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Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893 – 1978 )

During the early years of the 20th century the village of Chaldon Herring attracted a stream of talented people from the artistic and literary worlds: the magnet was Theodore Powys who had given up farming in Norfolk and returned to Dorset to write.

Theodore Powys was a withdrawn melancholy character who, until this point, had not enjoyed great success as a writer but this did not stop a host of young poets, writers and artists warming to him. One after another they were drawn like pilgrims to this remote Dorset parish, some of them making the village their home.

Sylvia Townsend Warner was enchanted by the village and fell under the Powys spell. Born on the 6th of December 1893 in Devon and baptised Sylvia Nora Townsend Warner she was the daughter of schoolmaster, George Townsend Warner and Nora Huddleston Warren. Sylvia was tall and slim in stature and bespectacled.

At the age of 20 she moved to London to study music and was one of the editors of the study Tudor Church Music. Her interest in writing poetry, short stories and novels trumped her interest and undoubted talent for music. In 1926 her first novel ‘Lolly Willowes’ was published, followed by ‘Mr Fortune’s Maggot’ the following year.

It was 1922 when Sylvia made her first journey to Chaldon Herring. Her friend, a former pupil of her father’s, Stephen Tomlin the sculptor, suggested she meet Theodore Powys. It was in his house during 1927 while enjoying huge celebrity as the best selling author of Lolly Willowes that Sylvia was introduced to the poet Valentine Ackland. Ackland, an assumed name, was twelve years her junior but that did not stop the two women starting a love affair that was to last a life time, ending in 1969 when Valentine died from breast cancer.

In 1930 Sylvia bought the cottage opposite ‘The Sailor’s Return’ public house and this is where the lovers lived until 1937, when they moved to a riverside cottage in another little Dorset village, Frome Vauchurch. The Chaldon Cottage was rented out and was destroyed by a direct hit from a German bomb during the war.

In 1933 Sylvia and Valentine published a joint book of poems ‘Whether a Dove or Seagull,’ a collection of love poems.  They were both members of the Communist Party of Great Britain and Valentine was a contributor to left-wing papers, including The Daily Worker. It was during the 1930’s that Sylvia’s short stories were first accepted by The New Yorker;  all told the magazine published nearly 150 of her stories.

The couple spent most of their time together in Dorset. They attended the American Writer’s Conference in New York in 1939, returning home shortly after Britain declared war on Germany. Sylvia continued to write during the war publishing an anthology of short stories The Cat’s Cradle Book in 1940 and A Garland of Straw’ in 1943. She was a member of the Women’s Volunteer Service and helped set-up centres for people evacuated from the cities.

Sylvia’s relationship with her mother was a difficult one, they were never close. Her father died in 1916 and her mother remarried. Soon after the war ended her mother’s health deteriorated into senility; as the only child she had to take responsibility for her mother until she died in 1950. During this time her lover, Valentine, had rekindled an earlier affair with an American woman Elizabeth Wade White, returning to Sylvia in 1949. Sylvia continued to write during this unhappy period, notably The Corner That Held Them, published in 1948. After all these tribulations the following years were uneventful. During this period Sylvia wrote several books including a biography of the novelist T.H. White.

In the thirties cross-dressing women and lesbian affairs were viewed as a titillating curiosity. In the years of austerity that followed the war they were viewed rather differently and their left-wing tendencies and lesbian lifestyle resulted in publishers becoming less supportive.

In 1967 Valentine was told she had breast cancer and battled with it for two years, she died in 1969. Sylvia was then in her seventies, a time when there was renewed interest in her writing, especially from the growing feminist movement. In 1973 she published a book of poems by her lover under the title: The Nature of the Moment.

Sylvia Townsend Warner lived out her days with her cats in the little cottage on the banks of the River Frome at Frome Vauchurch. She died there on May Day 1978, Sylvia and Valentine’s ashes are buried in Chaldon Herring’s churchyard.

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