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Warner, Sylvia Townsend (1893-1978)  

The poet, novelist, and short story writer Sylvia Townsend Warner is an important lesbian voice of the earlier twentieth century.

Warner was born on December 6, 1893, at Harrow School, Middlesex, where her father, George Townsend Warner, was a history master. She was educated privately by her parents. Initially attracted to a musical career, she planned to study composition in Vienna with Arnold Schoenberg but was prevented from doing so by the outbreak of World War I.

After her father's death in 1916, she moved to London, where she was engaged for ten years as one of the editors of the comprehensive Tudor Church Music (ten volumes, 1922-1929) for Oxford University Press.

In the mid-1920s, she turned her attention to literature, and within five years published two popular volumes of poetry, a collection of short stories, and three novels, including the highly successful Lolly Willowes (1926) and Mr. Fortune's Maggot (1927).

Her first novel, a gently subversive call for female self-determination, is the narrative of a prototypical spinster aunt who eschews the oppressive protection and comforts of the patriarchal extended family and finds fulfillment as a witch.

Chosen as the first selection of the newly founded Book-of-the-Month Club, Lolly Willowes established Warner's literary fame in the United States, and her popularity with American audiences was sustained for nearly four decades through more than a hundred short stories originally published in the New Yorker.

Mr. Fortune's Maggot, a subtle psychological study of repressed homosexual desire in the context of colonialism, relates the misadventure of a "fatally " Anglican missionary who falls in love with his only convert on a South Seas isle, only to lose his own faith.

In 1926, Warner met Valentine Ackland (1906-1969), a young poet given to dressing in male attire. The two women gradually fell in love and lived together from 1930 until Ackland's death. Ackland's traumatic youth, her struggles with alcohol, her family's rejection of her lesbianism, and her early years with Warner are recorded in the posthumously published For Sylvia: An Honest Account (1985).

After establishing their household at East Chaldon in Dorset, Warner and Ackland produced a joint volume of verse, Whether a Dove or a Seagull (1934), and, in response to the growing threat of fascism in Europe, became active in the Communist Party of Great Britain. In support of the Loyalist cause in the Spanish Civil War, they visited Spain in 1937 and 1938.

The theme of political revolution is central in Warner's two novels of this period, Summer Will Show (1936) and After the Death of Don Juan (1938). Set in the Paris Commune of 1848, Summer Will Show incorporates lesbianism and the breakdown of class and social barriers through Communism in its representation of the love between its protagonists, Sophia Willoughby, an English gentlewoman, and Minna Lemuel, the Jewish former mistress of Sophia's estranged husband.

The complex dynamics of relationships between women also provide the impetus for The Corner that Held Them (1948), a novel depicting life in a fourteenth-century convent.

After World War II, during which their home in East Chaldon was destroyed by a bomb dropped by a German warplane, Warner and Ackland settled at Frome Vauchurch, Dorset, where they spent the remainder of their lives. Although deeply bereaved by Ackland's death from breast cancer in 1969, Warner continued to write poems and short stories until her own death on May 1, 1978.

Although Warner's works had slipped from popularity and had gone out of print during the post-war period (possibly as a response to her political activism), feminist presses, particularly Virago, have reissued many of her novels in recent years, and lesbian and feminist critics are increasingly recognizing her as an important lesbian voice of the early twentieth century.

Patricia Juliana Smith


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Ackland, Valentine. For Sylvia: An Honest Account. New York: Norton, 1986.

Brothers, Barbara. "Flying the Nets at Forty: Lolly Willowes as Female Bildungsroman." Old Maids to Radical Spinsters: Unmarried Women in the Twentieth-Century Novel. Laura Doan, ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991. 195-212.

Castle, Terry. "Sylvia Townsend Warner and the Counterplot of Lesbian Fiction." Sexual Sameness: Texual Difference in Lesbian and Gay Writing. Joseph Bristow, ed. London: Routledge, 1992. 128-147.

Harman, Claire. Sylvia Townsend Warner. London: Chatto & Windus, 1989.

Marcus, Jane. "A Wilderness of One's Own: Feminist Fantasy Novels of the Twenties: Rebecca West and Sylvia Townsend Warner." Women Writers and the City: Essays in Feminist Literary Criticism. Susan Merrill Squier, ed. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1984. 134-160.

Mulford, Wendy. This Narrow Place: Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland: Life, Letters and Politics, 1930-1951. London: Pandora, 1988.

Spraggs, Gillian. "Exiled to Home: The Poetry of Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland." Lesbian and Gay Writing: An Anthology of Critical Essays. Mark Lilly, ed. London: Macmillan, 1990. 109-125.


    Citation Information
    Author: Smith, Patricia Juliana  
    Entry Title: Warner, Sylvia Townsend  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated May 15, 2002  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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