Friday, 4 May 2012

Searching for Sylvia


It's a bit of Sylvia Townsend Warner themed week this week (I'll save writing about her diary for another day, I think) because today I drove off to Dorchester, to look at the Sylvia Townsend Warner archives.  I'd emailed the woman in charge beforehand, and she had warned me that there wouldn't be a huge amount for my area of interest - being Lolly Willowes.  Annoyingly for me, Warner only started her diary a year or two after Lolly Willowes was published, and there's not much in the letters either - but they did manage to provide some interesting items and I spent a happy 2.5 hours poring over various clippings, letters, and notes.  I haven't done a lot of archival work, because there isn't a lot out there for my authors, but it is easily the most absorbing part of my DPhil.

Anyway - as I was bidding farewell to the two women who'd shown me the materials, one mentioned that Chaldon Herring wasn't too far away, and that Sylvia Townsend Warner and her partner Valentine Ackland were buried there.  Their cottage had been bombed during the war, but at least I could still see the memorial.


Well, it turned out not to be quite as close as I'd hoped - especially given the lengthy single-lane tracks that sat-nav decided to take me down.  (That was rather a feature of the day, actually - I don't know the area to the south-east of our village at all well, and sat-nav took me on a lot of tiny roads, coming back.  Not fun.)  However, having been through several other Chaldons, all of which seemed to amount to a farmhouse each, I came upon the relative metropolis of Chaldon Herring.  There must have been at least ten houses... Actually, looking at the village website, there are apparently 170 people, and there seems to be rather a lot going on - including cream teas and a writers' walk, 'learn about Chaldon's extraordinary literary past', later this week.  I assume that would be about Sylvia Townsend Warner and David Garnett (who named his novel The Sailor's Return after the village's pub), and T.F. Powys, who lived there - and it sounds as though I should have waited a few days to go!  


My solitary, uninformed search was aided by a plan of graveyards in the church, and I managed to locate the place where Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland were buried.  Warner was herself rather anti-Christian, in quite a viciously closed-minded way which sadly colours a lot of her writing for me, but she would no doubt be delighted to have these views from her resting place (apologies for the poor weather - these must be stunning when it's sunny.)




It seems appropriate for an author who wrote so engagingly about nature, but without the townsman's fey illusions about the countryside.  Warner knew what village life was like - rarely pure and never simple, as my Mum says - but spent most of her life in rural areas, avoiding literary London.

Although the journey there was a little nerve-wracking, I'm delighted that Chaldon Herring was mentioned to me, and valued my little pilgrimage.

And, just because I'm at home, here's a new picture of gorgeous Sherpa... she's still tiny!


13 comments:

  1. Lovely photos. I think a fictionalised version of Chaldon Herring is the setting for Powys's 'Mr Weston's Good Wine' (a book I've had for years, in a Penguin edition with a Stanley Spencer cover)but have never, shamefully enough, read, although I've started it many times.) I read 'Lolly Willowes' years ago, and loved it.

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    1. That makes sense! I read Mr. Weston's Good Wine a few years ago - I don't think I blogged about it, though. It's odd, but certainly has some charm. I wonder what the residents of Chaldon Herring made of their neighbours??

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  2. Erika W.
    Very enjoyable blog. It reminds me of my daughter insisting that whenever we went to England I trailed her and her brother through church yards! I repudiate this, somewhat doubtfully. You are encouraging me to return to STW. I read several of her books in my early 20s. They have not left much of an impression though.

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    1. Ha! I was dragged through cathedrals, personally... I think I'd appreciate a lot of family holidays more now than I did at the time.

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  3. Lovely photos, most interesting blog post. Love stories such as this. Thanks for sharing. Your descriptions of the roads to get there and back made me want to go down them on my scooter. Fun!! cheers Pam

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  4. A very interesting post, Simon and some really nice pictures - makes me want to head off into the country! I've yet to read any STW and think I might start with Lolly rather than the historicals (I'm not so fond of that genre) - although having looked up STW on Wikipedia it sounds like her life might be just as interesting as her books!

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    1. She certainly wrote very interestingly about her own life - in letters and diaries, sadly there is no autobiography beyond those. I hope you enjoy Lolly Willowes!

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  5. Aha - one of my favourite places, I always go there if in Dorset. Thanks for the lovely photos.

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    1. I bet you find a better route than SatNav did! Actually, leaving Chaldon Herring was very simple - I should have come in the way I left, it would have saved my nerves somewhat.

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  7. Erika W.
    Can't resist replying to your response. As long as where ever we went in England on our visits the children, when young, were content if we went there via Trafalgar Square to feed pigeons. I have photographs of both of them astride the giant lions--something I wouldn't have dared to even think of doing myself when a child. Cathedrals...uh oh...my daughter, aged ca 9 burst into tears in Bath Abbey and I saw with horror that she was reading an appalling memorial plaque to a woman who had lost husband and children in India, then more children died on the voyage home and I think one more in England.

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