Lives for Sale: Extract


From ‘Who is Sylvia?’

      I’m glad now that I didn’t meet  the subject of my first book, Sylvia Townsend Warner, who died four years before I was asked to write her biography. It meant she never got the chance to dislike me or disapprove of my appointment, whereas I was rewarded by what Withermore in Henry James’s ‘The Real Right Thing’ describes as ‘the possibility of an intercourse closer than that of life’. Warner displayed admirable fatalism about her posterity, destroying a few papers, leaving in order the love letters she wanted published, pretty much neglecting everything else. She left no instructions about her diaries but must have guessed that someone would think them publishable one day; all the same, I felt extremely intrusive when I began to read them. Sylvia was one of what Michael Holroyd calls ‘the warm dead’; I was the first person to go through her papers, which had been removed by the trustees from her house (still occupied by a friend of the deceased) and stored in an attic at the Dorset County Museum. The museum had a bit of a problem, it seemed, with bequests. The works of Elizabeth Muntz, sculptress, had also been left them at approximately the same time and whenever I tried to get up the back stairs to the garret where the Warner archive was housed, more and more Muntz seemed to have strayed onto the landings.

      I had come across Warner’s work originally in a way that emphasised this aura of neglect, finding a package of her poems under a desk in the publisher’s office where I worked in 1979. They had been left to the publisher by the author, but eighteen months after Warner’s death, no-one had yet done anything about them. The only thing that had sent me under the desk in the first place was one of those odd hormonal rushes of late pregnancy that impel women to meet severe cleaning challenges, but when I took the poems home (I had never heard of Warner), I found the material so unusual and puzzling that by the time I went into labour a few weeks later, the book I took with me was Lolly Willowes, one of only three Warner novels then in print. By the middle of the next year, I was totally engrossed with the subject, had bought as many first editions as possible, had contacted the estate, the friends, put together a celebration of her work, edited the poems, changed the subject of my PhD. I was delighted when Warner’s executors asked me to write the biography, of course, but also rather intimidated. Up to this point I had been studying Warner (a writer who had entirely evaded the canon); researching her life and making judgements about her personality would be an entirely different matter.

 *  *  *  *

 Click here to return to Lives for Sale: Biographer’s Tales