CategoryWarner Sylvia Townsend

Sylvia Townsend Warner: Mr Fortune’s Maggot & The True Heart

Last year, I read and enjoyed Lolly Willowes (1926), the debut novel by Sylvia Townsend Warner. Penguin Modern Classics have continued to reissue her novels, so I’ve caught up with the next two. I found them intriguingly different from Lolly Willowes and each other – and, above all, worth reading.

Warner’s second novel was Mr Fortune’s Maggot (1927). ‘Maggot’ here means a fad or whimsy, and it’s perhaps a whimsical desire for solitude that leads bank clerk-turned-priest Timothy Fortune, a bank clerk turned priest, to become a missionary on the (fictitious) Polynesian island of Fanua.

After three years, Fortune has not lived up to his name: he has only one convert, a boy named Lueli. Fortune thinks he is getting through to the boy, but Lueli insists on keeping his wooden idol. The time comes for Fortune to take decisive action… and events unfold in a way that challenges his own faith. 

Mr Fortune’s Maggot is focused tightly on these two characters, and in that it makes broader points about faith and colonialism. The change in Fortune’s thinking is carefully drawn, and I found the ending deeply affecting.

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Warner’s introduction to her third novel, The True Heart (1929), says that it’s a retelling of Cupid and Psyche. This wasn’t really on my mind as I read the book, because it’s not a story I knew much about – but there it is anyway. It must be quite a well disguised retelling, because Warner adds that only her mother made the connection at the time!

In 1873, sixteen-year-old orphan Sukey Bond is sent from London to work as a maid on a farm in the Essex marshes. She falls in love with Eric, whom she mistakes for one of the family. He’s actually the son of the rector of Southend, who has been sent away to the farm because his own family consider him “an idiot”. 

When Sukey’s and Eric’s love is revealed, he is taken back to Southend, and Sukey sets out to find him. There’s a heightened quality to The True Heart that I really appreciated – Sukey even takes her plight to Queen Victoria – as well as a vivid sense of place. 

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I’ve discovered that this week is Sylvia Townsend Warner Reading Week, hosted by Helen at A Gallimaufry. Head over there for more Warner!

My favourite books read in 2020

2020: what a year, eh? Anyway, this is a place for talking about books, and I had a good reading year. As usual, I have picked out my favourite dozen and listed them in loose order of enjoyment (though of course I’d recommend them all). What I particularly like is that this selection encompasses many of the different strands of my reading from the year: the Goldsmiths Prize, International Booker, Fitzcarraldo Fortnight, the Republic of Consciousness Book of the Month… They’re all represented in here somewhere.

12. The Blessed Girl (2017) by Angela Makholwa

One of the funniest books I read all year, this is the story of a young black South African woman with the trappings of a successful life and no shortage of suitors to support her. But keeping her lifestyle going is not as easy as it looks, and there’s a poignant undercurrent to the novel that really changes things.

11. Arkady (2018) by Patrick Langley

The tale of two brothers surviving on the margins of an austerity-ravaged Britain in a near future. What really makes this novel work for me is its abstract quality: the broader contours of society are unknown to the brothers, just as they are unknown to it. This makes their relationship leap off the page even more.

10. New Passengers (2017) by Tine Høeg
Translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra (2020)

Here’s another novel whose bare summary may not sound much: two characters meet on a train and embark on an affair. But the verse-style prose transforms it, breaking the novel into small pieces just as the protagonist tries to compartmentalise her life, and merging them together just as the parts of the woman’s life refuse to stay separate.

9. Lolly Willowes (1926) by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Laura Willowes grows up indifferent to society’s expectations of women, but is in danger of being consigned to the role of Aunt Lolly. She breaks free of it all in spectacular fashion: by moving to the country to practise witchcraft. This is an exuberant character study that I thoroughly enjoyed reading.

8. Bina (2019) by Anakana Schofield

A restless novel narrated by a restless character: seventy-something Bina, who’s here to warn us – though the full extent of what she has to warn us about about only emerges gradually. This book had affected me deeply by the end, and I still can’t explain exactly how it does what it does.

7. Infinity: the Story of a Moment (2012) by Gabriel Josipovici

Here is another book whose effect on me emerged spontaneously and without warning while reading. Infinity is the account of an Italian composer who comes across as pompous and larger-than-life at first… But later his vulnerability becomes apparent, and we start to feel his intense engagement with existence.

6. Snow, Dog, Foot (2015) by Claudio Morandini
Translated from the Italian by J Ockenden (2020)

It was a strong year for Peirene Press, and this was my favourite: a novel of reality unspooling for an old man in his Alpine cottage, with only his (occasionally talking) dog for company. This is a powerful study of isolation, with the sort of perceptual ambiguity that I love. 

5. Earthlings (2018) by Sayaka Murata
Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori (2020)

After loving Convenience Store Woman a couple of years ago, I was looking forward to this. But that earlier book could not prepare me for Earthlings. Murata’s protagonist may wish for a spaceship to carry her away, but these seemingly childish games have serious and disturbing consequences. 

4. Mordew (2020) by Alex Pheby

A rich and indulgent fantasy from Galley Beggar Press. Reading this took me right back to China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, and the sense that here was a fantasy novel that could go anywhere it wanted. Pheby takes classic fantasy elements, such as a poor boy discovering his destiny, but Mordew is very much its own thing. 

3. The Nacullians (2020) by Craig Jordan-Baker 

Like Mordew, this novel feels unconstrained by any preconceived notion of what it ‘should’ be like, though this time the novel a family saga. The Nacullians are a family who don’t fit into the traditional family saga, so Jordan-Baker takes his novel apart and rebuilds it around them. The result is exhilarating. 

2. The Birds (1957) by Tarjei Vesaas
Translated from the Norwegian by Tørbjorn Støverud and Michael Barnes (1968)

The Ice Palace was high on my list of favourites a couple of years ago, and now it’s joined by The Birds. Vesaas’ novels are so delicately observed. There’s a sequence in the middle of this tale of siblings that will go down as one of the best I’ve read. 

1. The Memory Police (1994) by Yoko Ogawa
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder (2019)

I’ve enjoyed Yoko Ogawa’s work before, but The Memory Police was extra special. The tale of an island where concepts routinely fade from the collective memory, it starts off looking like an allegory of life under authoritarianism and ends up enacting a very personal form of loss. There was no book I read all year that stayed with me as much as this. 

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That’s my round-up of 2020. What have you enjoyed reading this year?

My previous yearly selections of favourite books are all here: 2019, 2018, 20172016201520142013201220112010, and 2009. I’ll be back on the blog in the New Year, and you can also find me on InstagramTwitter and Facebook.

Lolly Willowes –Sylvia Townsend Warner

Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978) was a new name to me, but I was intrigued by the sound of her 1926 debut Lolly Willowes, newly reissued in Penguin Modern Classics. What I found in it was a very enjoyable character study.

Born in 1874, Laura Willowes grows up indifferent to the societal expectations of a woman her age:

Being without coquetry she did not feel herself bound to feign a degree of entertainment which she had not experienced, and the same deficiency made her insensible to the duty of every marriageable young woman to be charming…

Laura lives in the family home with her father – no marriage for her. After her father’s death, she reluctantly moves to London to stay with her elder brother’s family, where she is consigned to the role of Aunt Lolly.

But Laura longs for more from life. It seems the First World War might herald change, as suddenly she has a vocation (albeit the fairly tedious one of doing up parcels). But it’s not to be: “When the better days to come came, they proved to be modelled as closely as possible upon the days that were past.”

If there is to be change, then, it will have to come from Laura herself. In 1921, she announces that she is moving to a village in Buckinghamshire, seemingly on impulse (she starts thinking about it after buying some chrysanthemums that were grown in the county). But the real reason becomes apparent: Laura is leaving to practise witchcraft.

The quality that draws Laura to the countryside is underlined when it’s about to be taken from her. At one point, Laura’s nephew Titus joins her in the village. He has an instinctive understanding of the countryside, but it’s a mechanistic one. Laura understands the place on a more spiritual level, though she can feel this slipping away from her:

The woods judged her by her company, and hushed their talk as she passed by with Titus. Silence heard them coming, and fled out of the fields, the hills locked up their thoughts, and became so many grassy mounds to be walked up and walked down.

With Titus around, Laura finds herself reverting back to being Aunt Lolly. It’s a situation that seems impossible to escape – but there are ways…

Lolly Willowes is the story of a woman turning her back on prescribed social roles and forging her own path, in what turns out to be spectacular fashion. I recommend it warmly.

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