By Sylvia Townsend Warner
New York Review Books, 2011
The epigraph to Mr. Fortune’s Maggot, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s second novel, is a dictionary definition clarifying the title: “MAGGOT. 2. A whimsical or perverse fancy; a crotchet.” This rare, boldly stressed usage is a signpost to Warner’s sensibility, directing attention to her occasionally quaint yet always lively prose, and also to the eccentricities and defiant individuality of her characters. Her novels are ripe with bittersweet pleasures, and crawling with maggots of the
rarest and most welcome kind. Yet the other, creepier sort is also present in a ghostlike way, in her persistent concern with the spiritual decay of lives wasting away unfulfilled. The balancing act between whimsy and despair is a specialty of Warner’s, on display in recent reissues of three of her novels by New York Review Books—Lolly Willowes (1926), Mr. Fortune’s Maggot (1927) and Summer Will Show (1936). Her characters take up witchcraft and discourse on feminism with a sympathetic Satan; wander to the South Seas and the Argentine pampas, impelled first by missionary ardor and then by profane love; or play out a Sapphic love affair against the backdrop of revolutionary Paris. In the course of these adventures they cast off repressive English attitudes and prejudices which have long cramped their lives, but their late-arriving happiness tends to be so fragile that its only safeguard is divine, or rather satanic, intervention.
Warner, who lived from 1893 to 1978, seems to have moved through life with more self-assurance than her characters. She was a best-selling novelist from the beginning of her career, and her short stories often appeared in the New Yorker. She was also a poet and a musicologist, a committed Communist who took part in the Spanish Civil War, and had a decades-long lesbian relationship with another poet, Valentine Ackland. Lolly Willowes, besides being Warner’s first novel, was the inaugural selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club; an interesting choice, considering the novel’s subversive feminism and satirical attacks on bourgeois convention, which were perhaps obscured by its whimsical overlay of witchcraft.
Its heroine, Laura Willowes, grows up in perfect contentment on her family’s country estate, her intellectual independence and devotion to her father resulting in “a temperamental indifference to the need of getting married.” After her father’s death, when she is 28, her eldest brother Henry takes her to live in London with his family, who implacably domesticate her as their spinster Aunt Lolly, with all the well-meaning, self-serving (they find her an “indispensable” help to the household), complacently pitying tyranny of respectable “stupid people.” Warner brings home all the muffled pathos of a sensitive, solitary soul smothered by these uncongenial, insistent bonds of kinship, yet too timid to claim a life of her own.
As the years pass, Laura occasionally feels the call of rural life in strange, somewhat sinister intimations:
she was subject to a peculiar kind of day-dreaming, so vivid as to be almost a hallucination: that she was in the country, at dusk, and alone, and strangely at peace… Her mind was groping after something that eluded her experience, a something that was shadowy and menacing, and yet in some way congenial.
Finally at the age of 47 she decides impulsively, and against her family’s opposition, to move to Great Mop, a village in the Chiltern Hills, and it turns out to be exactly what she sought:
The weight of all her unhappy years seemed for a moment to weigh her bosom down to the earth; she trembled, understanding for the first time how miserable she had been; and in another moment she was released. It was all gone, it could never be again, and never had been.
But her sense of release is short-lived; a nephew’s visit makes her fear that she will be subjugated again, and she makes a desperate plea for help while standing in an empty field at twilight. At once she feels sure that some sort of compact has been made with a “grimly favorable power.” Soon, initiated by the arrival of her familiar spirit in the form of a scrawny kitten, she recognizes her vocation of witchcraft, and has amiable chats with Satan, her savior, who appears to her in the guise of a pleasant old woodsman. Yet for all the whimsical charm of this happy resolution, there remains an uneasy suggestion that without such timely supernatural rescuing, a woman who shunned marriage in Laura’s day would have found it terribly hard to assert her independence, a crotchet which might well have struck her family as a manifestation of some satanic influence. (The right to vote was not given to all adult women in Britain until 1928, two years after Lolly Willowes was published.)
In Mr. Fortune’s Maggot—which NYRB has put out in a new edition under the title of Mr. Fortune, together with a novella, The Salutation (1932), that serves as a sequel—Timothy Fortune, a Prufrockian bank clerk, is a middle-aged, unfulfilled and unmarried male analogue of Laura Willowes. He uses a small inheritance to train as a missionary, and is sent to the Raratongan Archipelago in the Pacific. After ten frustrating years as a bookkeeper for the Archdeacon on the main island of St. Fabien, Mr. Fortune feels a calling to go alone to convert the natives of Fanua, a “small remote island” over the horizon, despite the Archdeacon’s warning that the natives are “like children, always singing and dancing, and of course immoral.” Warner is witty on the imbecilities of colonialism, both the religious and imperial varieties, though it must be said that her own portrayal of the natives is a crude if well-intentioned stereotype, differing from the Archdeacon’s only in her benign attitude. She says in her preface that the only source she drew on for the Polynesian setting was a memoir by a missionary, and it shows: her natives are more symbol than reality.
The Archdeacon’s forebodings prove prescient, for Mr. Fortune manages to make only one convert, a boy named Lueli, but he finds deep happiness in their loving friendship. Although Warner describes Mr. Fortune in a letter as “fatally sodomitic,” and Lueli lives with him in his hut, their relationship appears chaste enough, except for one or two moments in which the priest betrays a less innocent passion, which today carries unsavory resonances of sex tourism and clerical child abuse. When Lueli disappears for a few days on a fishing trip without any warning, Mr. Fortune suffers from jealous anxiety, and upon the boy’s return threatens him “with pious wrath whilst all the time his longing had been to thrash the boy or to smite his body down on the grass and ravish it. Murder or lust, it had seemed that only by one or the other could he avenge his wounded pride, the priestly rage against the relapsed heretic.” There is a sly hint here that even the meekest missionary may be motivated by an unconscious desire to dominate his converts, both body and soul, and that naive piety may collude in colonialist control despite the best intentions. Mr. Fortune more than once deplores the inevitable spread of European imperialism to the defenseless archipelago, while recognizing with chagrin that he has come as its first “spy.”
He manages for a time to laugh off his jealous possessiveness, learning to relax to the easy prelapsarian rhythms of the island, and marveling at the contrast of his new contentment with the meagerness of his old life: “How little pleasures his youth had known…And now he scarcely knew himself for happiness.” He even compares himself to Robinson Crusoe, and congratulates himself on “how much happier he was than the other man.” After three years on Fanua, however, Mr. Fortune is shocked out of his complacency when he discovers that Lueli has been secretly worshipping his old god, “playing a double game, betraying him, feigning to be a Christian.” Reverting to priestly rage, he orders Lueli to burn his wooden idol, but his harangue is providentially interrupted by an earthquake and volcano eruption. In the terror of this experience Mr. Fortune loses his own faith, a loss which coincides matter-of-factly with the stopping of his watch, and he consecrates his new relativism by carving Lueli a replacement idol. Finally he resolves to leave the island, fearing that if he stays he will never be able to refrain from trying to change Lueli: “He must go away, that was the only stratagem by which love could outwit its own inherent treachery.” His “sad, civilised, and proprietary love” fatally combines missionary zeal with the improving ambitions of a colonial administrator, even after he has renounced both faith and empire. But self-effacement proves to be Mr. Fortune’s strongest tendency.
He reappears a few years later in The Salutation, wandering numbly in the pampas, desolated by his act of renunciation and longing for death. Faint from sunstroke, he is given open-ended hospitality at the home of an Englishman’s widow, Angustias Bailey. He identifies her with a tattered statue he sees in a Baroque church, a “wooden, velvet-petticoated doll” that, “being so old, sad, and worldly, had seemed to him the representative of profane love.” He lingers at Angustias’s farm, walking in the vast plain of the pampas, “thinking that perhaps nowhere else would he find a landscape so perfectly fitted to his requirements…It was, indeed, the right place to be unhappy in.” For there his sorrow has “the elbow-room he had promised it; it could stretch and preen and spread itself on either side, till with one wing it could touch the snow of the invisible mountains and dip the other in the Atlantic.” Perhaps recognizing the absurd extent of self-pity in the sublime scale of this image, he is struck by the idea that he has much in common with an ostrich he encounters on one of his walks: “Ungainly, harmless, eccentric…there was a kind of grandeur about it as it stood there in its lifelong unconsciousness of being a foolish figure.” There are just enough wry moments of this sort to save Mr. Fortune’s tragicomic mix of gray English self-effacement and grandiose, maudlin self-absorption from tipping into bathos.
In Summer Will Show, a historical novel set against the backdrop of the 1848 revolution in Paris, the heroine, Sophia Willoughby, is a younger, better-looking and more commanding type than Laura Willowes or Timothy Fortune. Like Laura, Sophia grows up on an English country estate, but a much grander one, of the sort where the portrait of her grandfather is by Gainsborough. She goes on living there after she marries and has two children, since her husband, Frederick, is well-born but impecunious and spendthrift. He is often away visiting friends, and once she “knew for certain that he had been many times unfaithful to her,” she writes him a letter demanding a separation. At first she glories in her “suzerainty” over her estate, which she rules alone after her parents’ death, but soon feels thwarted, like Laura, by social conventions restricting a single woman’s independence. A visit to the Cornwall seacoast inflames her with its “pure and earthy air”: she feels that “one waft of wind there would blow away the cares from one’s mind, the petticoats from one’s legs, demolish all the muffle of imposed personality loaded upon one by other people, leaving one free, swift, unburdened as a fox.” She has daydreams of “leading there a wild romantic life…unsexed and unpersoned.” Yet these longings only chafe her with their impracticability: “It was boring to be a woman, nothing that one did had any meat in it. And her peculiar freedom, well-incomed, dis-husbanded, seemed now only to increase the impotence of her life.”
After losing her children to smallpox, she decides to track Frederick down in Paris and demand that he make her pregnant again. She finds him at the Bohemian salon of his mistress, Minna Lemuel, an exotic Lithuanian Jew who makes her living as a storyteller. Minna is a curious creation of the philo-Semitic imagination, evoking a combination of exaggerated 19th-century Jewish types: both the mystical utopians of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda and the sexually scandalous theatricality epitomized by the French actress Sarah Bernhardt. Sophia had heard of Minna in England as a “byword, half actress, half strumpet; a Jewess; a nonsensical creature bedizened with airs of prophecy, who trailed across Europe with a tag-rag of poets, revolutionaries, musicians and circus-riders snuffing at her heels.” When she first sees Minna, Sophia is surprised at her ugliness, her “features with their Jewish baroque, the hooked nose, the crescent eyebrows and heavy eyelids…” But despite this caricature of a visage Sophia is spellbound at once by Minna’s tales of childhood pogroms, and seduced by her warm, untidy hospitality, in which she resembles a more fully realized version of Angustias, the tatterdemalion avatar of profane love. Rather than fighting over Frederick, the two women fall in love, and Sophia finds herself happier than she has ever been: “Her happiness, blossoming in her so late and so defiantly, seemed of an immortal kind.”
Warner’s feminism tends to be lightly ironic instead of didactic, but the heroines of Summer Will Show and Lolly Willowes are both obliged to fight for their independence against the repressive pretensions of feckless male relations. Frederick infuriates Sophia by asserting a husband’s moral and legal supremacy despite their estrangement, telling her (with no self-consciousness concerning his ex-mistress) that “Minna Lemuel is not a fit person for you to associate with.” Caddishly appropriating her jewels, he informs her that her property belongs to him: “It’s mine, do you understand? By law it’s mine. When you married me it became mine, and now after ten years it’s high time you understood it.” Laura’s brother Henry tries to prevent her from acting on her plan to live by herself in the country, exclaiming, “Lolly! I cannot allow this. You are my sister. I consider you my charge.” Then, after she insists, “Nothing is impracticable for a single, middle-aged lady with an income of her own,” he confesses,“Your income is no longer what it was,” since he invested her capital in the Ethiopian Development Syndicate: a “sound speculative investment,” he assures her, only temporarily at a 50% loss.
Satan is a more sympathetic male interlocutor, encouraging Laura to speak her own mind. She tells him, “When I think of witches, I seem to see all over England, all over Europe, women living and growing old, as common as blackberries, and as unregarded.” She says the reason for becoming a witch is “to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to you by others, charitable refuse of their thoughts.” In her introduction to the NYRB edition of Lolly Willowes, the novelist Alison Lurie points out that this feminist declaration predated Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own by three years. As far as the influence of her famous contemporary went, Warner herself withdrew from London to live in the country, in Dorset, far from Bloomsbury, and evidently had little interest in emulating Woolf’s modernist experiments, although the first part of Summer Will Show has a subtle echo, in its abrupt chronological jumps, of Woolf’s more radical innovations in Mrs Dalloway (1925).
The ending of Summer Will Show is blemished by some heavy-handed class-conscious speechifying that too transparently reflects Warner’s own political commitments (it was published at the time of her brief involvement in the Spanish Civil War), concluding on a risible false note, worthy of Soviet Realism, with Sophia reading the Communist Manifesto in a freshly printed pamphlet. There is one speech that has a more authentic ring, however, when Sophia prepares to face a firing squad but a fastidious officer spares her with an unwelcome gesture of gallantry, saying, “I cannot consent to the death of a woman.” This provokes her into a veritable aria of indignation:
“Death of a woman!” she cried out furiously. “Death of a woman! And how many women are dead already, and how many more will be, with your consent and complaisance? Dead in besieged towns, and towns taken by storm. Dead in insurrections and massacres. Dead of starvation, dead of the cholera that follows starvation, dead in childbed, dead in the workhouse and the hospital for venereal diseases. You are not the man to boggle at the death of a woman.”
And while detracting not at all from the forceful expression of righteous feminist outrage, that “boggle” points up the eccentric charm of Warner’s vigorous, slightly old-fashioned English, never mind that the speech is supposed to be made in French.
Warner’s novels are still interesting, and pleasing, precisely in this way, as the expression of a complicated, contradictory sensibility, progressive yet traditionalist, that captures the conflicted spirit of their time: the years between the world wars, when the sun had begun to set on the British Empire and a rising generation was skeptically questioning its institutions. Her imagination roved the world with imperial confidence, yet also retreated to insular comforts, yearning for the simplicity of folkloric rural values. As with Mr. Fortune, there is something amusingly naive, or unconsciously Anglocentric, in Warner’s idea of “abroad”—her Polynesians, her Parisians and her Jews are all caricatures, sympathetically but clumsily drawn. They exist merely as a colorful foil for the anguished emotional evolution of her English protagonists, who awkwardly shed their gray skins, writhing tortuously after an elusive happiness, which in each case lies somewhere outside the institution of marriage. Their search for alternative forms of fulfillment leads Warner to critique other institutions: religion, colonialism, capitalism. But her fundamental and most persuasively expressed concern is the right of women to shape their own lives, by any means necessary—even if it takes a friendly helping hand from Satan.
Joshua Lustig is a senior editor at the Facts on File World News Digest in New York.