another woman poet who looked back through to her mothers in writing, to earlier women:

Anne Donne

I lay in in London;
And round my bed my live children were crying,
And round my bed my dead children were singing.
As my blood left me it set the clappers swinging:
Tolling, jarring, jowling, all the bells of London
Were ringing as I lay dying-
John Donne, Anne Donne, Undone!

Ill-done, well-done, all done.
All fearing done, all striving and all hoping,
All weanings, watchings, done; all reckonings whether
Of debts, of moons, summed; all hither and thither
Sucked in the one ebb. Then, on my bed in London,
I heard him call me,. reproaching:
Undone, Anne Donne, Undone!

Not done, not yet done!
Wearily I rose up at his bidding.
The sweat still on my face, my hair dishevelled,
Over the bells and the tolling seas I travelled,
Carrying my dead child, so lost, so light a burden,
To Paris, where he sat reading
And showed him my ill news. That done,
Went back, lived on in London.

I know we don’t forget what a hard life Anne Donne had but it’s not common to bring her alive and use Donne’s refrains this way. Warner opens her book with a series of lyrics called “Boxwood” which interweaves myth, books, landscape. This is the fourth:

The book I had saved up to buy
Was come, and I
Unwrapped it and went out to be
In privacy,
As though to read such poems were
A kind of prayer.
And any bank, and any shade,
Will do, I said,
To be the temple of this hour­
So why not here
Where these old creaking chestnuts frown?
There I sat down
And read the poems; but the tree
Spoke them to me.

You can find very hostile remarks by Warner on women readers and feminism (by-the-bye); this too was common in the pre-1940s era. Yet Lolly Willowes (1926) is the story of a spinster who becomes a witch and was nominated for the Prix Femina The Corner that held the World is about medieval nuns (very eccentric); in Mr Fortune’s Maggot (1927) we meet a missionary sodomite out to convert others.

Some bibliography:

Valentine Ackland, For Sylvia: An Honest Account, London, Chano & Windus, 1985.
Barbara Brothers, ‘Writing Against the Grain: Sylvia Townsend Warner and the Spanish Civil War’ in Mary Lynn Broe and Angela Ingram, eds, Women’s Writing in Exile, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1989, PP·350-66.
Claire Harman, Sylvia Townsend Warner: A Biography, London, Chatto & Windus, 1985; London, Minerva, 1985.
Claire Harman, ed., The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner, London, Chatto & Windus. 1994.
William Maxwell, ed., The Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner, London: Chatto & Windus; New York, The Viking Press, 1982.
Wendy Mulford, This Narrow Place: Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland … Life, Letters and Politics 1930-1951, London, Pandora, 1988.
Sylvia Townsend Warner, ‘The Way By Which I Have Come’, Countryman, xix, no. 2, 1939. pp. 472-86.
PN Review 23, vol. 8, no. 3. 1981, special edition on Sylvia Townsend Warner.

Sylvia and Valentine’s first home


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