I’ve spent the sixteen days since Christmas reading the letters that Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote to and received from two of her most constant and articulate correspondents, David Garnett and William Maxwell. Both books were presents, and shoved aside all other claims from the reading pile.
Sylvia and David knew each other in the 1920s, when they were both young writers living in London, circulating through literary society, and with many mutual friends, such as the Woolfs, the Bells and so on, to talk to and about. In 1929 Sylvia left the orbit of Bloomsbury for rural Dorset where she had bought a cottage near their mutual friend Theodore Powys. She was falling in love with her housemate Valentine Ackland, a passionate poet and suave lover with whom Sylvia lived until Valentine’s death in 1969. Her correspondence with David seemed to have stopped after 1932 (Richard Garnett, who edited Sylvia & David. The Townsend Warner / Garnett Letters, reports that William Maxwell had suggested that Valentine may have suppressed or dissuaded the relationship), but was picked up again in the 1950s and was resumed, regularly if not frequently, until the end of Sylvia’s life in 1978.
Naturally their letters are marvellous: two literary stylists and great authorities on pretty much everything worth knowing in life, discussing, chatting, gossiping, laying down the law, swapping recipes and recollecting, for years and years and years. They were not rich, and lived apart from literary society, cultivating their gardens, literally. Both wrote novels that were definitely out of the common vein. Their mutual friend T H White made another connection between them in the 1960s when Sylvia was commissioned to write his biography, partly at David’s suggestion, and David began thinking of collating all his letters to and from White.
They did not often meet in person: perhaps seven or eight times for lunch or a weekend visit, over forty years? David eventually moved to France and Sylvia stuck like a burr to Dorset which was not then fashionable. Writing was where they met, and they revelled in it, but something feels overcooked in their letters. They protest too much, giving rise to caustic thoughts that neither would have tolerated each other’s company for long had they lived in the same village.
I did not warm to David. I don’t much like his novels that I’ve read (in the sense that I have no intention of going back to them). The more I read what he said about his later novels, churned out in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, the less I feel inclined to try them. I distrust sustained hyperbole, which their letters are full of. His repeated assurances of constant and undying love, the epic marvellousness of Sylvia’s latest novel, and so on, seem to lack integrity when they are placed on page after page like evidence. Sylvia was hyperbolic in response to him, much more so than she was in her other correspondence, and effusive in her expressions of love for David and his writing, as if they were egging each other on to rise to greater and greater heights of mutual reassurance. His letters are largely about himself, and hers respond to this, dwindling, in the end, to fond stories about their (mostly his) cats.
I was also suspicious about the things that David was not saying in his letters, or in those that his son allowed to be published. David’s first wife Ray (Rachel) died of cancer, and was sincerely mourned, but then he married Angelica Bell, with whom he had begun having an affair in Ray’s last years. She was 24 and he was 50 when they married, and David had been her biological father’s lover in his youth. (She was Duncan Grant’s unacknowledged daughter by Vanessa Bell, and David had teased a friend by coveting Angelica for marriage as a baby.) Angelica later left David for a lover. Richard Garnett makes a point in his introduction of saying that while his stepmother’s autobiography gives her side of the story, David’s side should also be considered, and that both sides may be a corrective to the others’ stories. There is nothing in the selection of David’s letters published here TO consider, except silence about his behaviour, and things not said.
With relief, then, I embarked on reading the much vaster correspondence between Sylvia and William Maxwell, The Element of Lavishness, edited by Michael Steinman. William Maxwell was the fiction editor for The New Yorker, with whom Warner published one hundred and fifty three short stories between 1938 and 1977. He inherited her as a contributor, and wrote politely to ‘Miss Warner’ and she to him as ‘Mr Maxwell’, until one occasion when she unthinkingly signed her name as ‘Sylvia’. He was instantly cast into a quandary: was this an invitation? Could he ask her to call him William? (This after about two or three years of increasingly warm and friendly correspondence.)
These letters are simply wonderful. It is a relief to read Sylvia writing not to a slightly predatory friend of her youth, but to a professional in her field, who is revealed as also being a novelist, and a passionate reader of the books and authors she knows well. She mentors his writing, with a delicate touch, and he is firm enough in his judgement to tell when one of her stories needs to be tweaked, and to repay her trust by editing her stories to bring them to their best final version. He got married, he and his wife had two daughters, Sylvia advised on childbirth remedies (she had no children but collected village lore, especially on herbs), he started to tell Sylvia stories about his family, his life, his colleagues, the day to day pleasures and excitements of his life in New York and in the countryside, they commiserated over politics and the terror of the Cuban missile crisis, and they talked about books. Occasionally he and Emmy were able to visit Sylvia and Valentine in Dorset, and these gaps in the correspondence are eloquent, since speaking had superceded writing, for a while.
This is a friendship preserved in glorious letters that feel like eavesdropping through time, but with benign and welcoming permission. It’s a collection to dip into and to search for things half-remembered (I am already searching again for Sylvia’s rude description of the Virginia Woolf industry, and her loving memories of Leonard). It’s simply fabulous. I might look into Sylvia & David to see what he or she said about a book or a person, and I will certainly do that for Sylvia & William, since their collection is about four times as long. But I will reread The Element of Lavishness for sheer pleasure, and for the feeling of hearing their true voices and reading their long love for each other, as dear friends.