Sylvia Townsend Warner

The Witches of Arthur Machen and Sylvia Townsend Warner

“Sorcery and Sanctity,” said Ambrose, “these are the only realities. Each is an ecstasy, a withdrawal from the common life.” (Arthur Machen, The White People)

Reading Sylvia Townsend Warner’s letters, I was delighted to discover that she knew, and was related by marriage, to Arthur Machen. My interest in this connection was piqued by a recent re-read of Machen’s story The White People (1904). The tale, which Lovecraft admires in his essay on Supernatural Horror, features the diary of a girl initiated into a rural witch-cult by her nanny. Although Lovecraft claims this story possesses ‘a lurking terror generously mixed with pathos’, I have always found it a beautiful and transcendent portrayal of self-awakening, with echoes of James Hogg’s ‘Kilmeny’. The central episode, described as ‘the White Day’, involves a long walk in a wild and remote landscape, likely influenced by Machen’s Welsh home. The young protagonist goes out alone and is at first afraid, but soon exhilarated by the landscape, dancing among the stones and drinking from a stream:

It tasted much better, drinking it that way, and a ripple would come up to my mouth and give me a kiss, and I laughed, and drank again, and pretended there was a nymph, like the one in the picture at home, who lived in the water and was kissing me.

That this story, about a teenage girl discovering her own power and sexuality and reveling in the natural world, could be terrifying to the likes of Machen and Lovecraft, is rather revealing of their own issues and anxieties. Regarding the background of the witch-cult and the worship of idols, which Machen presents as an Evil beyond that of the ‘average murderer’, it is interesting to note that the publication of The White People pre-dates Margaret Murray’s long discredited The Witch-Cult in Western Europe by 17 years.

Sylvia Townsend Warner’s debut novel, Lolly Willowes (1926), can be read as a response to Machen’s tale. Warner’s witch is not a young girl but a maiden aunt, keen to escape the obligations of society for independence and solitude in the countryside. Laura takes solitary walks in the woods and meadows of her new home: ‘Wherever she strayed the hills folded themselves round her like the fingers of a hand’, and is given a kitten as a familiar. When she discovers the villagers’ secret, their nocturnal Sabbaths, she is not afraid but rather reminded of ‘a Primrose league gala and fete.’ Although Laura embraces her new identity, she does not gain any thrill from the illicit gathering and is unable to ‘get into the proper Sabbath-keeping spirit.’ The entire event is described as a mundane social ritual, as tiresome to the introverted Laura as a ball or garden party.

The focus of Lolly Willowes is on escape from, rather than initiation into social circles, whether conventional or esoteric. Laura spends the novel looking for ‘her secret’, following a vision of herself standing in an orchard, arms raised, while ripe fruit falls about her. Laura and the unnamed girl in Machen’s tale are both Eve, but one is condemned and the other vindicated. For Machen, the imagination of a young woman is as terrifying as the untamed landscape, wildness in both cases leads to temptation and sin against God. Warner eloquently argues for the restorative power of being alone in nature:

…she had pounced on a clue, the clue to the secret country of her mind. The country was desolate and half-lit, and she walked there alone, mistress of it, and mistress, too, of the terror that roamed over the blank fields and haunted around her.

There are elements of Warner’s novel just as dark as those Machen hints at: Laura casts a curse to drive away her nephew and the Devil himself appears as a predatory figure who seduces unsatisfied women. Yet the tone, a parody of social commentary, demonstrates the fearless irreverence that is key to Warner’s style. While Machen presents subject matter that shocked his Victorian and Edwardian readership, he responds to ‘perversity’ of religion, sexuality or morality with conservative terror. Warner is unflappable and finds both humour and freedom in the idea of a rural witch-cult. She seizes upon Machen’s theme of self discovery through solitude in nature and grants her heroine the maturity and agency to choose a way of life beyond social expectations. Lolly Willowes is a powerful feminist text that supports my reading of Machen’s The White People as a female bildungsroman.

Art: ‘Eve Tempted by the Serpent’ by William Blake, c. 1800.

Kingdoms of Elfin, Sylvia Townsend Warner

Apart from the element of piety, court life at Brocéliande was much the same as in other Kingdoms. There were fashions of the moment — collecting butterflies, determining the pitch of birdsongs, table-turning, cat races, purifying the language, building card castles. There were expeditions to the coast to watch shipwrecks, summer picnics in the forest, deer hunts with the Royal Pack of Werewolves.

Few books that I’ve desired to read have been as difficult to track down as Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1977 anthology, Kingdoms of Elfin. There isn’t a single copy in the Australian library system, no local booksellers had heard of it, it is currently out of print and the Reid library, which has everything else of STW’s including her letters and diaries, does not have it. I have known of the book’s existence for years, since I first discovered The Dictionary of Imaginary Places (Manguel & Guadalupi 1980) in which there is a map of the Kingdoms. Being reminded of it by a reference in a journal article, I decided it was about time to find it and managed to order a copy (a UK first edition) through a bookseller in New Zealand. I have to admit that its very obscurity attracted me to it, as I love to discover under-appreciated treasures.

Kingdoms of Elfin is certainly a treasure. A collection of short stories previously published in The New Yorker, about various fairy courts throughout Europe and Asia, it is a forgotten gem of 20th century fantasy. Unlike many collections of folk tales, or stories based on fairy lore (such as Susanna Clarke’s brilliant The Ladies of Grace Adieu, 2006) these tales do not commonly feature human protagonists who encounter fairies* but rather focus on elfin protagonists who, in some way, revolt against the culture and expectations of the courts they inhabit. The significance of this cannot be overstated, not only are the majority of STW’s characters inhuman, they are entirely other, with an alien set of values, they appear amoral from a human perspective. In doing this, STW captures not only the amorality traditionally associated with ‘the fair folk’ but manages to create characters that are eccentric outsiders within a culture already incompatible with our own. Through the Kingdoms (which are actually Queendoms) she is able to highlight the cruelties and vanities of humanity, particularly the decadent courts of early modern Europe. The shocking traditions of the elfin monarchies are made even more so when compared to their historical counterparts.

Sylvia Townsend Warner also proves herself, through this collection, an expert scholar of the fairy tradition in both literature and folklore. You will meet Robert Kirk, Thomas the Rhymer and James Hogg (wonderfully oblivious) wandering through the pages, and find allusions to Shakespeare, Aristophanes (“Of all the mortal writers, Aristophanes is nearest the Elfin mind”) and Partonope of Blois. Of particular interest are her choice of names, and I highly recommend looking up any that seem unfamiliar or original, as by doing so I uncovered several obscure sources which have been added to my own reading list! STW has clearly read her Katherine M. Briggs cover to cover, but rather than retelling old folk tales she invents new ones. In each the reader feels privileged to a unique view and access to the elfin world, from within that world, rather than from the traditional perspective of a human outsider.

The prose itself is crisp and lyrical; “She was a very pretty shade of green- a pure delicate tint, such as might have been cast on a white eggshell by the sun shining through the young foliage of a beech tree. Her hair, brows and lashes were of a darker shade; her lashes lay on her green cheek like a miniature fern frond… The smell, of course, was that smell of elderflowers. This passage made me think immediately of Randolph Stow’s The Girl Green as Elderflower (1980) and I can’t help but wonder if he read it. The stories also feature STW’s trademark wit; “‘Heresy,’ said Sir Bodach obligingly, ‘Is to believe in what other people don’t believe in. It is an offence against society.’”  But what may lead to some confusion and frustration, to anyone not familiar with her rather individual style, is the complete lack of regard for narrative convention. STW starts a new story, quite often, with a description of the particular ‘kingdom’ then introduces one or two characters, any of whom may turn out to be the protagonist, or may die before the protagonist even appears. She ends the story when she seems to grow tired of it, with little concern for denouement. Somehow, this flippancy adds to the elfin nature of the texts, as the fairy disregard for human morals is transferred onto our idea of how a story should be told. It is characteristic of STW in both life and writing, that she always seems to have done exactly as she pleased, and become a master of breaking the ‘rules.’

This style of narrative may explain, in part, why this book has fallen out of print and circulation. I would further suggest that, although I have called it a fantasy, Kingdoms is not something that could be marketed to a genre readership in the wake of the popularity of The Lord of the Rings. It fits instead, into that other vein of 20th century fantastic fiction that includes the likes of Hope Mirrlees, Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen (her uncle by marriage) and the writers of Weird Fiction, although despite its moments of horror, I would not place it in that sub genre. Kingdoms of Elfin was the last of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s prose to be published during her lifetime, but it was a wonderful introduction to her work, which I will continue to pursue and write about with great interest.

Skye M. W.

Yule, 2015

*With the exception of Foxcastle, which follows this motif, and The One and The Other which is the tale of a human changeling.

A brief biography and bibliography of STW’s work can be found at The Sylvia Townsend Warner Society.

Image: Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing, William Blake, c. 1786