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Archive for the ‘Claire Harman’ Category

When I picked up The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner edited by Claire Harman I was looking forward to being reunited with an old, dear friend.  My acquaintance with Sylvia Townsend Warner (STW) goes back to 2012, when on Simon’s flawless recommendation I read The Element of Lavishness, a collection of letters between her and William Maxwell.  It remains one of my favourite books and encouraged me a few years later to pick up a collection of her letters (this time edited by Maxwell) that was almost equally delightful.  Through these letters I met a woman who was whimsical but dangerously observant, loving yet reserved, and ferociously intelligent.  I loved her for all these traits and looked forward to getting to know her even better through her diaries.

Turns out, that was not to be.  Some people are born diarists (Harold Nicolson and Charles Ritchie, for example, neither of whom I can ever praise too highly).  Others are not, perhaps because they have so many other outlets for expression.  STW, it turns out, was not a master diarist and saved the best of her writing and insights for her letters and books.  This is still a worthwhile book for any STW fans but it by no means gives as complete a picture of the woman, her interests, and her enchanting thoughts as do her letters.

Running from 1927 to 1978 (the year of her death), the diaries are sporadic and various periods her life remain undocumented.  The earliest years are dry but, to me, offer some of the most fascinating entries, full of musical scholarship concerns and relative indifference to her long-running affair with Percy Carter Buck, the director of music at Harrow.  She was in her early thirties, had already established herself as a successful author (with Lolly Willowes and Mr Fortune’s Maggot), and seems to have lived a pleasant and sociable life.  It was interesting to see her mention several times a vague sense of sadness that she didn’t have children but she seems more concerned with a sense of continuation and legacy than any feeling of loss:

I wish I could be a grandmother.  It is wanton extravagance to have had a youth with no one to tell of it to when one grows old (9 January 1928)

This period also included one of my favourite, very STW-esque entries:

We drank sherry in the nursery, while poor Bridget wailed on mother’s milk.  Sherry in the nursery seemed to very Victorian, with a high fender and a smoky chimney and all, that it occurred to us that we must be the last of the Victorians.  But later in the evening at the Chetwynd’s party I met a purer specimen…the little Countess of Seafield, so like Victoria that as I sat by her on the sofa I felt myself growing more and more like Lord Melbourne. (24 November 1928)

(This, for the record, is exactly what her letters sound like.  Please go read her letters.)

In 1930, however, the whirlwind begins: she begins a relationship with Valentine Ackland that will continue (with many, many bumps along the way) until Ackland’s death in 1969.  It was the consuming passion of STW’s life but it’s impossible to view Ackland benignly given how much pain she caused the ever-loyal STW.  Still, it began well:

Just as I blew out the candle the wind began to rise.  I thought I heard her speak, and listened, and at last she said through the door that this would frighten them up at the Vicarage.  How the Vicarage led to love I have forgotten (oh, it was an eiderdown).  I said, sitting on my side of the wall, that love was easier than liking, so I should specialise in that.  ‘I think I am utterly loveless.’  The forsaken grave wail of her voice smote me, and had me up, and through the door, and at her bedside.  There I stayed, till I got into her bed, and found love there… (11 October 1930)

The bulk of the diaries focus on Ackland.  Like many people, STW seems to have been most devoted to her diary when she was the most troubled and that trouble was invariably caused by Ackland’s infidelities, particularly her long relationship with fellow poet Elizabeth Wade White.  It’s excruciating to read her pain at these times, when the woman she was so devoted to was casting her aside:

I kissed the hollow of her elbow – gentle now under may lips, and no stir beneath the skin.  She looks as beautiful now as when she was beautiful with her love for me. (15 August 1949)

But it is worse when Ackland dies.  After long years of illness, Ackland’s passing leaves STW bereft and, for the first time in almost forty years, truly alone.  I remember finding her letters to Maxwell from this period excruciatingly painful and the diary entries are equally so, showing how much her days were consumed with thoughts of her lost love.  But this is also when she begins to record her thoughts on aging, which she excels at:

In my bath, looking at my arm, remembering how often she kissed it, I bethought me that I inhabit my body like a grumbling caretaker in a forsaken house.  Fine goings-on here in the old days: such scampers up and down stairs, such singing and dancing.  All over now:  and the mortality of my body suddenly pierced my heart. (18 September 1970)

Though the book is, primarily, an account of her time with Ackland (and an especially detailed chronicle of the difficult periods in their relationship), there was still enough of the minutiae of daily life to entertain me.  I was touched by her account of picking up Between the Acts shortly after Virginia Woolf’s death:

At Boots Library the young woman put into my hands Virginia Woolf’s last book.  And I received an extraordinary impression how light it was, how small, and frail.  As though it was the premature-born child, and motherless, and literally, the last light handful remaining of that tall and abundant woman.  The feeling has haunted me all day. (26 January 1942)

And I loved her delight at receiving a positive review from an Italian newspaper:

In the morning I received a cutting from La Gazettino – a Venetian paper – sent by Aldo Camerino who had written an extremely praising and glorifying and gratifying account of Winter in the Air, and me in general.  It is wonderful to begin a day by reading of oneself as La Townsend Warner.  Such things occur but seldom, and I have been enjoying a compass of over two octaves, a flawless legato, complete control of all fioriture passages, great dramatic intensity and a commanding stage presence all day.  (18 January 1956)

Moments like this are why I love STW.  It seems she saved most of them for her letters but there were still enough in these diaries to provide real enjoyment.  I can’t say the diaries helped me to know her any better but they were moderately fascinating, enough that I am happy to have read them.  And I did discover one very interesting thing: that she is exactly the same person in her letters as she is in her diaries.  It takes a special kind of confidence and courage to be fully yourself in correspondence and I’m delighted to have discovered this about her.

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“The significance of Jane Austen is so personal and so universal, so intimately connected with our sense of ourselves and of our whole society, that it is impossible to imagine a time when she or her works could have delighted us long enough.” (p. 229)

 I love reading about Jane Austen.  Yes, I love her books, but, sometimes more than reading them (particularly in the case of everyone’s least favourite Austen, Mansfield Park), I like reading books about the author and her influence.  From the moment I first heard of Claire Harman’s Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World, I knew I had to read it.  In essence, it is a survey of Austen’s popularity, from the very first editions during her lifetime through to the recent wave of Austen-mania, sparked in the 1990s by the BBC’s “Pride and Prejudice” miniseries (full credit going to Colin Firth and his wet shirt).  It’s an entertaining book, written in a very informal style with a clear understanding of its target market, namely Janeites, those devotees of Austen (or “dear Jane”) who are compelled to consume everything by her, about her or even remotely related to her. 

The book follows a chronological format, which works very well here, starting with biographical details on Austen life and the creation of her works.  Harman makes excellent use of Austen’s remaining letters and other primary source to paint a portrait of the author that stands in stark contrast to the pious, selfless spinster her nephew James Edward Austen Leigh would present her as in A Memoir of Jane Austen.  The story of Austen’s short and uneventful life is well-known though and it isn’t until after her death that Harman delves into fresh and more interesting material.  The idea of Austen being out of print seems outrageous now but such was the case.  Even when the copyrights expired on the novels (between 1839 and 1860), there was “no rush by publishers to pick up the free texts” (p. 94).  Despite famous admirers like Tennyson, Austen remained mostly unknown while Victorian readers indulged in the more salacious works Dickens and his contemporaries.

When Austen Leigh’s saccharine biography of his aunt was published, demand for her works suddenly soared.  And not just for the six novels in print – readers demanded to know more of the unfinished and unpublished works mentioned in the biography (Lady Susan, Sandition, etc).  The first wave of Austen-mania had been launched and the lucrative literary tourist trade began as disciples of the “divine Jane” toured the country to view the places she had lived as well as Winchester Cathedral, her final resting place.      

I enjoyed Harman’s liberal use of contemporary reviews and reactions to illustrate the changing attitudes of the time.  As always, the negative reactions are the most intriguing: Emerson considered her “without genius, wit or knowledge of the world” (p. 131) and Twain complained that “every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone” (p. 131).  Just think how many schoolboys have had the chance to feel that way in years since…

After the Victorian boom, Austen remained popular and in print, her volumes to be found even in the sparsest of home libraries.  For most of the twentieth century, she was a comforting read, something to be enjoyed by respectable, middle-aged people looking for unchallenging narratives with happy endings and a bit of humour.  But then the BBC introduced the average housewife to Colin Firth and…certainly we know the rest?

“AustenTM” is the final chapter of Jane’s Fame and both its most fascinating and most disturbing.  Do I really want to live in a world where a pseudo-scholarly book makes reference to YouTube fan videos (set to “It’s Raining Men” no less – see embedded)?  Or to blogs and fan fiction web sites?  I admit that Harman gave me a bit of a turn when she referred to Emma Tennant’s works as “the most intelligent” of all the published sequels (p. 217).  No.  Just…no.  There is also a jarring typo, mentioning a ‘Mrs Hirst’ (p. 218), that, coming only one page after the Tennant upset and so near to the end, soured my reading experience.

Overall, I found this to be a very interesting examination of popular reactions to both Austen herself and her novels.  Certainly not my favourite Austen-related book, but a worthy contribution to the ever-growing library of non-fiction volumes devoted to her, if only for its unique focus on her publishing history.

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