Unsung Heroines: Sylvia Townsend Warner


Almost everyone knows who Virginia Woolf is. Whether you’ve heard of her collection of essays A Room of One’s Own, or are more well–versed in works of fiction such as Mrs Dalloway and Orlando, or have simply heard her name in the title of Edward Albee’s 1962 Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, you’re likely aware of her as a significant literary figure of the 20th century. Less well–known, however, is a contemporary of hers who was seeking ‘a life of one’s own’ three years before Woolf was demanding the same proprietorship over a room. That contemporary is the often-forgotten, but extremely worthy Sylvia Townsend Warner.

Warner’s most famous text is Lolly Willowes, a novel described by Lucy Scholes in The Guardian as an ‘early feminist classic’ which details the life of a young woman (the titular Laura ‘Lolly’ Willowes), and her liberation from her oppressive family, achieved through moving to a village called Great Mop and becoming a witch. It’s about as bizarre as it sounds, but in terms of literary merit, it is both exceptionally well–written and compulsively readable. Lolly herself is a very lovable character, and the plot preaches its feminist message with great success – Lolly says that one becomes a witch “to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to you by others”, a very laudable idea indeed, and a startlingly clear and well–rendered one considering the book was published in 1926. So why, if Warner was expressing many of the same ideas as Woolf, a few years earlier, has she been consigned to the annals of history, and mostly forgotten?

One reason is that Warner was nowhere near as prolific a writer as Woolf was. Although she lived more than 20 years longer than Woolf did, Woolf published more fiction than Warner, and Woolf’s fiction was far more successful, whereas only one of Warner’s six books was considered a success at all. Another reason is that Woolf was more outspoken with her views on liberation, evidenced by the publication of A Room of One’s Own, which is rightfully considered to be a key work of feminist criticism. The final reason is that in terms of literary style and ability, Woolf was a revolutionary in a way that Warner was potentially not. After all, Woolf is considered to have pioneered the stream of consciousness style, and she is considered a key figure in modernism. All these factors definitively contribute towards Woolf’s success and acknowledgement as a literary figure, but don’t do all that much to explain Warner’s comparative dismissal.

Another unfortunate reason for Warner’s obscurity could potentially be her homosexuality. Although Woolf was also known to have relationships with women, Warner settled down and lived with one woman for much of her life, and the two are buried together. The fact that Warner was a queer female feminist writer could very likely have contributed towards her not being studied or remembered, simply because that was too many revolutionary factors at once. Despite this possibility, it seems unlikely that Warner’s homosexuality would render her forgotten, when so many other well–remembered writers, including, of course, Woolf herself, were similarly involved with people of the same sex. Whilst it may be true that in the late 20th century, the world – and the high school education system – was not entirely ready for such a committed lesbian feminist, it seems that in 2018, with LGBT Pride prevailing and at least three queer writers on the Wimbledon High School A–Level scheme alone (Wilde, Woolf and Winterson), Warner’s homosexuality would not be sufficient reason for her to be excluded from syllabuses.

Perhaps rather than searching for a reason for Warner’s obscurity, the correct thing to do is think that maybe, it’s just one of those things. A combination of factors could contribute towards her being less popular than contemporaries such as Woolf, but equally, it could just be an unfortunate coincidence. And it’s not as if nobody’s ever heard of Warner. Lolly Willowes is on sale in the Wimbledon Waterstones – which, as I’m sure we all know, has a fairly woefully inadequate selection of more obscure literature – and was selected as one of Robert McCrum’s 100 best novels, falling in 52nd place, along with such acclaimed masterpieces as Orwell’s 1984 and Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. Warner’s Wikipedia article has more than two sections, and she’s had at least two biographies written about her. She’s really not doing all that badly.

So Warner is popular enough to be readily available, without reaching the point of corruption and indignity represented by having some rubbishy made–for–TV Lifetime movie made about her life. She could definitely do with being a little more notorious, but to me, she seems to fall in a fairly sweet spot of recognition. And to some extent, I think there’s something a little bit nice about being a fan of a lesser–known author. Sure, there might be less material on them; sure, it might be more difficult to obtain their works. But that just makes looking for articles and biographies that little bit more interesting; it just makes finding that battered first–edition paperback in a second–hand bookstore that little bit more special. It’s definitely a real shame that she’s not all that widely read, but she’s not completely forgotten. Rather than search for reasons for the former, we should celebrate the latter, and attempt to amend her obscurity. The best way to do that – and the way I would highly recommend as well – would be to pick up a copy of Lolly Willowes at your local bookstore. I promise you’ll enjoy it.