Sitting down to write this second column, I found myself wondering how many readers will have heard of its subject. Katherine Kurtz, about whom I wrote in my first column, is still writing and publishing, and, while the critics are forgetting her, she still has numerous fans. Sylvia Townsend Warner, by contrast, seems to have few to none, at least within the SF community. Almost forty years have passed since her death in 1978, and only two of her works (her first and her last) have any fantastical content. She is studied as part of the canon of lesbian writers, but her contribution to our genre is rarely remarked and I suspect that most fantasy readers who are under 40 probably have never seen either of her relevant books, let alone read her. Which is a shame, because Townsend Warner is well worth reading.
Given the current debate within SF about politics in genre and whether it is desirable, Townsend Warner is a peculiarly apposite subject. A lesbian, a feminist, and an active member of the British Communist Party, her work from the beginning was intimately tied up with her beliefs and values. She belonged to that generation of women who came of age around the time of the First World War, and, like many of them, she belonged, in the dismissive phrase of the period, to the category of “surplus women,” women without men. Like many other “surplus” women, she did not let her manlessness trouble her. Her work, both fantastical and more mainstream, is concerned above all with personal agency and especially female agency, and she rejected a social model that consigned certain categories of people—women, men who rejected or did not fit the British Empire model of male behaviour, working-class people—to the margins or to servitude and enforced gratitude.
Her first novel, Lolly Willowes (1926), was written and published before her meeting with Ackland and her involvement with the communist party, but her concerns with equality and agency were already to the fore. The novel is a bildungsroman of a middle-aged woman, if such a thing is possible, the story of Laura Willowes, from the death of the father to whom she was companion through a long period living with her well-meaning, stifling brother and his wife, to her escape into a room of her own and a new life protected from duty to others by the power of witchcraft. It reads gently, drawing the reader through Laura’s life of service to her family with a disarmingly light touch that only slowly reveals the stultifying bonds of convention and assumption that keep Laura imprisoned in a role that does not suit her, dependent on others, grateful for the care she neither wants nor needs, and paying for her place through an endless round of existing solely to help and support those around her. Unlike in the work of, say, Balzac, whose upper-middle-class characters are frequently monsters of ego and spite, or Elizabeth Taylor, whose novels are wonderfully sharp-edged, Laura’s family as drawn by Townsend Warner are no more than averagely selfish, never actively unkind, and genuinely care about “Lolly” (who prefers “Laura”). They do not mean to take away her freedom and her sense of self, but with their insistence that they know best, they trap her as neatly as if they have imprisoned her in truth.
Laura’s first glimpse of escape comes not through a romance or an inheritance or even an unexpected trip abroad, but through a near-epiphany in a railway yard, followed by a revelation in a florist. Spurred on by her sense of something just out of reach, she announces to her kindly brother that she intends to leave his home and live alone in the village of Great Mop, and, despite family alarm and pressure, she does just that. But family and duty—again in the guise of love and concern—follow her there, trying to force her back into her familiar, useful, suffocating role of aunt, helper, confidant—anyone but herself. With the help of her working-class landlady, Laura turns to witchcraft. The villagers amongst whom she has lived for the last months are revealed as a gentle, undemanding coven, and with a few simple actions—embroidery, imagination—Laura works a handful of spells that convince the well-meaning nephew who has followed her to the village to leave and return to his city life. No one is hurt, no one cursed, but the agency of the villagers and their coven leader, who may or may not be Satan, may or may not be real, helps Laura find her own agency and live the quiet, benign life she craves.
The last chapters of Lolly Willowes are a soft-spoken masterclass in weirding a world, and in finding the power, the strangeness in the mundane. Not horror—for there is no harm in this book, save the accidental damage her well-meaning kin do to Laura, not magic realism, not weird fiction as it was understood in the 1920s, Lolly Willowes is nevertheless powerfully fantastical, in the quiet intelligent mode later explored by Ray Bradbury in Dandelion Wine or in the stories of Kelly Link.
If Lolly Willowes is subtle in its use of the fantastic, Townsend Warner’s final book, Kingdoms of Elfin, is out-and-out fantasy. A collection of interlinked short stories set in various different elfin courts from the islands off the coast of Turkey to Scotland, and over a range of time periods, it is easily read as a light confection of whimsy and imagination. Elf lords toy with philosophy and meditation, seek advancement via the skills of others, or play foster father to human twins who wish to become priests; elf queens take and discard changelings, experiment with introducing eunuchs to their courts, murder out of boredom, fail to name their successors, and experiment with the socially unacceptable art of flying.
But underneath the quaintness and the playfulness is the work of a cold and skilled hand laying bare the pointlessness, the wastefulness, and the futility of these conventions and fads. The changelings are rewarded with petting and pretty items until they age and are driven out to starve in a human world they no longer know. The demanding, spiteful upper-class elves are dependent for their comfort on a class of working fairies, who cook and clean, till and weave without reward, use their despised wings, and are seldom noticed, let alone rewarded. In “The Occupation,” a group of radical elfin aristocrats abandon their court to set up elsewhere in order to pursue their higher goals. They consider themselves dissidents and rebels, engaged on crucial work, but their goals are essentially selfish, focused on their own improvement, and the aristocrats themselves are inept and incompetent, dependent for survival on the working elves who accompanied them. Townsend Warner’s queens and lords, far from being whimsical or quaint, are at heart selfish, destructive, petty and futile. The working elves tolerate them, observe them with sardonic humour, and, by and large, get on with their own far more productive lives, trapped by the same conventions that control the aristocrats. Things are this way because they are this way—and this way is foolish and pointless.
Under the trappings of faery lore, Kingdoms of Elfin is sharp critique of social rules, of class and fashion and the ways in which power reproduces itself through corruption, cruelty, and convention. Like Lolly Willowes, this is political writing, but where the first novel was gentle, this collection glitters like candied razor blades. The equally sharp and smart depictions of faery found in the works of Susanna Clarke and Terry Pratchett stand in the same satirical tradition as Kingdoms of Elfin, as do the complex and well-constructed political fantasies of Kate Elliott and Claudia J. Edwards. There has always been politics in SF, from its earliest origins. But Townsend Warner, with her clear eye for human (and elfin) foibles, her intelligence, and her wit is one of our best exponents, and she deserves to be more widely read.