Details & Cataloguing

English Literature, History, Science, Childrens Books and Illustrations


Warner, Sylvia Townsend
comprising 22 autograph letters signed, 39 typed letters signed (one with typed signature), and 3 postcards, discussing her writing, literature, her life with Valentine Ackland in rural Dorset, Oliver's books and life, Elizabeth's writing, politics and international affairs (especially during the Spanish Civil War and World War II), and other subjects, c.150 pages, various sizes, East Chaldon, Dorset, Frankfort Manor, Norfolk, and Frome Vauchurch, Maiden Newton, Dorset, 15 July 1931 to 20 December 1977, occasional nicks and slight wear

[with:] Two typed letters signed by Valentine Ackland, to Oliver Warner, 4 pages, 4to, Norfolk and Doret, 30 January 1934 and n.d.; [also with:] a small bundle of related papers including Oliver Warner's draft obituary of Sylvia Townsend Warner for The Times and related correspondence, other typescript and printed articles, and correspondence with William Maxwell

Read Condition Report Read Condition Report

Catalogue Note

A SERIES OF AFFECTIONATE AND FUNNY LETTERS BY ONE OF THE GREATEST LETTER-WRITERS OF HER GENERATION. Oliver M.W. Warner (1903-76) was a reader at Chatto and Windus, Sylvia Townsend Warner's principal publisher. Their close friendship began in 1928 with their joint purchase of 113 Inverness Terrace, Bayswater, as a shared solution to their housing needs: the top two floors became a flat for Oliver and his pregnant wife Dorothy, whilst Sylvia moved into the lower two floors. Their shared life at the "Warnerium" was the foundation of a long friendship. They were not, despite their shared surname, closely related; Sylvia did once claim to have found a kinship but reassured Oliver that "it is so very distant that I don't think we need fear that it will do anything to estrange us" (26 January 1934).

The correspondence begins after Sylvia moved to Dorset to live with Valentine Ackland. Her letters describe her new life in the country surrounded by animals, gardens, orchards and West Country mud. Her friendship with the Powys family makes them a frequent presence in the early letters, although she admits that she had been concerned before Philippa (Katie) Powys arrived to stay at how the housekeeper would respond to a visitor who might be a genius but "may at any moment decide to play at horses, who will scream on the smallest provocation, and embrace on none at all" (26 January 1934). Whilst Sylvia had found happiness with Valentine, Oliver's wife had suffered a mental collapse following which he attempted suicide. He was recuperating in Africa where she sent him beautifully supportive letters:

“Though we wish you were here, though there is not a day when we do not echo that wish, saying, if only Oliver... as we find a sudden burst of yellow aconites growing under the winter leaves, or contemplate the wood-stack, yet, for all this, I still think you are best where you are. It is a better, swifter, air for healing in; and though just because of that the wound may smart and tingle more than it would in England, yet it is most important that you should heal. And it is because of that that I am going to beg you to try and outwit this ghostly army of reproaches and misgivings and self-accusations...” (2 February 1934)

Literature is a major subject of Sylvia's letters. She sends him the manuscript of Lolly Willowes, for example, on 8 March 1935, but also writes about her reading as when she comments that the portrayal of Hugh Walpole in Cakes and Ale is so funny that it made worthwhile the many hours she had spent reading Walpole's novels, although she wonders why Walpole hasn't challenged Maugham to a duel (“...perhaps as he is the son of a Bishop his principles do not allow of duels, and so he will ask Papa to excommunicate the nasty man instead...”, 27 December 1932). Further literary insights are gleaned from pilgrimages to Max Gate and Haworth, the latter of which "surpassed even my appetite for gloomy churchyards. Glutted, is the only word for it."

Politics and international affairs are inevitably a major subject in the later 1930s. In July 1937 she gives a glowingly enthusiastic report of her reception at the International Writers Conference in Madrid, where "soldiers and people in small country towns, and peasants harvesting" spoke of los intelectuales with "genuine enthusiasm and understanding and kindness". She gives witty accounts of her life during World War II, from German bombing (“...We are constantly flown over, and guns bark around the house, and we dug up an incendiary bomb from the artichokes...”, 16 December 1940) to her work for the WVS (“...I have had to make a quantity of missionary journeys inspecting rest-centres with searching enquiries as to whether they have chamber-pots and are prepared to deal with fits. Oh I am learning so much about the county! They are so very odd, so very local, so very quarrelsome...”, 27 December 1941). Her letters nevertheless continue to be enriched by asides on a wonderfully rich range of subjects ("...how very painful it must have been for the late eighteenth century people to be old among the young Victorians, prig on prig rising up all around them, and a sort of Torquay climate of hot damp piety misting over everything, and carrying with it an enhanced flavour of bad drains and stuffy bedrooms...", 10 September 1941).

From 1942 onwards the letters are mostly addressed to Oliver's second wife, Elizabeth, and become notably less frequent. Sylvia writes to congratulate Oliver on his naval biographies, to comment on manuscripts that Elizabeth has sent of her own work, and to comment wryly on her own life (“...I am very well, thank you – a fine specimen of hardy perpetual crone. From time to time I commit a short story, but I fancy Kingdoms of Elfin will be my last book...”, 24 December 1962). The series ends with a group of three kind and thoughtful letters to "tired toiling Elizabeth" in the aftermath of Oliver's death.

Fourteen of these letters were printed in William Maxwell's Letters, mostly in part only, but the vast bulk of this correspondence remains unpublished.

English Literature, History, Science, Childrens Books and Illustrations