Alas, I have finished reading the book I mentioned in my previous post, The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William 1938-1978, edited by Michael Steinman (Counterpoint). A few of them each night, just before sleep, have given me better dreams than usual. One of the great pleasures of these erudite, affectionate exchanges is the startling originality of the language, an originality of being.
Beset by “the minutiae and careful queries” of her publishers, Townsend Warner complained, “I am like those children who spend their time crawling about under cotton-looms in Manchester factories, fastening loose ends. It is tedious in the extreme. It would be a pleasure to do it for somebody else’s book–but not for one’s own. It is like trying to get sand out of one’s navel.”
While she edited the papers of her lover, Valentine Ackland, dead of cancer at sixty-three, Townsend Warner suffered. “The letters are so sad and my memory of the last years till so raw,” she wrote to Maxwell, “that I had to take myself off and hide in plain hard work and useful futilities. I am perfectly well, but made of damp sawdust. If I were in an hour-glass, I would stick.”
Maxwell replied, “The only way I know to dry out the dampness of sawdust is by writing. It is the only cure, for the likes of you and me, for it doesn’t matter what evil under the sun, including those that are incurable.”
Such language is inimitable. However hard I tried, I would never think Sylvia’s particular thoughts, for they are the deep expressions of a distinct sensibility. We must find our own imagery. Now that the book is closed, I feel bereft. On to her other books of stories and memories. Then to the fifty-year correspondence of Maxwell and Eudora Welty: What There Is to Say We Have Said. Then back again to the Maxwell-Townsend Warner letters. What a pleasure to anticipate.