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Archive for the ‘Sylvia Townsend Warner’ Category

A Woman Reading by Ivan Olinsky

The decade is almost over and I shall end it as I started: seeking to emulate Simon.  His favourite books of the decade post made me want to look over my own from the last ten years.

In those ten years, I have read 1,613 books.  Some of those are rereads and I didn’t record the many scintillating textbooks I read over the same period for (during which I completed a dozen courses leading to two professional designations and two different licenses – it’s been a busy decade).  But most importantly, the decade is not over yet.  I have a couple of good reading weeks left and I intend to make use of them!

I always enjoy looking back at past years on the blog and was so happy when I put this list together to see what excellent judgement I exercised.  These all remain favourites that I would be happy to pick up right now and start rereading.  And the nicest thing to note is that my 2010 and 2011 favourites, which I struggled to track down at the time, are both back in print and easy to get.  A sure sign of progress over the last ten years!

2010: Mrs Tim Flies Home by D.E. Stevenson

What I wrote: “I fell in love with both Mrs Tim and D.E. Stevenson this year.  Mrs Tim of the Regiment was an excellent introduction to my new favourite heroine but a weak second half prevented it from being a favourite.  Mrs Tim Flies Home, on the other hand, suffers from no such shortcomings and so earned its top place on this list by being simply charming and heart-warming.”

2011: Summer Half by Angela Thirkell

What I wrote: “Anyone who has been following my blog this year could have probably predicted that Thirkell would take the top spot.  Since my first encounter with Thirkell last January, I have fallen completely in love with her Barsetshire novels and, of the twelve I’ve now read, I think Summer Half is the most perfectly formed.  It centers on the masters and students of Southbridge School and their interactions with some of the local families.  As with all good Thirkell novels, romance is in the air and the narrator’s sharp wit is there to comment on both the comically disastrous pairings and the ideal but bumbled ones.  Most importantly, Summer Half introduces my favourite Thirkell character, the astounding Lydia Keith.  Of all the books I read this year, not only is this the one that I am most eager to return to, it is the one I most wish I owned countless copies of so I could pass it on to everyone I meet.”

2012: The Element of Lavishness edited by Michael Steinman

What I wrote: “I read this in January and, honestly, no other book I read this year came even close to eclipsing it in my affections.  I had never read anything by either Warner or Maxwell before and knew very little about either of them but that made no difference.  Through their letters, I got to know both of them intimately and to witness the wonderful warmth and depth of their friendship as it evolved over the decades.  While both were extraordinary writers, it is Warner’s letters I remember the best now, almost a year after I read them.  She wrote beautifully about the domestic details of her life and the letters written between the death of her partner Valentine and her own death are as good a record of aging and loss as I have ever read.”

2013: Speaking of Jane Austen by Sheila Kaye-Smith and G.B. Stern

What I wrote: “All the other titles on this list were wonderful but not nearly as wonderful as this collection of delightfully eccentric Austen-focused essays.  And, of course, it is the only book I have ever come across that spends a sufficient amount of time lavishing praise on the deserving Emma (if you are looking for the fastest way to my heart, look no further).”

2014: The Small House at Allington by Anthony Trollope

What I wrote: “The penultimate Barsetshire book, I fell in love with The Small House at Allington as soon as I started reading it. This is Trollope at his most masterful, deftly juggling multiple storylines and a handful of equally-compelling central characters. I am fascinated by Lily Dale, anxious for Johnny Eames, and wildly conflicted over the fate of Aldolphus Crosbie, who I liked far more than any reader is supposed to like the man who jilts the heroine.  Brilliant and perfectly executed, this was the uncontested highlight of my reading year.”

2015: Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Letters edited by William Maxwell

What I wrote: “An enchanting collection of letters spanning almost fifty years.  STW was a wonderful correspondent, filling her letters with richly-detailed annecdotesself-deprecating humour, and the most delightful flights of whimsy.  I’ve yet to read a single one of her novels but, after reading this and the wonderful collection of her letters to William Maxwell (my favourite book of 2012), I can’t help but think of her as a close, dear friend.”

2016: I Was a Stranger by John Hackett

What I wrote: “In a year when the world was doing its best to show how cruel and petty man can be, this memoir of the courage and friendship showed by a Dutch family in occupied Holland to the British officer they hid reminded me that, even in the worst of times, kindness, trust, and love can still flourish.  A real gem that I am entirely indebted to Slightly Foxed for reissuing.”

2017: Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

What I wrote: “I finally read Lively’s Booker prize winner and it is a masterpiece.  Technically dazzling, Lively plays with her favourite themes of love, history, and, above all, memory as septuagenarian Claudia lies on her deathbed and looks back on her life.  If I could write, this would be how I’d want to do it.  As I can’t, this is exactly what I want to read – again and again and again.”

2018: The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich

What I wrote: “Without question, Alexievich’s ground-breaking oral history of Soviet women’s experiences of the Second World War was my book of the year.  More than one million Soviet women served in the military during the war (half of them in active combat roles) and Alexievich captures the full and fascinating range of their experiences in their own words.  It is a powerful and upsetting book and one I will not soon forget.”

2019: To be determined!  Check back on December 31st. (edit: check out my Top Ten Books of 2019 to see my final favourite of the decade)

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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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I am happy to see 2015 go.  I had a productive year but it was a tiring and sombre one.  With friends and family falling ill and passing away with alarming frequency, this was not a year for intensive reading.  Or, some months, any reading at all (I only managed to finish two books in September).  That said, hidden among the comfort reads and mindless fluff that typified my reading this year were some truly excellent books.  Most of which I unfortunately never got around to writing about.  It took fierce concentration to get the list down to ten but here they are:

Top Ten - 310. The Song Collector (2015) – Natasha Solomons
A lovely, gently-paced novel about love, aging, and music.

9. Knight Crusader (1954) – Ronald Welch
I read this historical children’s novel (the first in Welch’s Carey series, currently being reissued by Slightly Foxed) back in January and was so impressed I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.  Welch’s thoughtful character development and rich historical details compliment a rip roaring plot to delight readers of any age.

8. My History (2015) – Antonia Fraser
A breezy, charming memoir about Fraser’s early years.

Top Ten - 27. Iris Origo (2000) – Caroline Moorehead
I adored this biography of Origo, famous for her wartime diary (War in Val d’Orcia – which I’ve yet to read) and her garden at La Foce (which I’ve yet to see).  Moorehead does an incredible job of describing the richly complicated Florentine expat community Origio grew up in and her extraordinarily varied circle of acquaintances, as well as her personal achievements.  There was nothing simple or straightforward about Origio and Moorehead does full justice to her subject’s complex life.  When I visited the Val d’Orcia region of Tuscany in September, I was delighted to see for myself the landscapes Moorehead had described and which Origio knew so well.

6. Sofia Khan is Not Obliged (2015) – Ayisha Malik
An entirely unique comedy about the romantic and spiritual plights (often entwined) of a young British Muslim feminist.  It remains the only book that kept me up reading long past my bedtime this year and had me giggling even more often than Bill Bryson’s The Road to Little Dribbling.

5. Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking (1992) – Marcella Hazan
An unusual choice for this list but this is easily the book I’ve spent the most time with this year.  And what a book it is.  Hazan’s precise recipes are a joy to read and a delight to recreate.  Since buying this in Portland last February, I don’t think more than a week or two has gone by without me trying a new recipe from it.  I am devoted to the soup chapter, in thrall to the pasta sauces, and had a revelation over brisket when I made the beef roast with braised onions.  It has quickly become my most cherished cookbook.

Top Ten - 14. A Desperate Fortune (2015) – Susanna Kearsley
A thrilling historical novel with two equally thoughtful, appealing heroines.

3. Anthony Trollope (1992) – Victoria Glendinning
Glendinning’s thorough, affectionate, and very readable biography of Trollope gave me a new appreciation for the books of his I’ve already read and more impetus to read the others.  I was especially fascinated by her interest in his relationships with the women in his lives and how they influenced his female characters.

2. The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867) by Anthony Trollope
A funny, poignant, generous novel to end Trollope’s extraordinary Barsetshire series.

STW Letters1. Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Letters (1982) edited by William Maxwell
An enchanting collection of letters spanning almost fifty years.  STW was a wonderful correspondent, filling her letters with richly-detailed annecdotes, self-deprecating humour, and the most delightful flights of whimsy.  I’ve yet to read a single one of her novels but, after reading this and the wonderful collection of her letters to William Maxwell (my favourite book of 2012), I can’t help but think of her as a close, dear friend.

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Bridgeman; (c) Arts Council Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

“Siesta” by Ruskin Spear

Sylvia Townsend Warner was a woman full of good advice.  Over the past few months, I’ve shared a few excerpts from The Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner (wishes for a friend’s newborn daughter; musings on how each Austen hero would handle wrapping a present; and some just delightfully random thoughts) and I couldn’t resist sharing this letter too.  Written from STW to a friend struggling with a wilful daughter, it’s sympathetic, revealing, and provides just the right amount of perspective tinged with humour:

…I remember my mother feeling much as you do about her growing daughter.  She had no son to compare me with, or no doubt she would have felt even more strongly.  I certainly deserved all her disillusionment.  I used to get up a 7 a.m. to play the piano, and refused to do a hand’s turn about the house.  I also insisted on wearing black and looking like a femme fatale; with horn-rimmed spectacles.  But yours will wear through it, and come out quite as charming as you or me.  Meanwhile, you must keep your heart up and in your blackest hours say to yourself that Simone de Beauvoir was worse.  Or you might call to mind Mrs Bishop Moberly of Salisbury.  She had twelve.  Besides a Bishop.  You’ve not had a Bishop, and I trust you never will.  Not that I don’t esteem and enjoy Simone de B. (as an autobiographer; her novels bore me).  But her estimable, well-founded, impermeable French self-righteousness leaves her strikingly unaware of what a headache she must have been to her parents. (22 March 1963)

 

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Mr Tileny

I think what I love most about Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Letters (which I will eventually – probably – discuss at length) are the glimpses they give into her wonderfully imaginative, unconfined mind.  She bounces from topic to topic with absolute grace and indulges in delightful flights of whimsy.  Getting a letter from her must have been like receiving a present.  Speaking of presents…

One of the topics she returns to again and again are the characters created by Jane Austen.  She loved Austen’s novels (she even wrote a book about them) and was as comfortable with Austen’s characters as with her own friends and family.  So comfortable, in fact, that she knew just how they behaved in their post-novel lives – and how they compared to her own real-life acquaintances, as she explained in a letter to her friend George Plank:

…you have the nicest hand with a parcel.  I can’t think of anyone to match you in parcelling except perhaps Henry Tilney, to whom I attribute all the graces.  Mr Knightley’s parcels would never come undone, true; but think of all the paper & string involved.  Elinor had to do up all Edward’s; Edward required a good deal of buttoning and unbuttoning, though she enjoyed his dependence on her: the butler did all Marianne’s & Colonel Brandon’s.  Mr Darcy did exactly three parcels a year, for Lizzy’s birthday, for New Year’s day, & for their wedding anniversary.  The product was excellent, but he took hours to achieve it.  And locked the library door.  (7 April 1961)

Isn’t that just delightful?

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photo credit: Henry Grant (via here)

photo credit: Henry Grant (via here)

Dear Paul,

We were so very glad to get your cable with the news of your daughter.  I hope she will be very, very happy; and I hope she will be without fear.  I am quite sure that to be fearless is the first requisite for a woman; everything else that is good will grow naturally out of that, as a tree has leaves and fruit and grows tall and full provided its roots have a good hold of the ground.  Bring her up to be fearless and unintimidated by frowns, hints, and conventions, and then she will be full of mercy and grace and generosity.  It is fear that turns women sour, sly, and harsh to their neighbours.  It was Shakespeare’s Constance who said she was ‘a woman, naturally born to fears.’  Not naturally, I think; but hereditary; and so to be guarded against fear before all else.  (4 February 1949)

from The Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner

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sylvia-smoking-at-desk-cutI’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)

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I always have fun making this list but, for the first time, it was easy as well as fun.  There was no struggling over what belong in each spot and no angst-ridden hours spent juggling the merits of one book over another in deciding which deserved to make the list.  These are, without a doubt, the ten best books I read in 2012.  They have stuck in my mind since I read them and I cannot go a day without recommending at least one of them to friends, family members, other bloggers or people I randomly meet on the street (like the woman I met at the coffeeshop on Friday.  Such are the dangers of engaging me in conversation).  Without further ado, here are ten best books I read in 2012:

Best Books of 2012 - Part 1

10. The Home-Maker (1924) – Dorothy Canfield Fisher
This is, quite rightly, one of the best-loved Persephone titles among readers.  It is a wonderfully thoughtful book about gender roles, societal pressure, and personal fulfillment and treats all of its characters – adult or child – with respect for the everyday struggles they face.

9. Two-Part Invention (1988) – Madeleine L’Engle
This book was heartbreaking, beautiful, and, above all, surprising.  It is a portrait of L’Engle’s forty year marriage written during her husband’s final illness but it is also a reflection on her faith and what religion meant in her life.  It is a highly emotional and intelligent book and I cried more tears over this than anything else I read this year.

8. The Siren Years (1974) – Charles Ritchie
No matter how many times I read this (and I have lost count at this point), it remains the best wartime diary I have ever come across.   Ritchie’s diplomatic and social connections in London exposed him to an extraordinary variety of people, from political leaders and petty bureaucrats to authors and exiled royalty.  The joy of Ritchie’s diaries comes from the meld of political details and domestic ones.  I find it just as interesting to hear about how the Canadian High Commission handled refugee claims as I do to discover what Ritchie saw on his walk through London each day on the way to work or what he talked about at lunch with Nancy Mitford.     Best Books of 2012 - Part 2

7. Leningrad (2011) – Anna Reid
I still get chills thinking about this book, which looks at what happened to those trapped in Leningrad while it was under siege during the Second World War.  It is uncomfortable and upsetting to read but so very well done.

6. The Headmistress (1944) – Angela Thirkell
Possibly the most perfectly-formed of Thirkell’s Barsetshire novels, The Headmistress focuses on the experiences of the Belton family during the Second World War.  Mrs Belton, the middle-aged mother of three, is one of Thirkell’s best heroines.  Her struggles to understand her adult children and to live with her constant fear for her sons broke my heart.

5. The Laskett (2003) – Roy Strong
A gardening tome that even non-gardeners would love, this book describes the evolution of Strong’s garden at his country home, The Laskett.  Though there are plenty of details about the garden’s layout and plant choices, what makes this book special are the stories Strong shares about the friends and experiences that influenced the garden’s formation.  This is a garden that clearly reflects both Strong and his wife’s personalities and experiences and it is a book that acts as a tribute to their delightfully unique lives.  Best Books of 2012 - Part 3

4. Good Evening, Mrs Craven (1999) – Mollie Panter-Downes
A wonderfully varied collection of short stories about life in England during the Second World War.  Panter-Downes’ domestic focus exactly suits my tastes as does her interest in the quiet disappointments and muted struggles faced by her characters.  There is nothing sensational about the events in these stories, making them both relatable and, to me, touching.

3. It’s Too Late Now (1939) –  A.A. Milne
2012 was the year of Milne and as much as I loved his plays, his pieces for Punch, his passionate plea for pacifism, and his light verse, it was his autobiography that gave me the most pleasure.  Looking back on the first fifty-odd years of his life, Milne joyously recalls the happy days of his childhood and, later, his determined pursuit of a writing career.  It has nothing in common with gossipy tell-alls and that is part of what I loved about it.  It is a fun book to read and I suspect Milne had even more fun writing it.

2. Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther (1907) – Elizabeth von Arnim
It has been a long time since I’ve fallen as hard for a fictional character as I did for Fräulein Rose-Marie Schmidt.  These letters, written to her erstwhile suitor Roger Anstruther, reveal a woman who is both romantic and practical, youthful and mature.  She is clever and funny and resilient and I want to be her almost as much as I want to befriend her. the-element-of-lavishness

1. The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell  (2001) – edited by Michael Steinman
I read this in January and, honestly, no other book I read this year came even close to eclipsing it in my affections.  I had never read anything by either Warner or Maxwell before and knew very little about either of them but that made no difference.  Through their letters, I got to know both of them intimately and to witness the wonderful warmth and depth of their friendship as it evolved over the decades.  While both were extraordinary writers, it is Warner’s letters I remember the best now, almost a year after I read them.  She wrote beautifully about the domestic details of her life and the letters written between the death of her partner Valentine and her own death are as good a record of aging and loss as I have ever read.

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I haven’t written a book review since April.  That seems bizarre but there it is.  I had a lovely little break but am now left with a problem: I may have stopped reviewing in May but I certainly did not stop reading and I have a terrifying number of books I now find myself wanting to review.  Knowing the number of hours it takes to write the average review, this is overwhelming enough to make me want to take June off too but that would accomplish nothing.  Instead, I shall attempt to ease myself back into my old blogging habits by presenting you with a selection of quotes cleverly disguised as a review.

Jane Austen by Sylvia Townsend Warner is a slim pamphlet (only 29 pages) and if Simon hadn’t read it earlier this year, I would never have known it existed.  In fact, when I went to pick it up from the university library it was so slim (even bound) that it had slipped between its two much larger neighbours and I almost didn’t find it.  But I am so pleased that I did.

It is always fascinating to read one author’s analysis of another’s work and when it happens to be Sylvia Townsend Warner (STW) discussing Jane Austen, it is pure delight.  STW is so confident in her judgements and I adore that about her; there is nothing worse than analysis tempered with apologies.  She loves Austen’s works and is able to very clearly articulate both what she views as Austen’s success and her failures.

As always when reading another’s views on Austen, I found myself delighted to see my own likes and dislikes echoed and intrigued when I came across points or arguments I had never considered before.  How could I not be charmed by STW’s description of Elinor Dashwood’s Edward Ferrars as a man “who is so nearly a nincompoop that her sense must be called in question for falling in love with him, however sensibly she conducts herself afterwards”?  Who has ever read Sense & Sensibility and not felt that way, frustrated that the otherwise intelligent and practical Elinor could choose such a disappointing man to spend her life with?  Slightly more controversially (but no less correctly in my mind), STW is unimpressed with certain aspects of the very young Austen’s handling of Mr Darcy:

Indeed, he is at odds with the rest of the book, for he is the only character where the author falters in her worldly wisdom.  Young persons who have recently come of age see mankind divided into three groups: those younger than themselves, who are children; those over thirty, who are elderly; those between twenty and thirty, who are grown up.  An older author would have remembered to make Darcy more perceptibly a young man, whose shyness and youthful censoriousness are in alarmed revolt at a society to which he is not accustomed.

And no one has ever made me unhappy by heaping praise on Emma:

Of all Jane Austen`s novels, Emma most fully conveys the exhilaration of a happy writer.  As the arabesques of the plot curl more intricately, as the characters emerge and display themselves, and say the very things they would naturally say, the reader – better still, the re-reader – feels a collaborating glow.  Above all, it excels in dialogue: not only in such tours de force as Miss Bates being grateful for apples, Mrs Elton establishing her importance when she pays her call at Hartfield, but in the management of dialogue to reveal the unsaid; as when Mr John Knightley`s short-tempered good sense insinuates a comparison with his brother`s drier wit and deeper tolerance; or as in the conversation between Mr Knightley and Emma about Frank Churchill, whom neither of them then know except by repute: Emma is sure he will be all that he should be, Mr Knightley`s best expectation is `well grown and good-looking, with smooth, plausible manners`- and by the time they have done, it is plain that Emma is not prepared to fall in love with Frank Churchill, and that Mr Knightley has been, for a long time, deeply and uncomfortably in love with Emma.

I think that last phrase – “deeply and uncomfortably in love” –  is particularly perfect.

The pamphlet gives only the barest biographical details, which is all it needs.  What STW does attempt to do at times is place the works in their historical context, resulting in this interesting preface to her thoughts on Persuasion:

…the twenty years that had gone by since Pride and Prejudice had brought many changes, notably in what was expected on women.  Under the growing influence of the Evangelical religious revival, women lost much of their liberty of speech and of action: they could assert themselves less; on the other hand they were allowed to feel more.  In Emma, Jane Austen chose a heroine who no one would much like but herself.  In Persuasion, the novel that followed, she complied with the taste of a new generation.

This led up to one of the most thought-provoking passages for me:

Jane Austen writes of Anne Elliot with a solicitude not called out by any of her other characters.  They fall into their scrapes and misfortunes, and their uncomfortable remorses are described with a pardoning understanding, but without much change of voice.  In the case of Anne Elliot – whose only fault has been a submissiveness which by new standards of female behaviour was praiseworthy, not blameworthy – there is a degree of sympathy that almost amounts to special pleading.  This makes Persuasion both the most compelling and the weakest of Jane Austen`s novels.  Every stage of Anne Elliot`s transition from resignation to fortitude, and every detail of her relations with Frederick Wentworth, is registered as though with Anne`s own sensibility: elsewhere the narrative is thin and almost perfunctory.  Mrs Clay, and Lady Russell, and both the Walter Elliots, and the barefacedly expedient Mrs Smith are shadowy figures.  One sees them, in fact, through Anne`s eyes.  They do not hold her attention, and they do not hold ours.

I am still not sure if I agree with STW or not on every point but she has definitely provided food for thought.  I do absolutely agree about the indifference with which the secondary characters are treated; there are so many wonderful characters – the Crofts, Lady Russell, and certainly Mrs Smith – waiting to be brought to life the way Austen did so wonderfully with her supporting casts in Mansfield Park and Emma and every time I read Persuasion I am frustrated by their wasted potential.

STW is very comfortable with her subject and intimately acquainted with Austen’s works, and that familiarity comes across in her writing.  These are not the much laboured-over, emotionless thoughts of an argumentative reviewer but the unusually coherent musings of an intelligent and articulate Janeite.  I had a delightful time reading this and my only complaint is that it was far too short!

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Oh, this book.  When I saw Simon’s review of The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978 edited by Michael Steinman I was intrigued.  I had never read anything by either Warner or Maxwell but I find it difficult to refuse any book of correspondence between well-educated, interesting people.  When I picked this up though, I had no idea just how deeply I would fall in love with it, with Warner, with Maxwell, and with their warm, affectionate relationship.

The letters begin in the late 1930s, when Maxwell takes over from Katharine S. White as Warner’s editor at The New Yorker.  Over the first decade or so, their letters slowly shift from strictly professional to something more friendly as they come to know one another better through the editing process and by reading one another’s works.  By the end of the 1940s, they are firm friends, sharing small personal details with one another, enough so that Maxwell feels comfortable in sending food and writing paper to his favourite author whose access to those items was restricted by rationing in England.  The early letters are full of mutual flattery, gracious thanks for whatever service one has done the other, and light-hearted quips, as in one of Maxwell’s cheerful notes:

I’m glad you think I am a good editor even though a still small voice tells me that there is no such thing for writers of quality and that they should be left strictly to their own devices.  I’m glad also that life in England is not as Spartan as the papers would lead us to believe.  I would have been perfectly miserable in Sparta, and I can’t help suspecting that the Spartans were also.  Otherwise they would have left the Athenians alone.  (13 June 1947)

But in the 1950s their letters deepen in understanding and sympathy, giving way to the lavishness of the title.  They become deeply entangled in one another’s work and domestic lives, with no detail too small, no thought too fleeting to be written down for the benefit of the other.  Seeing it evolve from a work relationship to a friendship to a deep love between not only them but also their families (encompassing Warner’s partner Valentine and Maxwell’s wife Emmy, and, later, Maxwell’s daughters Kate and Brookie) is incredibly moving.  I came to love them both and to love, more than anything, their love for one another.

They have such a deep respect for one another’s intelligence and work but, at the same time, there’s a wonderful sense of rivalry about some things between them.  Both gleefully share random facts they’ve come across, either in their extensive reading or in the course of daily life, in an almost child-like competition to amuse or amaze the other.  It’s very sweet.  Warner comes up with some particularly odd and wonderful tidbits:

The other day I said to a clergyman I met that though I always read in my bath, as all sensible people do, I disliked the moment when one has to decide whether to wash one’s hands or go on reading and respecting the binding.  He said that if I were to content myself with the burial and baptismal service, this problem would be overcome, as both of them are issued by some Church of England publishing house with waterproof bindings.  Did you know this? (11 April 1951)

Twenty-five years later, Maxwell is still trying to find something that will astonish her, but is now wise enough to recognize the futility of his task.  In his letter to her, you can see the intellectual curiosity that they shared, letting them glory over the most random bits of trivia, but, more than anything, you can see his touching affection and deep respect for Warner:

You remember the woman in Isak Dinesen’s story who sailed the seas looking for the perfect blue?  In somewhat the same way I search for an interesting fact for you that you do not already know.  When I find one that looks likely (viz: in Grove last night that as a small child Mozart had an ear so delicate and susceptible that he fainted away at the sound of a trumpet) and then shake my head; a musical fact that you are not conversant with? most unlikely.  And about Mozart, more unlikely still.  But someday I shall astonish you, as you astonish me every time I get a letter from you. (23 March 1977)

Maxwell’s letters tend to focus more of events – assassinations, elections, protests – things that no doubt would be of particular interest to students of American history.  And his perspective and experiences are fascinating but Warner counters with glimpses of domestic life (written in her Elizabeth Gaskell moods, she jokes) and writes such perfect vignettes that they become both more interesting and more enjoyable to read than Maxwell’s experiences of world events.  Maxwell shares plenty of his own trivial details, in his own wonderful style, but I loved Warner’s.  I was perfectly delighted by this simple story, and I don’t even like cats:

Pour Niou [their Siamese cat] has just had his first affair of the heart, and of course it was a tragedy.  As a rule he flies from strange men, cursing under his breath, and keeping very low to the ground.  Yesterday an electrician came; a grave mackintoshed man, but to Niou all that was romantic and lovely.  He gazed at him, he rubbed against him, he lay in an ecstasy on the tool-bag.  The electrician felt much the same, and gave him little washers to play with.  He said he would have to come again today to finish off properly.  Niou who understands everything awaited him in a dreamy transport and practising his best and most amorous squint.  The electrician came, Niou was waiting for him, and he rushed into the garden and disappeared.

He’ll get over it in time; but just now he’s dreadfully downcast.  (12 February 1952)

The letters during and following Valentine’s final illness really show what a close, familial relationship Warner and Maxwell had, that she could share the intimate, heart-breaking details of bereavement with him so unselfconsciously.  “One thinks one has foreseen every detail of heart-break.  I hadn’t,” Warner admits when writing to tell the Maxwells of Valentine’s death.  A month later, staying with old friends, the enormity of her loss is still overwhelming her when least expected and it is to Maxwell that she turns, trying to deal with her emotions by pouring them out to him:

With a heart as normal as a stone I went to spend this last weekend with friends in Berkshire because they wanted to change my air.  Their telephone rang.  It was a telephone on which Valentine had often rung me.  With an idiot intensity I thought, she will never telephone me again.  And for a moment the whole of my grief was comprised in that deprivation.  There is no armour against irrationality. (16 December 1969)

The letters during various illnesses or during the last decade of Warner’s life, after Valentine’s death, are full of questions about the other’s health, ideas for treatments, and, increasingly, the desire that they were neighbours so that the one could always be on hand to visit and nurse the other.  Separated by an ocean, most years the letters were the only way they had of keeping in touch and wonderful though they are, they don’t fulfill the longing both Warner and Maxwell had for the comfort of one another’s company.  How beautifully and how honestly they can communicate with one another after years of friendship, as in one of Warner’s letters to Maxwell in her last months:

I wish you could come in, and make a fuss of me.  It is one of the ironies of old age – that one longs to be made a fuss of, when one has built up a reputation that one doesn’t care for fuss.  I am grown very old, dear William.  I hobble about on two baddish legs, and cling to anything within reach.  And I have grown so small, I scarcely know myself.  And so slow.  But really I should congratulate myself that my wits are still about me.  When my mother was my age, she was senile.  And I am not that, and I can still see to read, & hear to talk; and if the weather were not so biting & blighting I might not feel so like a dead leaf (17 February 1978)

As a record of aging and loss, Warner’s letters in those final years are magnificent.  Frustrated, tired, and resigned, she has lost some of her wonderful energy and confidence but retained her intelligence and humour.  I love her best as an old woman, free of pride, betrayed by her body, longing to see William and Emmy one last time.

Both authors make frequent mention of books: what they’re reading, writing or reviewing.  Usually when I come across pages-worth of book mentions, I keep a detailed list, getting almost as much joy out of that as out of the book itself.  This reading experience was remarkable because I didn’t note down any titles; I was so focused on this book that I couldn’t spare a thought for any other.  It consumed me and surely this is the greatest proof of that.

The book is very intimate and I felt quite awed at being allowed to read such personal letters and witness the evolution of such a tender, honest relationship as existed between Warner and Maxwell (who I am desperately fighting the urge to call Sylvia and William as I write this, having grown so used to their first names).  I came to love and feel for them both and felt bereft when the letters finished in 1978 with Warner’s death.  Strangely, I don’t feel any particular need to read any of their short stories or novels.  I loved both of their writing styles but my interest is in them as people, not as authors.  Their personalities filtered through fiction would seem a sad, pathetic replacement for their real selves as revealed in these letters.

I honestly have no idea how any other book I read this year will manage to surpass the experience I had reading this.  It is exquisite and so, so precious.

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