Sylvia's Gifts: Meetings with Sylvia Townsend Warner in the 1970s

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The Journal of the Sylvia Townsend Warner Society has been published annually since 2000 and aims to celebrate all aspects of Townsend Warner’s varied career, as well as her enduring influence. The lastest edition, edited by Professor Peter Swaab, contains previously unpublished works, interviews, critical essays and reviews. The Journal is currently available in the Bookshop, and is also available to read online.

The following extract is taken from Tinch Minter's vivid memoir of Townsend Warner in the years before her death, ‘Sylvia’s Gifts: Meetings with Sylvia Townsend Warner in the 1970s’.

Sylvia told me in all simplicity that the fists of garlic hanging from the veranda, drying along with bunches of sage and thyme and marjoram, were there because she was a witch. They were to ward off evil. In even greater simplicity she wanted to know if I was a witch too. It soon became apparent anyone could become a witch with Sylvia because she made magic happen. Her sorcery changed the simplest events into excitements; being generous to a fault she always made out that serendipity or fortuity occurred through my agency. It was the first I knew about having magical properties! So, if she harvested the very fattest raspberries it was because I had arrived and had said I liked them and therefore they responded. If the post brought her good news, I had turned the heart of the sender. If the river murmured comfortably beside the house I had tamed the waters on that day. If the swallows lined up to fly to southern climes from the adjacent field I had somehow ordained the correct meteorological conditions. In Sylvia’s coven every assumption was to be turned on its head.

Later, Sylvia took me on a tour of her house that seemed to float on the stream. It was shaped more like a stranded barge moored against the land, a high-sided barque with decks and look-outs, idling in the garden instead of battling it out on the high seas. And almost all of it was made of wood. Surprised as I was to be greeted by garlic and the advertisement of witchcraft, I was soon to discover the rest of the house was equally surprising. Not to be outdone by the veranda, the first room contained another eclectic assortment, but this time of antiques. Everywhere were beautiful objects; Sylvia told me which one was cherished because it had been a gift to or from Valentine [Ackland] on a special date, or because it had been discovered on a particular journey to a particular house sale, when they had scoured the country in their hunt for antiques. Her descriptions dovetailed their life together. Time and again an objet d’art or a spill pot was a vestige of the time Valentine had had an antique shop in the house. Their shared past was everywhere in the house – how could it not be after so long a partnership?

As we went further into the interior, I was struck by the specially water-clarified light dancing across each room on the long south side of the house. In every respect the house which stretched itself so lazily along the sparkling river was entirely idiosyncratic, if ramshackle, and exhaled a suggestion of being temporary. It was the doors which alerted me, for not one of them matched – they comprised a veritable display case of English door design, panelling and manufacture. If you were afflicted by an obsession with order and replication, Sylvia’s house might have terrified you. But how perfectly this infinite variety complemented Sylvia and the intense life lived within its walls. No room had the same cornices, or bookcases or floorboards or window frames or door-jambs. Clearly the house was built on a principle: why have a set when you can have variety? But this was not the thinking behind the richness of all this interior and exterior miscellany. Sylvia enjoyed relating its extraordinary history. According to her a man had arrived from Australia and pitched his tent on the riverside, on the north side, shielded from prying eyes by the trees. He found the river stippled with trout, the land fruitful, and presumably he was able to find sufficient casual work in the neighbourhood to keep body, soul and commitment there. And so at first he squatted there, then started to think of his little camp as a permanent place to live. He set about collecting wood for building. His raw materials were apparently either scrounged or bought from tips as and when he could come by them.

As Sylvia explained it, her house was begun as the house that one Australian built – maybe he was Jack or at least a jack of all trades – plank by plank, brick by brick. But later she surmised he either became frustrated by the amount of labour necessary to build himself a permanent home, or (as I like to think) he whistled for the sake of companionship and his brother came over from Australia to help him in the endeavour. Her story unfolded: the two brothers continued collected building materials as and where they could find them. For an unspecified while they worked happily together, established their rights to the site and kept extending the building. In the fullness of their construction time it became the house that the two brothers built.

However, disaster struck when they argued, again at a time unspecified. However long it lasted, this was evidently some epic argument. Eventually each brother staked his claim to a part of the house. The final resolution entailed adaptations to the building: another wall went up. Where two outside doors had been sufficient before, no fewer than seven were now needed. When you bear in mind that this is a house with one long wall bordering the river that makes a lot of entrances and exits on the three remaining flanks. As Sylvia told the tale, the two brothers never spoke to or saw each other again. Was I to believe this or was it just a gloriously inventive story Sylvia cooked up to explain the idiosyncrasies of the building? Fact or fiction, like the ancient city of Thebes Sylvia’s house had seven entrances, and in every respect it delighted in its variety. Truly it was a perfectly fitting case for those two individuals who took such intense part in the existence of things around them.

You can read the whole of 'Sylvia's Gifts: Meetings with Sylvia Townsend Warner in the 1970s' by Tinch Minter here. The Journal of the Sylvia Townsend Warner Society can be read online here, or purchased in the Bookshop for £4.

Sylvia Townsend Warner is our Author of the Month for August. Find out more about her here, or come into the Bookshop to browse her works