I’m not sure, no matter how long or hard I search, that I will ever find a more perfect letter writer than Sylvia Townsend Warner. I was half convinced of this after finishing The Element of Lavishness, a collection of letters back and forth between her and William Maxwell, but now, part way through Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner (edited by William Maxwell), I am convinced.
It’s not just her eloquence and style – she has an abundance of both – but her ability to transform the mundane into something both beautiful and memorable. Her imagination never flags and she uses it to elevate small moments – a passage in a book she is reading, an encounter with a friend, a memory of her travels – into amazingly vivid scenes that would not be amiss in a novel. What a delight it must have been to be one of her (many) correspondents.
I’m still near the beginning of the book but am enjoying it so much that I had to share my enthusiasm – and a few passages – right away.
Showing off her humourous side (on arriving back in England, having been in America when war broke out):
…Just when we were in port, and sitting waiting for the immigration officers to come and give us landing tickets, all of us sitting in glum patient rows in the saloon, the most terrible thing occurred. For a fulsome voice with a strong Irish accent upraised itself in our midst and began to intone Land of Hope and Glory. For a moment it was remarkably like being torpedoed. And people who had looked perfectly brave and sedate during the voyage suddenly turned pale, and looked round for escape. There was of course no escape. The singing came from a large fur-coated white-haired lady surrounded (rather like Britannia) with a quantity of parcels. And she sang all through that embarrassing stanza. Then she paused, and looked round challengingly. We all pretended we had heard nothing unusual, nothing, in fact, at all. (12 October 1939)
Longing for southern climes during the first, brutally cold winter of the war:
I feel sometimes that my eyes will give out, perish, if they don’t rest on a Latin outline. I would like to sit on a hot stone wall, smothered in dust and breathing up the smell of those flat-faced roses that grow along the edge of Latin roads, or perhaps the rich harmonious stink of a heap of rotting oranges thrown in the ditch; and look at oxen, and small dark men with alert limbs and lazy movements, such as cats combine. And I would like to sit outside a café of atrocious architecture, drinking a pernod, and looking across at some Jesuit great-grandmother of a church that I shan’t go into. And I would like to touch small hard dry hands like lizards, and hear people saying Tss, Tss, when a handsome girl goes by. And see small proud boys making water against notices that say they’re not to. And awful dogs of no known breed being addressed as Jewel; or alternatively as Bastard and Sexual Pervert. (16 February 1940)
Marvelling at Queen Victoria:
I have been re-reading that extraordinary woman’s Diary of Our Life in the Highlands. Really…she and her Albert were an amazing pair. They would go off, down an unknown road in the Highlands, in a strange pony-chaise, all by themselves, ford torrents, scramble up mountains, gather ferns and cairngorms and I should think all probability inaugurate some more heirs to the throne under a pine-wood or on the edge of a precipice, without a care of a scruple. And with their faces still quite filthy, tufts of heather sticking to their clothing, a most unsuitable freedom still gipsyfying their countenances, they would return to be an example of wedded decorum to all the courts and homes of Europe. (7 December 1933)