The Flint Anchor was published in 1954, six years after The Corner That Held Them. Both novels are the fruits of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s cultivation of a dispassionate attention to the passing of time, and a refusal to show a narrative attachment to any one character. This was not conducive to my teenage reading, so I’m pretty sure I laid The Flint Anchor down quite soon after I began reading it for the first time, and went to find something friendlier, less bracing, more spirited, like Lolly Willowes. Now that I’m a committed fan of Warner’s more austere later writing, I’m much better able to appreciate The Flint Anchor.
It’s a novel set in the nineteenth century, from the post-Napoleonic era to the High Victorian heights, and is about the family of John Barnard, a Norfolk merchant, domestic tyrant, philosophical idealist, and a besotted father blindly (and chastely) in love with his younger daughter Mary. He has other children; several die young, his eldest son sails for the Caribbean rather than endure his father’s remarks on his being sent down from Oxford. His wife descends quite rapidly into drink. The flint anchor of the title is laid into the stonework of the Barnard house, but it’s also quite clearly a metaphor for Barnard’s heart.
The characters in The Flint Anchor are human, annoying, aggravating, if not downright selfish, and several are sturdily malevolent. Some are endearing but chilly, others gush but are practical. No-one is a paragon, no-one is a collection of all the virtues and everyone is thoroughly annoying at least once, so there is a healthy distance maintained between the characters’ fates and the reader’s affections. This distance allows the humour to come through in spurts, little outbreaks of exasperation and derision, to make us scarely able to believe the ludicrousness, and sadness, of what we’re reading.
John Barnard the early Victorian tyrant father is a monster of delusion, and has to be endured, never resisted. His business prospers, he becomes rich, his London branch office becomes the centre of his trade, but all this is incidental: the emotional and domestic dramas in his home are what makes the story. When Euphemia, his downtrodden elder daughter, destined to manage the house for her alcoholic mother forever, refuses to marry the kind, rich and eager Marmaduke, I despaired. How else was she going to escape the prison of her home? The sympathy I felt for Thomas as he approached the Barnards’ orbit was the kind of sympathy you have for a drowning insect in a pond as the fish swim near: nothing I can do anything about, it’s nature’s way, he’s doomed to marry Mary so we’ll have to endure it. When pretty and doted-upon Mary returns to her family with her baby son, leaving the hapless Thomas to catalogue a house full of shells alone, her reasons for refusing to go back to him are as varied and selfish as those of Mrs John Dashwood’s views on what her husband should offer Elinor and Marianne. All the children growing up in the Barnard house are warped and unpleasant little monsters, some of whom only achieve humanity as adults.
The ending of the novel contains the broadest statement of its theme: that history is not the things we are told, but of everything that went on at the same time, obscured by the public statements on monuments, in minute books, in household accounts, and on gravestones. It’ll send you back to the beginning of the novel.