Saturday, July 03, 2010

Little Zeal & Sylvia Townsend Warner's story

It is possibly not generally known that  Sylvia Townsend Warner had links with Devon. Several of Warner's short stories thread in Devonshire landscapes, or have characters from Devon. However the scenery of the fiction, or even the title itself, does not necessarily correspond with the real  place. The short story ‘A View of Exmoor’ for example - first published 1948 in The New Yorker, abstract and first pages here; find in One Thing Leading to Another and Other Stories - was originally labelled  ‘A View of Dartmoor’, but the publisher found that many people associated ‘Dartmoor’ with ‘prison’ and so the title was changed!  It would  not have been difficult for the author to swap titles and places; the scenic features in the story were less than precisely identified. For example, features such as  ‘ten foot hedges’ and ‘a falling meadow, a pillowy middle distance of woodland and beyond that, pure and cold and unimpassioned, the silhouette of the moor’, though perhaps more suggestive of Dartmoor (especially when put alongside the other defining feature in the story, the ‘moor mist’), are still acceptably matched with Exmoor.

Warner  must have been very familiar with the Devonshire moors, particularly Dartmoor, for in 1914, when she was 21, her parents had bought a piece of land on the southern slopes of Dartmoor near South Brent. There they built and lived at their Georgian type villa, Little Zeal and were there for many years; first it was their holiday and then their retirement home. The house wasn't delegated as Sylvia’s home because by now she was living and working in London; but she had her own room and spent many vacations there with her parents and various friends. During the war years she was engaged in factory work as a shell machinist but was able to join her parents at Little Zeal and to help them in their preparation of their garden: during an early visit she helped them ‘tarring the gate’.

Two years after the house was built, in late summer 1916, Warner’s father died suddenly. His daughter had been staying down at Little Zeal during the summer and had been working on a short story – which her father called ‘the Monolith’; I do not yet know which story this was, or indeed if it was ever published, but her father had suggested she send it to the Cornhill Magazine.

The following year Sylvia’s mother Nora moved down to Devon; her daughter may have felt obliged to go to help her there, but her work as musicologist led to an opportunity to take part in the preparation of the Tudor Church Music project, which meant she was to be based in London. However she but visited her mother frequently. Later, after Nora remarried the architect Ronald Eiloart, Sylvia’s visits became less stressful. The couple assembled an enthusiastic ménage of  ducks, hens and chows. Sylvia would catch the train down from Paddington and her stepfather would meet her at South Brent station in his Model T Ford and drive her the mile or so to Little Zeal.

One year Sylvia was accompanied by a young boy cousin called Hilary who developed a mixture of awe and admiration for her after she led the way on to the moor and ‘did not adapt her pace to his [but] went ahead at a lick, jumping over streams and bounding up hills, whilst he was left behind to make the best of it’. Her mother hired a baby grand so that Sylvia could play whilst her cousin sang – though he was not happy with this idea.

Warner's visits to Devon must have continued in the same vein for some years; she went there for a month every summer and was certainly there during the summers of the early 1930’s, in which the so-called Hayford Hall writers - (including Antonia White, Djuna Barnes, and Emily Holmes Coleman - descended on that house which was not far of South Brent. (It was there that Barnes wrote Nightwood).

However, as yet I have found no evidence of any contacts between Warner and any of the writers who visited Hayford. But then, perhaps Sylvia was otherwise preoccupied, for in the spring of 1931 she received a telegram to say that her step-father had died suddenly at the age of forty two. Not only did she have to rush down to be with her mother and help sort out funeral arrangements,  but now she was expected to take over as her mother’s protector. Added to that, Sylvia’s relationships with Valentine Ackland had just become established and the couple were enjoying the first flushes of romantic partnership. Sylvia’s plan before her stepfather’s death had been to tell her mother of the realities of the relationship and the abrupt changes in their plans were irksome to  both women. They could not tolerate being apart for long at this stage and exchanged at least thirty letters in some eight days. In the midst of all the difficult plans for Ronald’s funeral they hatched up a plan for Valentine to arrive at Little Zeal with her own mother. Presumably she made frequent visits; in 1944 she was at Little Zeal a couple of times.Warner's connection with Devon and Little Zeal continued until  1951, after her mother, having developed dementia, eventually died; she sold the house for £3000.

Given the familiarity which the writer must have developed with the county it’s not surprising that Townsend Warner’s short stories often thread in the landscapes, or present characters from Devon. As yet I am not sufficiently familiar with her work to suggest which manuscripts were worked on whilst she was there and in any case my reading of her fiction so far would tend to interpret her work as more 'people centred' than focused on the topography of particular places.

Sylvia Townsend Warner; A Biography