BOOK REVIEW / Cry beyond the art: D J Taylor on the vivid, direct life to be found in the diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner: The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner - Ed. Claire Harman: Chatto, pounds 25

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The riddle of a writer's journal lies in whether it was intended for publication. Evelyn Waugh's diaries, with their polished chatter and roll-call of lustrous names, seem destined for some kind of posthumous life; George Gissing's, with their routine lamentations and mundane chronicles of small beer, rather less so.

On the evidence of Claire Harman's painstaking edition, Sylvia Townsend Warner falls somewhere between these two luminous exemplars. According to her editor, the elderly Warner thought the diary 'too sad' to be published, an assessment happily disregarded by her executors. But there are hints that the younger writer had an eye on a wider audience, notably her habit of inserting knowing asides, or coining sly little epigrams. When, quite early on in the proceedings, she writes that 'It is wanton extravagance to have had a youth with no one to tell of it when one grows old', it is hard not to feel that someone is being addressed, other than the author's inner self: the sense of a performance is too strong.

The diaries begin in 1927, their author aged 33, her second novel, Lolly Willowes, lately published, and its successor, Mr Fortune's Maggot, in the press. At this point Warner's life seems to have been industrious and reasonably contented. It was built around occupations that were as much musical as literary (an expert on notation, she was working on the ten-volume Oxford Tudor Church Music) and around her relationship with old friends such as the Machen and Powys families. Its emotional undertow was provided by a long- standing and covert affair with a considerably older man, the musician Percy Buck. Thematically, though, the book gets into its stride in 1930, the year in which Warner met and fell in love with the female poet Valentine Ackland. Ackland, it seems fair to say, is the focusof the diary: an

obsession lasting 40 years, taking in communism, war work, temporary estrangement and singular passion, kept alive after her death in 1969 by carefully cherished memory. As late as 1976, as an old lady in her Eighties, Warner finds herself prompted to do something by 'a Valentine nudge'.

While highly distinctive, the voice that emerges from this half-century or so of despatches from an outwardly ordinary life awakens all sorts of older echoes. The novels of F M Mayor, for instance, harbour the same kind of spinster passion, the humdrum infused with a vigorous emotional sense. A C Benson's diary style - rueful, alert, meditative - might be another benchmark, particularly in the vivid descriptions of scenery. Intellectually the trend is to self-containment, the mental high-jinks with Buck and others, early on ('After dinner we had a long argument as to whether I was right in condemning knowledge as another form of capitalism . . .'), giving way to quieter observation. Famous names, when they arrive, tend to perform in humble or slightly comic settings: Empson, who had asked her to dinner, found alone with a saucepan of twopenny soup boiling on a gas ring; T F Powys, vague and confidential, commending a pineapple as being 'almost as good as tinned pineapple'. Never trailed in advance, always dispassionate, the inward scrutiny ('For when I was young I got my emotion from having things done to me . . . by art or by life or by eloquence, now, by doing things myself') seems almost an afterthought, cursorily tacked onto the broader structure.

But Warner's singularity, or oddity, as a diarist is as much to do with absences as inclusions. One 5of the most conspicuous absences in her writing is the cultivation of a personal myth that infects so many writers' diaries. unlike Waugh or Gissing, she does not make herself the hero of her own life. It is not that her observations are remote, simply that they have a kind of unfeigned directness - a baby which 'romped on my lap like a short stout salmon', 'fat young lambs like impudent cherubs'. There are hundreds of stray touches like this, and while they connect Warner firmly to whatever it is she describes, the effect is to illumine a landscape rather than follow the more usual path of placing the writer at that landscape's centre. The extraordinary late Sixties entries, recounting Valentine's long illness and eventual death from cancer, have a similar head-on quality, Warner noting with horror 'how reconciled I am growing to all this', subsequently sleeping with the casket bearing Valentine's ashes by her side, or handing over a tiny legacy to a friendly market-trader ('With tears on our old cheeks we patted each other sadly, while a woman who wanted to buy a cabbage stared at us').

Sylvia Townsend Warner died in 1978. The list of her publications takes up a page and a half - novels (drying up in the early Fifties), stories - she was a New Yorker stalwart for 40 years - poetry and collections of 'elfin' fantasy. Her reputation, kept alive by Virago reissues and her current editor, a one-woman Warner industry also responsible for a biography and editions of the poems, can only be enhanced by this splendid volume. A final judgment hangs out of reach, but in the end I was reminded once more of F M Mayor, and in particular the description fixed by a minor character in The Rector's Daughter to the writings of its heroine, Mary Jocelyn: 'an odd cry from the heart, or whatever there is beyond the heart, and somehow one feels she's curiously complete'.

(Photograph omitted)