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SYLVIA TOWNSEND WARNER’S vibrant novels and poetry are as relevant to today as when first written and a new generation of readers now have the chance to explore her work in the republication of her novels by Penguin Modern Classics.
Yet despite her undoubted gifts, she is one of the least-read novelists of the 20th century, even though her biographer Claire Hartman said of her novel Summer Will Show: “Every page contains something brilliant, arresting or amusing and one comes away from it staggered.”
The same applies to any of her other novels.
Perhaps part of the reason she is still unknown is that she is impossible to pigeonhole. Born in 1893, she grew up in Harrow on the Hill.
Musically gifted, she had been going to study composition in Vienna but worked in a munitions factory during the first world war.
She became a musicologist, specialising in Tudor music, had a 17-year secret affair with the much older musician Percy Buck and fell in love with the poet Valentine Ackland.
They moved to Dorset, where they became active members of the Communist Party. Both went to Spain during the civil war to support the republican government and there she worked for the Red Cross.
The story of Summer Will Show revolves around Sophia Willoughby, a strong-willed English aristocrat who kicks out her cheating husband and his mistress, so that she can raise her children as upper class.
But after disaster strikes, in 1848 she goes to Paris — the revolutionary year of the Commune — to seek out her husband. On finding him, she falls in love with his mistress Minna.
She shows her the delights of revolution and the novel ends with Sophia reading the opening passage of a new publication, The Communist Manifesto.
The writer Mary McCarthy declared that the ending was “the most triumphal single moment in revolutionary fiction.” I would go further and say the whole novel is.
Three years before her death in 1978, she was asked if she was a communist or an anarchist. “I was a communist but I always find anarchists very easy to get on with,” she replied.
“You’ve always got something to be an anarchist about, your life is one excitement. And anarchists are the most charming people.”
As well as dipping in to her her novels, poems, short stories, biographies, letters, diaries and reviews, I’d recommend visiting her grave in Dorset and joining the Sylvia Townsend Warner Society to celebrate a great 20th-century writer.
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