Bea Howe was Sylvia Townsend Warner’s oldest friend. They met in the 1920s when Bea was 19 and Sylvia was in her middle twenties, and Sylvia spent her 84th birthday having a nice quiet day with Bea, shortly before Sylvia died in 1978.
When they met is important, because Sylvia would soon publish her much acclaimed novel of witchcraft in a small Buckinghamshire village, Lolly Willowes (1926), which was dedicated to Bea. A Fairy Leapt Upon My Knee followed in 1927 from the same publisher, Chatto and Windus. Chatto’s publisher wrote to Sylvia to say how well A Fairy Leapt Upon My Knee was doing, amd Sylvia promised to pass on the news to Bea.
A Fairy is not about witches, though it comes pretty close, when a young woman almost gives in to the blandishments of a thunderstorm. It is about the effect of a fairy on the lives and engagement of Evelina, an independent and wealthy young woman who lives (apparently alone, at the age of twenty-three) in a small house in Cadogan Place, Mayfair, and William Fawcett, a young gentleman of property who is devoted to entomology.
Evelina and William meet at a dance, and later get engaged. It’s a bloodless betrothal: they are both rather vague, and would probably be thoroughly irritating with her charming poses and William’s aloofness. But they are satisfied, and seem to think getting married a good idea. Then William goes back to Oxfordshire for his annual fortnight of solitude on his estate, and Evelina is a little piqued. He has returned to hunt the moths which he collects (and pins to a board), and prepares his patent entrapment mixture of treacle and beer with care.
He anoints the beech trees in the field, waits until dark, and walks round to inspect each trap to see what the night has brought him. Beautiful moths abound, and he is pleased with his haul. Then he approaches the last trap, and sees:
A pale, extremely ugly, wizened-looking little face, about the size of a hazel-nut, stared up at him. And this face did not belong to a giant moth or beetle! The filmy stuff, the cobwebby matter which had first stuck to his fingers and given such a peculiar sensation to his skin, was evidently part of this creature’s clothing. Underneath its thin protection William could see the vague outline of a tiny body. It was a woman’s body, shaped quite perfectly, like a minikin statuette. With a vague feeling of embarrassment he knelt down and rolled his prisoner gently off his palm on to the ground. The fairy did not move.
This is because the poor creature is tipsy with the beer, and remains stupefied for some time. William carries her home, and she takes up resentful residence in his library, hiding in a Ming vase when she feels antisocial, and refusing to cooperate with any blandishments he tries.
Readers who already know Lolly Willowes will recognise the style: this is Sylvia’s fantasy mode, obliviously matter of fact about the hugely impossible, and realistic on the details of such a creature’s potential existence. But while Sylvia, fifty years later in Kingdoms of Elfin, would write an entire anthropology of Elfins with a severe scholarly approach, Bea Howe revels in the joy of magic. When the fairy feels happy, and basks in a ray of sunlight:
Her wings spread unfurled behind her; they were like the wings of a gorgeous butterfly. Every variety of rainbow colour shot and rippled in them, while her own dusky wrappings floated out from her like small pieces of luminous shadow. She had no body. She was an exquisite point of different colours melting into each other. She looked and was enchanted.
When William writes to tell Evelina about the fairy, he asks her to look up fairies in the British Library as he needs the latest research to apply to his observations. Dutifully she does this, and absorbs all the current fairy lore she can to report back to him. She discusses the theories of Robert Kirk, the 17thC Scottish minister who visited the fairies and wrote his treatise The Secret Commonwealth about them. She mentions MacRitchie’s Testimony of Tradition, Jacob’s English Fairy Tales, Hartland’s Science of Folk Lore and Evan Wentz’s The Fairy Faith of Celtic Countries. She is a research assistant par excellence.
Several of these are cited here and there in Kingdoms of Elfin, in the 1970s, and I am pretty sure that Sylvia used them in her 1927 article ‘The Kingdom of Elfin’ (republished in Of Cats and Elfins). I am also pretty sure that Bea and Sylvia worked together on writing their magical fantasies and drew from the same sources. So if you’re interested in Sylvia’s fantasy writing, A Fairy Leapt Upon My Knee is essential reading, if you can find a copy.
As a novel it is not 100% satisfying. Simon Thomas also found this, and I agree with him that the plot is a bit lacking, and that the fairy doesn’t DO very much, for all that she is supposed to be causing fatal musinderstandings between the lovers. It’s more of a near-final draft, and could have been developed, with the feyer parts trimmed to reveal more of the steel and passion which are certainly present. There is altogether too much trying to be charming and not enough of the imaginative brilliance Bea was capable of writing.
Bea Howe is most well-known for her group biography A Galaxy of Governesses, which I enjoyed, and Green Fingers. The Life of Jane Loudon which I haven’t read, not had I heard of till I read William Maxwell’s edition of Sylvia’s letters. He describes her as the author of that book and as the wife of Mark Lubbock, the BBC’s Light Music conductor from 1933 to 1944. A Fairy Leapt Upon My Knee had completely disappeared from sight by the end of Bea’s life: she may have forgotten it herself. But it should be remembered as part of the remarkable flowering of 1920s English literary fantasy, alongside Hope Mirrlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist (1926), David Garnett’s Lady Into Fox (1922), and Stella Benson’s Living Alone (1919). And, of course, Lolly Willowes in 1926, and the rush of popular witchcraft novels that followed it in 1927.