BOOK REVIEW / Method in a literary madness: 'The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner' - ed Claire Harman: Chatto, 25 pounds

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The Independent Culture
SYLVIA TOWNSEND WARNER refused to write her autobiography, claiming that she was 'too imaginative'. But she kept a diary for half a century, even though she christened it 'Apocrypha' as a sort of disclaimer. Its contents will delight readers who, until now, have known only her novels and short stories. Novels such as Lolly Willowes and Mr Fortune's Maggot developed cult status not only because of their obscurity, but because of their intensely personal quality, which turned the unstated pact between reader and author into something more exclusive, like a private joke. Warner's apocrypha, dating from 1927 (when David Garnett bought her a fancy new notebook) until her death in 1978, provide the same rare, tonic satisfaction.

The diary is hewn slowly out of privacies: the anecdotal early years in Harrow, where her father was a housemaster; her misadventures on the fringes of Bloomsbury; the episode in the 1930s when she met and fell passionately in love with Valentine Ackland, the woman who became her lifetime companion; the long stretches of unhappiness and near-breakdown after the war.

Warner's intellect, her self-construction, found its match in Ackland, whose sensuality contained a hint of mischief. The diary records a night of lovemaking in 1930, soon after the death of D H Lawrence. In the early hours of the morning Ackland 'said, remembering Lady C(hatterley), that Lawrence in heaven would be taken down a peg to see us, specimens of what he so violently disliked, loving according to all his precepts, and perhaps the only lovers that night really to observe them.'

In later years, however, and particularly after the couple moved to Dorset, their relationship often proved to be one of mental tumult and private misery. Just before the outbreak of war, Ackland began a love affair with an American, Elizabeth Wade White, whose proximity troubled Warner for almost 20 years and may have been responsible for her breakdown in 1949. At such times the diary often cuts out, like an emotional trip-switch, and can remain blank for years, so the most painful moments (and the highs) go unrecorded, undiscussed: 'One need not write in a diary what one is to remember for ever,' she noted in 1930, and, a few years later: 'Happy is the day whose history is not written down.'

History itself obtrudes in random musings on politics and current affairs, from the Spanish Civil War to Vietnam. In each case, Warner's robust and indefatigable high-mindedness is quick to identify the moralising, nave, do-good approach which she saw drifting back to the centre from the suburbs of politics. And even if the high-mindedness occasionally led her into foolish overstatements, especially after she joined the Communist Party in 1935, her robust common sense usually corrected her.

The vivacity, the pressure of her prose, is obvious, but what really matters is the way Sylvia Townsend Warner experimented in her diary with the unwritten rules of the genre. As Claire Harman observes in her excellent introduction, diary-writing is a highly artificial form, or ought to be if it is to sound natural. This journal runs to almost as many words as Virginia Woolf's, yet it is curiously devoid of self-questioning because Warner is more interested in describing the outside world than in analysing her own life.

Eccentricity is often the badge of her diary. Sometimes she recasts her memories of what happened on a particular day, or even backwrites an entry, getting the date wrong. The results - as in 'Sent to Bank (tomorrow rather)' from 1952 - can be mildly unnerving, and yet her unexpected elisions, her time lapses and peculiar locutions often enable her to speak with greater briskness and distillation than ordinary discourse allows.

Sometimes, these diaries read like memories of your own life, and yet the work is self-consciously - pointedly - literary. Its allusions, blatant or invisibly woven in, range from Proust to Empson, and the profusion of literary and visual devices helps to create a reality that is both believable and frankly artificial. The most striking example of this occurs in 1970 when the diary splits in two (represented in the book by alternating roman and italic script) to describe Warner's feelings of loss and reunion after Ackland's death. It is like watching cell division under a microscope: at first, a protoplasm of grief; then, suddenly, the threads, the spindle, and a kind of resolve.

One would have trouble, though, celebrating Sylvia Townsend Warner - her generosity, her zest, her courage - with anything like equivalent skill. In the diary's best moments, one does not feel simply that there is method in the madness of her eccentricities; one stands momentarily convinced that she speaks more directly - even more logically - than most other writers do. The resulting exhilaration goes beyond what is provided by plain literary excellence.

(Photograph omitted)