Warner, Sylvia Townsend (1893-1978)

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Warner, Sylvia Townsend (1893–1978)

British author who, over a period of 50 years, won critical acclaim and a large readership in England and the U.S. for her novels, poetry, short stories, and biography of writer T.H. White . Born Sylvia Townsend Warner at Harrow, Middlesex, England, on December 6, 1893; died at home in Maiden Newton, Dorset, on May 1, 1978; only child of George Townsend Warner (an assistant master at the famed Harrow School for Boys) and Eleanor Mary (Nora) Hudleston (who was raised in Madras where her father was an officer in the Indian army); educated at home by parents and by Harrow's distinguished musicologist, Dr. Percy Buck, who all marvelled at her erudition, phenomenal memory, and musicality; lived with Valentine Ackland for 30 years.

During World War I, interrupted her budding career as a composer to work as a shell machinist in a munitions factory; served as one of four editors of the ten-volume Tudor Church Music (1917–29); published first volume of poetry, The Espalier (1925); found fame and a comfortable income with first novel, Lolly Willowes (1926); published two other novels, Mr. Fortune's Maggot and The True Heart, which added to her reputation as one of England's leading writers (1927–29); formed a relationship with the poet Valentine Ackland that lasted until the latter's death in 1969 (1930); frustrated by the continuing economic depression and England's appeasement of Hitler, joined the Communist Party along with Ackland (1935); after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, spent three weeks in Barcelona, Spain, working with a Red Cross Unit aiding the anti-fascist Spanish Republic (1936); along with Ackland, attended as a British delegate the Second Congress of the International Association of Writers for the Defense of Culture held in Madrid (1937); with Ackland, left for U.S. (mid-1939) to attend the Third Congress of American Writers, cutting short visit after World War II began; published two novels, Summer Will Show (1936) and After the Death of Don Juan (1939), which reflect her political commitment to Marxism and deep admiration for the Spanish people's fight against Fascism; involved in war work in Dorset until Germany's surrender in May 1945; her novel about 14th-century nuns, The Corner That Held Them, revived interest in her work (1947), as did her last novel, The Flint Anchor (1954); for the remainder of her life, wrote some poetry and many short stories published in both England and U.S.; her biography of T.H. White was universally praised (1967); grieved by the death of her companion Valentine (1969); edited two volumes of Ackland's poems (early 1970s); published her last collection of short stories, Kingdoms of Elfin, to wide acclaim (1977); died at the home shared with Ackland for 30 years, Frome Vauchurch, in Maiden Newton, Dorset (1978).

Selected writings:

in addition to the seven novels mentioned above, Sylvia Townsend Warner published eight volumes of verse and thirteen volumes of stories, many of which first appeared in The New Yorker. Her T.H. White: A Biography (1967) was published in Great Britain and the United States, as was most of her fiction and poetry. Her earlier translation of Marcel Proust's Contre Saint-Beuve appeared in 1958.

In the early hours of December 6, 1893, one of Great Britain's most original writers, Sylvia Townsend Warner, was born to George Townsend Warner and Nora Hudleston Warner at Harrow-on-the-Hill in Middlesex. George Townsend Warner had been a brilliant student at Cambridge, and following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, who had been masters at Newton College and Harrow School, respectively, was an assistant master at Harrow School at the time of his daughter's birth. Sylvia's mother Nora had grown up in Madras, India, and years later Warner recalled that her mother's "recollections of her childhood in India were so vivid to her that they became inseparably part of my own childhood, like the arabesques of a wallpaper showing through a coating of distemper."

Warner was a highly intelligent but solitary child who at age six was removed from a local kindergarten for disruptive behavior. She was educated at home by her mother, with whom she studied the Bible, geography, history, French, Shakespeare, and Dickens. Later they studied the Russian novelists Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Turgenev together. Her father, judged one of the best teachers of his time, gave her intensive classes in history during the school holidays. At a young age, Sylvia felt like an outsider, and was very much aware that she was an only child and a female child who, at Harrow, was living in a world totally dedicated to the education of boys. It did not help that her mother's love diminished when it was clear, by adolescence, that Warner was not beautiful. However, her father doted on her and encouraged her to study with Harrow's distinguished musicologist, Dr. Percy Buck (knighted in 1936). At age 16, Sylvia was studying piano and organ, as well as composition and the history and theory of music, rising every morning at seven to practice the piano.

In 1914, Warner had planned to study composition abroad with Arnold Schoenberg, but the outbreak of World War I made that impossible. She continued to compose on her own, and developed a strong interest in 15th and 16th-century music. In 1915, she interrupted her musical studies to work as a shell machinist in a Vickers munitions factory. She found the work monotonous and difficult, noting that "the noise eats [the workers] like a secret poison."

In late September 1916, Warner suffered a devastating blow when her father died suddenly. Buck, Sylvia's teacher and mentor, was aware that Nora Warner had little use for an uncongenial and unmarried daughter. Through Buck's influence, Warner was appointed one of the four editors of a monumental project to gather, record, and publish Tudor church music. The project was funded by the American Carnegie Trust and lasted for ten years; the last of the ten volumes of Tudor Church Music appeared in 1929. Warner's salary of £3 a week made it possible for her to live on her own in London.

While still engaged as an editor of the project, Warner began to write poetry. In 1925, an influential friend, Charles Prentice of Chatto & Windus (which was to publish all of Warner's work in England), persuaded the firm to publish her first volume of verse, The Espalier. The discriminating novelist and critic Virginia Woolf recorded in her diary that she had met Chatto & Windus' "new poetess" and had liked Warner's traditional yet original poems well enough to spend two shillings and sixpence for a copy of The Espalier.

The following year Chatto & Windus published Warner's first novel, Lolly Willowes, to wide acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. Some 90 reviews of the work, all of them favorable, appeared in 1926 and 1927. The novel, still in print, concerns a spinster who finds liberation from a life of dependency by becoming a witch. Warner was inspired to write the novel after reading Elizabeth Murray 's The Witch Cult in Western Europe (1921), a study that gave a new respectability to witchcraft. Murray, an Egyptologist whom Warner was delighted to meet after the novel's appearance, argued that witchcraft was a pagan religion that had deep and wide roots in Western Europe and was never totally displaced by Christianity. After reading Lolly Willowes, Virginia Woolf invited the author to lunch and asked Sylvia how it was that she knew so much about witchcraft. Warner answered, matter of factly but with tongue in cheek, "because I am one."

I think musical considerations—form, modulation, tempi and so on—have always been an influence in my work.

—Sylvia Townsend Warner

When Lolly Willowes was chosen as the first offering by the Book-of-the-Month Club in the United States, Warner discovered, to her astonishment, that she could earn a living from something that gave her great pleasure: her writing. As a matter of fact, except for some lean years during the Depression and the immediate post-World War II era, she enjoyed a comfortable income from her writing for the remainder of her life. Warner had always been generous to friends in need, even when she earned only £3 a week, and when she died in 1978 she left legacies to all her surviving friends, young and old.

Inspired by the written account of a spinster missionary's experiences in Polynesia, Warner wrote her second novel, Mr. Fortune's Maggot, at breakneck speed, publishing it in 1927. The novel was a daring work for its time, as her missionary, Mr. Fortune (a most unfortunate man), is clearly homosexual. After a year's effort, Mr. Fortune converts only one native (with whom he has fallen in love), and loses his own faith after his male convert, Lueli, relapses into paganism. Warner later wrote that by age seven she was as agnostic as a cat, and her novel clearly reflects her antipathy towards both Anglicanism and imperialism.

By 1929, on the eve of the Great Depression, Warner herself was feeling depressed and lonely, despite her continued success as a writer. (The publication, in 1929, of her third novel, The True Heart, a retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth set in Victorian England, had added to her fame.) Her interests in art, architecture, music, history, drama, and literature continued unabated, and Warner could count on many loyal and interesting friends in London and in Dorset, in southern England. But alas, something vital was missing: "this thing called love." She had recently ended a long and very discreet affair with her mentor, Percy Buck, and when she became attracted to a graduate of Harrow, the sculptor Steven Tomlin, her pride was deeply wounded when he made it clear that he found her physically unappealing.

In 1927, Warner was introduced by a close friend and fellow writer, Theodore Powys, to a tall, beautiful and unpublished poet by the name of Valentine Ackland . At first, Warner was uninterested in Ackland, but in time they became friends. In 1930, Ackland's landlord abruptly terminated her lease on a cottage in the village of West Chaldon, Dorset, after Valentine had invited Sylvia to use the cottage whenever the latter wished to escape the heat and noise of London. Feeling remorseful, Warner rented a cottage not far from the village and offered to share it with Ackland. One night in October 1930, Sylvia heard Valentine's plaintive voice through the partition that separated their bedrooms. When she heard Ackland cry out that she felt utterly unloved, Sylvia, who probably felt the same way, took Valentine in her arms.

In modern-day vernacular, the two women became domestic partners, and every January 12th, the day they took their own vows, they celebrated their wedding anniversary. In their diaries and letters, they always referred to their nearly 40-year relationship as a marriage, and after Ackland's death in November 1969, Warner described herself as a widow. Their love was, in Shakespeare's words, "an ever-fixéd mark that looks on tempests and is never shaken." They did indeed look on tempests in their long relationship, and, in 1939, Warner was badly shaken when Ackland fell in love with Elizabeth Wade White , an American poet and biographer of Anne Bradstreet . Despite Ackland's infidelity, Warner adhered to her promise always to stand by her. Ackland, who had the habit of twisting herself in knots, consumed by guilt and worry, finally terminated her on again-off again relationship with White by the early 1950s. Ackland had always known that she could not live without Warner.

Sharon B. Watstein points out in her essay on Warner in Gay and Lesbian Literature (1994) that "Warner and Ackland neither hid nor emphasized their lesbianism or their relationship." The only time they celebrated their love for each other in print seems to have been in a collection of poems, Whether a Dove or Seagull, which Warner's American publisher, Viking Press, published in 1933. Half of the 110 poems, none of which was signed and only a few of which were titled, were written by Warner and the other half by Ackland. In a note to the reader, they explained that the book was "a protest against the frame of mind, too common, which judges the poem by the poet, rather than the poet by the poem."

Ackland, Valentine (1906–1969)

British author . Born Mary Kathleen McCrory Ackland in 1906 in London, England; died of breast cancer on November 9, 1969, in Dorset, England; sister of Joan Ackland, eight years older; married Richard Turpin; lived with Sylvia Townsend Warner for 30 years; no children. Selected works: (with Sylvia Townsend Warner) Whether a Dove or Seagull (1934); Country Conditions (1936); The Nature of the Moment (1973); Further Poems (1978); For Sylvia, An Honest Account (1985).

Mary Kathleen Ackland's strict Anglo-Catholic upbringing in London and Norfolk brought her into conflict when, at convent school, she had an intimate encounter with a female school friend. Upon discovering this, her father distanced her from the family. Still in her late teens, Ackland moved to London, becoming an unusual figure in 1920s society and good friends with poet, publisher, and activist Nancy Cunard . Taking the androgynous name "Valentine," Ackland began to write and publish poetry seriously. She also began her first serious involvement with a woman, Tory speaker Bo Foster . The two maintained their affair even after Ackland married Richard Turpin. The union was a sham, and husband and wife never consummated their marriage. Instead, Ackland became pregnant by another man and miscarried, to her great disappointment, when she slipped down a bank at Chaldon. Her marriage to Turpin was annulled.

At the turn of the decade, Ackland ended her relationship with Foster and began a long live-in relationship with novelist Sylvia Townsend Warner . Their dedication to one another was apparent in their writing. When apart, Ackland and Warner wrote letters to one another twice a day. In their poetry, the two wrote separately but published together, without individual attribution. They also expressed strong political and social opinions through their poetry, essays and stories, which appeared in such publications as The New Statesman and Women Today. In 1935, reacting against the growing trend toward Fascism in Europe, Ackland and Warner joined the Communist Party of Great Britain and briefly served in an ambulance unit during the Spanish Civil War. No political party encompassed their beliefs, however, and they shortly grew disinterested in Communism as well.

A longterm drinking problem and an affair with Elizabeth Wade White temporarily separated Ackland from Warner. Ultimately, Ackland reaffirmed her Catholicism and reunited with Warner, with whom she lived in Dorset. Ackland continued to write and publish, mostly nonfiction, until her death from metastasized breast cancer in 1969. Two volumes of her poetry were published posthumously, as well as To Sylvia, written for Warner, which was Ackland's account of her vices, guilt, and views of their relationship. Much of her unpublished work is held at the Dorset County Museum.


Maxwell, William, ed. Letters: Sylvia Townsend Warner. NY: Viking Press, 1982.

Mulford, Wendy. This Narrow Place: Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland: Life, Letters and Politics, 1930–1951. London: Pandora Press, 1988.

Crista Martin , Boston, Massachusetts

The very year Whether a Dove or Seagull was published Hitler came to power in Germany. Alarmed and outraged by the deepening economic depression and Great Britain's mealy mouthed response to Hitler, both Warner and Ackland became political activists. By 1935, when it was clear that only the Soviet Union was taking a stand against a rearmed and threatening Nazi Germany, both Warner and Ackland joined the British Communist Party, an obligation they kept until after World War II ended. Warner's political commitment to Marxism is reflected in her fourth novel, Summer Will Show, published in 1936 and set in France during the Revolution of 1848. While the critics found the novel interesting, it did not sell as well as her earlier work. However, 1936 also marked the year that The New Yorker first published a short story by Warner. During the next 40 years, The New Yorker published an additional 143 of her stories, which attest to both her fine narrative skills and her considerable popularity among American readers. The income from The New Yorker helped Sylvia and Valentine through some hard times in the late 1930s and after.

Shortly after the publication of Summer Will Show and in November 1936, Warner and Ackland journeyed to Spain for three weeks to show their support for the beleaguered Spanish Republic, returning again the next summer. In July 1936, the Spanish Civil War had erupted, a conflict that pitted the left-wing Republic against a conservative-fascist coalition led by General Francisco Franco and aided by Hitler and Mussolini. Warner, like many other writers and intellectuals of her time, never forgot her vivid impressions of a people in arms against Fascism. Shortly after Franco's triumph in April 1939, her fifth novel, After the Death of Don Juan, appeared. Set in rural Spain, the novel concerns the defeat, by heartless and greedy landowners, of peasants seeking land, liberty, and justice. Warner's homage to Spain did not sell well at the time, but it was republished in the 1990s.

When World War II broke out in September 1939, Warner and Ackland were in the United States attending a Writers' Congress. They were urged to remain in America, but, loyal to their embattled country, they returned to Great Britain and were both involved in war work until the conflict in Europe ended in May 1945. After the war was over and in 1947, Warner published her sixth novel, The Corner That Held Them. Set in a 14th-century English convent where the nuns are distracted by financial woes, the novel drew from Warner's wartime experience of working exclusively with other women. The novel was better received than her political novels of the 1930s, as was her seventh and last novel, The Flint Anchor, published in 1954. The latter concerned a tyrannical and hypocritical pater familias living in an English east coast fishing port. Anthony West, writing in The New Yorker on October 9, 1954, thought The Flint Anchor "beautifully written … and psychologically profound about family relationships."

After 1954, Warner ceased writing novels for the remaining 24 years of her life, and instead concentrated on poetry and short stories. In addition, after the sudden death of T.H. White in early 1964, Warner was persuaded to write a biography of the author of The Once and Future King and other Arthurian legends that inspired Camelot, the wildly popular musical. T.H. White: A Biography was a critical and popular success, and its publication in 1967 led to a lasting revival of interest in Warner's novels and other writings. But Ackland's death of breast cancer at the age of 63 in November 1969 plunged Warner into remorseful despair. Unlike Warner, Ackland never enjoyed literary success and is largely remembered not as a poet, but as the lifelong companion of Sylvia Warner.

In time, Warner recovered from her grief and loneliness, made new friends, and returned to her writing. In the early 1970s, she had two volumes of Ackland's poems privately printed. In 1977, a year before her own death in her 84th year, Warner's last volume of stories, Kingdoms of Elfin, appeared. In 1973, she had written friends that she was writing in a new vein, and in some ways the stories are a departure from her previous work, as they concern elves rather than human beings. On the other hand, Kingdoms of Elfin marked a return to a fantastic world that Warner created in her first novel, Lolly Willowes, where Satan and witches and warlocks were as unremarkable as ordinary persons. The work won instant and universal acclaim from critics and the reading public, just as Lolly Willowes had done over 50 years before. One critic, William Jay Smith, wrote in 1977 that Kingdoms of Elfin "has all the freshness, wit, originality of perception and clarity of insight that have won for her rhythmical prose so many admirers over so long a time."

On May 1, 1978, Sylvia Townsend Warner died and her ashes were interred beside those of Ackland, under the epitaph that Ackland had chosen nine years before: Omnis non moritur (Death is not the end). Death was certainly not the end for Warner, and since her passing her diaries and letters and other unpublished writings have appeared. In addition, many of her novels, poems and stories have been reprinted, while in the late 1980s Claire Harman and Wendy Mulford each published an excellent biography of Warner. Sardonic to the end, Warner hoped that she had annoyed a great number of persons during her lifetime. No doubt she did, but Sylvia Townsend Warner has also delighted millions of readers for years. Her wit, humor, irony, compassion and marvelous imagery will no doubt enchant readers for many generations to come.


Harman, Claire. Sylvia Townsend Warner: A Biography. London: Chatto & Windus, 1989.

——, ed. The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner. London: Chatto & Windus, 1994.

Maxwell, William, ed. Sylvia Townsend Warner: Letters. NY: The Viking Press, 1982.

Mulford, Wendy. This Narrow Place: Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland: Life, Letters and Politics, 1930–1951. London: Pandora Press, 1988.

Warner, Sylvia Townsend. Lolly Willowes, or The Loving Huntsman. Chicago, IL: Academy Chicago, 1979.

——. Summer Will Show. London: Chatto & Windus, 1936.

suggested reading:

Harman, Claire, ed. Collected Poems. NY: Viking, 1983.

Steinman, Michael, ed. The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938–1978. Counterpoint, 2001.

Warner, Sylvia Townsend. Selected Stories. NY: The Viking Press, 1988.

Anna Macías , Professor Emerita of History, Ohio Wesleyan University, Delaware, Ohio