Header overlay

Surprised by Joy

It’s always strange to think how easily you might not have met that someone: a bus that arrived on time, or a last drink at the bar, and it might all have been quite different. Our meetings with books can be equally subject to fluke. I was in the queue at Barter Books in Alnwick, a clutch of holiday reading under my arm, when for no reason at all I picked up a green Virago paperback: The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner.

The name rang only muffled bells, but through some chance the pages opened on a bit about Yeovil in Somerset, the town in which I failed to grow up. The book went into the bag with the rest. And thank goodness it did: there are books that become an essential part of your life; that travel on with you; that you know you will never exhaust. For me, this is one – and one that I nearly missed.

Of course, that the book exists at all is itself a sort of fluke. As anyone with the diary habit knows, a journal begins by accident and is best carried on by not really thinking about it much. In 1927 Sylvia Townsend Warner was given a smart notebook by a friend; a day out prompted a few hesitant jottings and, before she knew it, she was off. Warner had acquired a habit that would last – with a few significant gaps – until her death some fifty years later. The result is quite simply a miracle. For wit, candour and brilliance of style, the diary can have few rivals; and in its later broodings on love and mortality it becomes (surely) one of the most moving of all human documents.

Wisely, Sylvia never stopped to ask herself why she wrote, or for whom (questions that have stymied many a diarist). However, there is a clue in one of her earliest novels, where a character remarks feelingly that ‘one does not admire things enough: and worst of all one allows whole days to slip by without once pausing to see an object, any object, exactly as it is’. It is this energized intentness – this willingness to marvel – that gives the diary its brio, whether Sylvia is gossiping about her pets, the love lives of her friends, or the everchanging effects of light and weather in the English countryside. After a visit to Sylvia in Dorset, the poet Jean Untermeyer wrote, ‘she is so alive that her vital awareness is translated into everything she thinks and does. She can make an event of the fact that the carrots have come up.’

When the journal begins Sylvia is 33, living in Bayswater and enjoying the success of her first novels, Lolly Willowes (1926) and Mr Fortune’s Maggot (1927). The phrase ‘social whirl’ has rarely seemed so apposite. Her young friends are called things like Bunny, Wobb and Doffles and they all do something in publishing or journalism or the arts. Whether she is recording church crawls into Suffolk or long walks in the Essex marshes, Mahler at the Courtauld or Stravinsky at the BBC, lamb with ‘a miraculous and undiagnosable sauce’ at Boulestin’s or oysters from Mrs Diver’s bar, the diaries convey an overpowering joie de vivre. My guess is that most of her young men were in love with her, and more than a little in awe; she clearly had the sort of charm that at once provokes resistance and makes it useless. The constant picnics have a smack of Swallows and Amazons, or even the Famous Five – although I dare say the conversation was racier:

We argued passionately about the aesthetic emotion, the league of nations, whether animals masturbate, whether there is an essential difference between lyric and epigram, whether Mr Stuart was an honest man or a married man . . .

In getting it all down, Sylvia gives the impression of writing fast, with ideas and images bubbling up spontaneously. Startling comparisons leap out of the page: a wedding dress in its tissue paper is ‘an enormous rectangular ghost, like an aeroplane’; the slip of banana on a grilled fish is ‘like a medieval wife on a tomb’. People, famous or not, are fixed with a single glittering phrase (Mrs Thomas Hardy is like ‘a very sad subdued seal, looking out of her face and then diving under again’). And in a quite different register, there are episodes of rapt, slightly mysterious pastoral, where Sylvia writes about the natural world with all the freshness of a Francis Kilvert:

The cornfields were sleeked over with a film of mist, the trees very still and remote, the birds’ voices very loud . . . The whole effect was sensuous and heathen and wicked. I have never smelt meadowsweet and mustard so strong . . .

It might seem like a charmed life, but Sylvia was often lonely, and an affair with a married man had dragged on far too long. For most of 1930 the journal exudes a jittery sense that something has to change; and then – quite suddenly – it does. Through a series of accidents Sylvia had ended up buying a cottage in Chaldon, a remote village in Dorset, and with the cottage came a lodger: an extraordinary person named Valentine Ackland. If Sylvia hardly knew what to make of Miss Ackland, she was not nalone. With her cropped hair, masculine dress and buccaneering ways Valentine had spent most of her short life confusing people. The roots of this lay in a deeply unhappy childhood, in which her father had done his best to raise her as a boy; a Catholic education had probably not helped and nor had marriage (later annulled) to a very gay man.

The diary gives a slow-burning account of the day on which everything changed: 11 October 1930. For some months Chaldon had been disturbed by goings-on at the vicarage, where a Mrs Stevenson was training ‘mentally deficient’ girls to work as domestics. According to rumour, the girls were mistreated and half starved. While others gossiped, Valentine determined to act, setting off – with Sylvia in tow and a gun in her pocket – to confront the terrifying Stevenson. Although nothing was resolved, Sylvia found herself awed by Valentine’s righteous rage: ‘I watched it flame in her with severe geometrical flames.’ That night they would share a bed, the start of a relationship that would last for forty years.

Writing in her journal next morning, Sylvia hailed the new day as ‘our first . . . a bridal of earth and sky’, and this sense of a world transfigured barely diminishes over the weeks and months. Everyday activities are filled with a shining, singing joy:

It was amazing happiness to be writing . . . full of cold snipe and beer, with my love lying beside me, her lappet of hair trailing into the winter grass . . .

For Sylvia, her new lover was a thrilling blend of the otherworldly with the down-to-earth; if she resembled ‘a solitary sea nymph’, it was one who could ‘split logs with an axe and manage a most capricious petrol pump, and cut up large frozen fish with a cleaver’. After one particularly joyous night, the couple exchanged vows, and from this time Sylvia regarded their relationship as a marriage. In 1933 they moved to a mouldering grange in Norfolk where Sylvia wrote poems and stories while Valentine shot rats with a rifle. Their happiness appeared to be complete.

It would not be long, however, before the cracks began to show. In the mid-1930s there are long gaps in the diary and a strong sense of things being left unsaid. We have to go elsewhere to learn about Valentine’s drinking and her affairs, to both of which Sylvia turned a loving blind eye. Nor is there much about Sylvia’s decision to follow Valentine into the Communist Party, or their move to Frome Vauchurch, an old riverside manor in Dorset. The war years are thinly covered and the diary breaks off completely in 1945.

When the entries resume, in May 1949, it is in a mood of black anguish as Sylvia faces the great crisis of her life. For some years Valentine had been pursuing an affair with a young American woman, and she was now determined to move her lover into the house, while retaining Sylvia as a companion. Knowing that she could not accept this, Sylvia saw no choice but to leave, even though the idea of separation from Valentine threatened her very sense of self: ‘what I cannot begin to imagine is myself alone. The moment I think of that I go out like a candle . . . There is no one in the room.’ These entries are truly harrowing, but even sadder, perhaps, are those that register the simple pain of knowing oneself unloved:

To feel myself delighting her . . . that is something I think I shall never feel again; and of all the things I grieve for, it is that I grieve for most.

That September Sylvia moved out for a month’s trial separation. While Valentine enjoyed her lover, Sylvia walked alone on Sedgemoor feeling ‘idiotic with grief ’ and ‘as derelict as an old bus-ticket’. Although she was home within weeks, the situation hung in the balance until the spring, when Sylvia realized she had won:

Here I am, grey as a badger, wrinkled as a walnut . . . and yonder sits the other one, who had all the cards in her hand – except one. That I was better at loving, and being loved.

The diary reverts to its wonted descriptions of lambs’ tails and pussy willows and Dorset turning pistachio green in the last rays of the sun; but for Sylvia the trauma could not be erased. Over twelve years later a sudden memory of the separation is ‘almost an abolition. I waited to hear myself fall in half, as a cleft log does.’

By this time, Valentine had found new ways of giving pain. In the mid-1950s she rediscovered the Catholic faith of her youth and, to Sylvia’s horror, began going to Mass – an issue that opened a deep and lasting breach between them. Nevertheless, the diary records ‘mercies and mitigations’ aplenty as seasons pass in the old house by the river: a rescued bat is ‘as pretty as Mozart’, a massive tabby has ‘black velvet breeches like Parson Woodforde’, and here are the first snowdrops ‘holding their noses straight up in the air, & looking like cherubim badgers’. One evening Beethoven plays on the wireless and Sylvia, soon to turn 65, dances among the cats’ saucers and wonders whether ‘perhaps it was the last time I should dance for joy’.

The great anxiety now was Valentine’s health. In 1968 a lump is removed from her breast and later there is a full mastectomy. Step by step Sylvia is forced to contemplate the unthinkable: ‘A life without her seems inconceivable . . . like trying to conceive walking without a sense of direction.’ By the following summer Valentine is in constant pain. They travel to London for a crucial consultation and Sylvia feels all the old intoxication as Valentine stoops to give a coin to a match-seller: ‘All her life was in the gesture.’ It is only when they return home that the truth sinks in; that nothing is being done, that the doctors have decided Valentine is beyond cure: ‘And she raged. And I could do nothing.’

In October the swans fly overhead and Valentine weeps silently: ‘This world so lovely, and she with such quick eyes for its loveliness . . .’ The reader, too, may be weeping buckets – and for somebody he or she has probably come to dislike. When Valentine dies at home in the early morning of 9 November, Sylvia sees ‘all her young beauty flooding back into her face’ and puts her rosary in her hands. There is a last, loving present: ‘on my desk . . . next year’s diary, inscribed by her’. In a firm, steady hand: Non omnis moriar.

The diaries that Sylvia kept after Valentine’s death have an uncanny, almost posthumous feel. There is a sense of a woman living in two worlds at once, an unreal present and a past made authentic by love. At times she is overcome by a sense of Valentine’s presence that verges on the mystical: ‘I held her again . . . It was. It is.’ After a day spent reading her 1930 diary, Sylvia is convinced that Valentine has followed her to bed: ‘a resurrection of the body . . . I believe’. And there is a night when Sylvia wakes at 3 a.m. and knows absolutely that she is not alone: ‘beside me . . . not remembered, not evoked, not a sense of presence. Actual.’

Towards the end of her life Warner told a friend that the journals were ‘too sad’ to be published. I have to differ: although there is deep, awful pain, the final impression is of a miraculous and undiagnosable joy. On the blackest day of her life, the day she realized that Valentine would die, Sylvia stepped outside, looked up at the sky, and saw something else: ‘I saw the Sun dance, as it’s said to do on Easter morning . . . I can hardly believe it. But I saw it.’

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 48 © Jonathan Law 2015

About the contributor

Jonathan Law is a writer and editor living in Buckinghamshire. His latest book, The Whartons of Winchendon, is a short study of one of the strangest families in English history, featuring incest, treason, fairies, diving and the self-proclaimed Solar King of the World.

Comments & Reviews

Leave a comment

Sign up to our e-newsletter

Sign up for dispatches about new issues, books and podcast episodes, highlights from the archive, events, special offers and giveaways.