Friday 13 April 2012

Authors on Authors (Part 3)

A lot of books I'm mentioning this year seem either to be about Jane Austen or by Sylvia Townsend Warner... so it is appropriate that one of them is Jane Austen by Sylvia Townsend Warner!  It's in the same Writers and Their Work series as Pamela Hansford Johnson's pamphlet, mentioned yesterday, and I'll write a similarly swift post about it.

PHJ on ICB nabbed the Century of Books slot for 1951, so STW on JA will just have to wait on the sidelines... but I rather suspect it will appeal to more of you.  Austen has more adoring fans than Dame Ivy, but are also significantly more spoilt for choice... This is, perhaps, hardly the only or foremost resource for information about Austen's life and work, but I am a sucker (as this mini-series demonstrates) for authors talking about authors.  The combination of Warner and Austen is my favourite yet, and I loved reading Warner's thoughts on the various novels.  She more or less bypasses biographical detail, which was fine by me - there are plenty of other places to go for that.  Instead we get to read Warner's insightful responses to Austen's work.  She doesn't propose dramatic or revisionist readings of the novels, but there are lots of gems along the way.  I loved this:
though sense distinguishes Elinor Dashwood and sensibility her sister Marianne, the contrast is between two ways of behaving rather than between two ways of feeling
and, a bit longer, this:
Of all Jane Austen's novels, Emma must fully conveys the exhiliration of a happy writer. As the arabesques of the plot curl more intricately, as the characters emerge and display themselves, and say the very things they would naturally say, the reader - better still, the re-reader - feels a collaborating glow.  Above all, it excels in dialogue: not only in such tours de force as Miss Bates being grateful for apples, Mrs. Elton establishing her importance when she pays her call at Hartfield, but in the management of dialogue to reveal the unsaid; as when Mr. John Knightley's short-tempered good sense insinuates a comparison with his brother's drier wit and deeper tolerance; or as in the conversation between Mr. Knightley and Emma about Frank Churchill, whom neither of them know except by repute: Emma is sure he will be all that he should be, Mr. Knightley's best expectation is "well grown and good-looing, with smooth, plausible maners" - and by the time they have done, it is plain that Emma is not prepared to fall in love with Frank Churchill, and that Mr. Knightley has been, for a long time, deeply and uncomfortably in love with Emma.

It is a shame, given Warner's sensitive and alert reading of Austen's writing, that she does not recognise the irony dripping when Austen wrote about her 'little bit (two Inches long) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour.'  Read in context - or even out of context -  it is clear that Austen has tongue firmly in cheek, and it's curious that Warner (herself so often ironic) does not spot this.  Never mind.

What I think I love most about Warner's writing in any context - her novels, letters, this pamphlet - is her exuberant use of imagery.  I probably mention it every time I review something by her, but it is delicious - usually quite surreal, but somehow fitting, and often animalistic.  She writes extensively about Austen's juvenilia, and says that they 'have a ringing brilliancy, like the song of a wren'.  Lovely!  And later she writes:
G.H. Lewes, when he recommended Charlotte Bronte to "follow the counsel which shines out of Miss Austen's mild eyes", was unaware of Lady Susan, where Miss Austen's eyes are those of a hunting cat. 
Oh, Warner - you and cats!  She can turn anything around to cats, given enough time - and is thus, in my eyes, a kindred spirit.

As I said earlier, there are many other places to read about Austen.  This pamphlet was issued at a time when a more or less complete bibliography could still be compiled (and one is included - with less than three pages of critical material) but now it proliferates.  The reason I would recommend Jane Austen by Sylvia Townsend Warner amongst this extensive canon is for the particular insight one excellent novelist is able to shed upon another.  STW and JA have been perfectly matched.


  1. Warner and her cats indeed! By the time I'd finished reading her letters to Maxwell she had almost converted me into a cat-lover. Not quite but I've been much more favourably-inclined towards them since. I loved reading Warner's thoughts on Austen in those same letters. She was always happy to discuss Austen and I really think those were some of my favourite bits of the entire book. This whole pamphlet sounds delightful but I especially love the passage you've quoted about Emma - I get excited when anyone talks about Emma, nevermind someone as enlightened as STW. The university library has a copy of this and I still have 1951 to check off for my Century - perfection!

    1. Great! Yes, you'll love this, Claire - like me, it was almost made for you.

    2. (I mean like it was made for me, not that I was made for you! ;))

  2. I've been reading a novel by STW and I'm afraid I have abandoned it -- perhaps temporarily? It's called Summer Will Show, a historical novel, and it is beautifully written. But somehow the plot just didn't grab me -- it seems very feminist, with lesbian undertones, and though I have absolutely nothing against either, I put the novel down for a day or two and have not been inclined to pick it up again. I am sure you will tell me to try a different one! and I expect I will have to at some stage since you are so in love with her. This sounds like an excellent book on Austen, and I very much like the extracts. She's obviously a fine writer and I must give her another go one day.

    1. I spotted Summer Will Show in your sidebar - and I'm actually quite relieved to hear your verdict, since I'm also reading it at the moment, and struggling to maintain interest! I will finish it, because it'll be useful for my chapter, but I definitely much prefer Lolly Willowes (even while I can admire her writing in SWS.)

      But I think her letters, especially those to William Maxwell, are her greatest achievement. It's always difficult to recommend letters to someone who hasn't read much of the authors' fiction, but Warner and Maxwell's correspondence (The Element of Lavishness) would be right up your street, I'm sure. (I am!)


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