Sylvia Townsend Warner

Sylvia Townsend Warner lived most of her life in Dorset, first at East Chaldon at ‘Miss Green’s’, a cottage that no longer exists opposite The Sailor’s Return pub, and then later in the village of Frome Vauchurch near Dorchester.

She is one of the group of writers drawn to Chaldon Herring by the brooding presence of Theodore Powys, which included Stephen Tomlin, Llewellyn Powys and Alyse Gregory, his wife. Here Sylvia met Valentine Ackland, who became the great love of her life, bringing her joy but also much anguish, which finds poignant and moving expression in her Diaries.

In death Sylvia and Valentine returned to Chaldon, which in their hearts they never left, and their ashes lie together under a single stone in the far corner of the Chaldon churchyard, from where one looks up over the landscape towards the ridgeway (with the ‘Five Maries’ where they used to walk), which separates the village from the sea.

In her diaries Sylvia Townsend Warner writes powerfully and beautifully about love, friendship, heartbreak, home life, the Dorset countryside and ... the weather. Look at these examples

March 17 1952
The sun shone vehemently on a cloudy eastern sky, & I have never seen such brilliancy as the red willow mixing its scarlet with the silver catkins of the pussy willow. They were like suspended hail; glistening, and pearl grey.

July 6 1952
The day began with a superb thunderstorm. Valentine called me to look first from the passage window, where the sky was a dulled orange, and then from the river window, where a livid slate-coloured sky hung, pressed down on a slope of parched, pale, terrified-looking meadows. It came on slowly, majestically, and through the thunder we heard the anxious hurried voice of the Hull boy calling the cows in Crocker’s field. I did not think they would be willing to turn and walk towards that southern sky lit with long sideways arrows of lightning – and apparently they were not, for he went on halloing, sounding more & more lost &human among the thunder, until the rain burst, & quenched him. It was a long storm; and the landscape wore in perfection that bright varnished look of being a quite unconvincing bad oil-painting or oleograph. Niou [the cat] lay across my feet, looking soberly towards the window with slitted eyes.

January 29 1953
It was foggy when we started to take Katie to Somerset – but while we were waiting for her in Yeovil it began to clear, and as we drove on it became, as she said, a February landscape: pale earth, pale honey-coloured trees, an immense sun-lit purple cloud tattered with blue and wearing a rainbow.

August 6 1958
A noble piece of colouring out of my bedroom window this afternoon. The whole sky loaded with a violet-purple thunder-cloud, like a ripe fruit in the sun; the trees very green & foaming, the phloxes in the garden white & crimson, with yellow splashes of gladiolus & evening primrose - & in the centre of this splendid reverberating composition, the bleached thatch of the old barn – a skeleton colour in this parade of the pomp of the flesh.

July 6 1962[And the poignant: ]
... Cats & roses – it should be enough.
But I sometimes pine to be found worth eliciting, to be found enjoyable

The excerpts are from The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner edited by Claire Harman and published by Virago.

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