The Flint Anchor by Sylvia Townsend Warner
For decades now, scholars and connoisseurs have declared Sylvia Townsend Warner to be an unjustly — even criminally — neglected writer. Every time it seems like she might gain the attention she deserves (at her death in 1978, with various posthumous collections of stories and letters, with the publication of biographies, with the reprinting of her books by Virago and then New York Review of Books), the attention doesn't seem to last. Appreciations appear (thoughtful, considered) ... and then Warner seems to return to obscurity. There's a Sylvia Townsend Warner Society, but as of this writing its website is unreachable.
While I hope the recent reissue of The Corner That Held Them by NYRB will spark an excited revival of interest in Warner's work — especially her short stories of the '50s and '60s, which show Warner at the height of her craft, unpredictable and frequently stunning — I know better than to hold my breath. Though her work offers many pleasures, much of her writing has a certain distance to it that prevents masses of readers from embracing it, and the shapes, structures, and subjects of her work can be so unconventional as to be jarring. (Try "A Love Match".) The trajectory of her career is away from many of the obvious pleasures and indulgences of fiction and toward readerly rewards more detached and hard earned. Critics, whether admiring or befuddled, frequently speak of her writing as austere. You can see the problem in a Strange Horizons roundtable discussion of Warner's final book, Kingdoms of Elfin, where two of the three participants concluded that while they admired the book and might even recommend it, they certainly didn't enjoy it. Warner's most popular book, her first novel, Lolly Willowes, was a genuine bestseller and the first pick of the Book of the Month Club; it's a truly enjoyable novel: light of touch and tone, but smart and insightful, with depth beneath a sparkling surface. But (also at Strange Horizons), Kari Wallace captured the challenge of moving from Lolly Willowes to much of Warner's other work: "where the first novel was gentle, [Kingdoms of Elfin] glitters like candied razor blades." I expect Warner would find that description pleasing.
Late in life, speaking with an interviewer about Kingdoms of Elfin, Warner said, "I suddenly looked round on my career and thought, 'Good God, I’ve been understanding the human heart for all these decades. Bother the human heart, I’m tired of the human heart. I’m tired of the human race. I want to write about something entirely different.'" In many ways, this sentiment is prefigured in her writing much earlier, for while the affairs of the human heart had, indeed, been a major concern of her work, an impatience with the human race (and particularly with people's self-delusions, hypocrisies, cruelties) was also long present. See, for instance, her extraordinary story "The Children's Grandmother" from 1950.
The Flint Anchor, published in 1954, was Warner's last novel, though far from her last book. Like many of her novels, it is set in the past, in this case 19th century England. It tells the story of a prosperous family through the life of its patriarch, John Barnard, a mediocre man of good intentions who succeeds at business but barely notices, since everything else in his life turns into a failure. Along with The True Heart (1929) and After the Death of Don Juan (1938), The Flint Anchor is among Warner's most forgotten novels, rarely reprinted and even more rarely read; it has never stayed in print long. While it would be a stretch to rank it among Warner's best work, it is intellectually interesting and rewards a patient reader with a final twenty pages or so of real emotional force. It is a novel much easier to re-read than to read on a first try, as it has numerous characters who can be difficult to keep straight, the main characters are among the least compelling, and the patterns that give the events meaning do not become apparent until the novel's second half, so the first half can be tedious. It often felt to me as I read the first half that Warner was doing nothing but summarizing a bunch of events connected only by the fact of their happening to members of an unappealing, tiresome — even dull — family. The final chapters offer significant payoff for sticking with it, but it's hard to recommend a book where, to be truthful, you must say to a potential reader, "Just do your best to get through the first 150 pages or so, and then things will begin to feel more purposeful!"
This is the kind of book that benefits from the ending being revealed to the reader early on, and Warner might have had more success with the novel had she gotten a bit Brechtian and stated something about the arc of John Barnard's life at the beginning. There's a moment late in the novel (p. 268 of 314 for the US hardcover) where Barnard's son Wilberforce looks in on his father asleep:
There he lay, the author (under God, as he would be the first to point out) of Wilberforce's being, and of the being of four other sons and five daughters, five of them dead, two self-exiled; and of untold mischief, fear, and discouragement: a man who had meant no harm, who had done his best for his family, who had been faithful to his wife and obedient to his God and loyal to his country, and a model of commercial integrity, and who had spread around him a desert of mendacity and discomfort. ... Afraid of living because of the unknown horror and eternal suffering that may be the price of that enforced and dubious pleasure, his father could never have known happiness or dispensed it.Perspective must always been attended to carefully when reading Warner's fiction, and this is Wilberforce's interpretation of his father, but it fits with what we have seen by that point, and it will fit with John Barnard's own view of his life once he reaches his final years and reflects on his failures.
One of the things that makes much of the book a challenge for a contemporary reader is Warner's expository approach to the narration. We are accustomed now (in the US, at least) to a highly scenic technique for the rendering of narrative: scenes of action and dialogue, with third-person points of view that are functionally similar to first-person, and one scene leading to another scene. In The Flint Anchor, Warner's style is often that of a history book or chronicle, with scenes interspersed with detailed summaries of events, a distancing effect that prevents us as readers from immersing ourselves in the events or identifying with the characters. Here, for instance, is a randomly chosen paragraph from the middle of the novel:
Euphemia had spent a month in Norwich. Her hostesses could not do enough for their dear Mr. Barnard's daughter; their kindness and hospitality enveloped her in a downy dullness, like a cocoon. After a week her neuralgia went away, at the end of a forntnight she remembered her father's leave-taking present and bought herself new clothes. At the close of the visit she stepped into the carriage looking almost as peaceful as the nuns Julia had seen in Paris. Like them, Euphemia had made her renunciation. The meeting with Leonora had taken place. Leonora, who had arrived in a state of exalted loyalty, determined to secure a sister-in-law whom only Marmaduke could find desirable, went back knowing that Euphemia was unobtainable, and wholeheartedly regretting it.Had Warner chosen, she could have turned that paragraph into an entire chapter. (Certainly, we know from the scenes she does develop, and from her other writing, that she was capable of doing so with great skill.) But she was after something else, something more analytical, even clinical. It's a style we tend to see more in novels from the time of The Flint Anchor's setting and earlier, but which became less and less common in English language fiction as the 19th century progressed, and by the middle of the 20th century was at best a marker of an antiquated style, if not sheer incompetence at recognizing what fiction is supposed to do. As always, Warner had found the exact style and form for what she wanted to write; that it is a difficult style and form for us as readers to embrace says much about our own expectations and desires, and about the conventions of fiction that we have internalized.
One purpose of The Flint Anchor is to deflate the image of the traditional English pater familias, with the novel making such a patriarch more hapless than heroic, the inadvertent architect of many miseries, a man who dies awash in regret, wishing only to be forgotten. The book begins with the inscription on Barnard's memorial tablet and ends with the inscription he actually demanded, an inscription his family ignored in favor of one more celebratory. It bears some resemblance, then, to John Ford's 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, where one of the most famous lines is, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." John Barnard's family makes a legend fact and prints it in stone. The novel shows us how much of Barnard and the people whose lives he affected gets lost in history.
John Barnard is not a very interesting man. A different writer would have made one of the book's other characters its protagonist — every other character in the book, aside from perhaps Barnard's beloved daughter Mary, offers a richer story. There's something admirable in Warner's stubborn focus, even as it tries a (this) reader's patience. Again and again, interesting characters leave or die. Old Barnard himself identifies his obsessive, idolizing, near-incestuous love for Mary as the source of his failures; this, readers know, is only a partial explanation (Barnard makes plenty of other bad decisions), but it is very much true that her father's obsession robs Mary of the opportunity to develop a personality of her own. (One of the lost characters of the book is the what-might-have-been Mary, the Mary who grew up with some independence from her father, the Mary who, like her siblings, had to struggle for her self.) Other characters consider her stupid or oblivious to the world. Watching their reactions, we may feel more sympathy for her than they do, but it is certainly true that she is fundamentally selfish and often passive. Barnard, whether he knew it or not, molded her into a certain ideal of the Victorian woman, and as such, she is one of the only characters to triumph by the end. She gets exactly the life she can be happy in, because she is the only person who can thrive in the environment Barnard ultimately rues having built.
The most interesting characters in the book get exiled from (and by) the Barnard family. Warner clearly wants us to imagine these other stories, the stories that this book could not contain. In the best work of scholarship I've read on The Flint Anchor (not that there's much scholarship on it), Jennifer P. Nesbitt's "Rum Histories: Decolonizing the Narratives of Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea and Sylvia Townsend Warner's The Flint Anchor", one of those other stories is particularly well excavated: the story of Barnard's son Joseph, who flees his abolitionist father and runs a plantation in the West Indies, sending back rum that his alcoholic mother will guzzle for ages. (Julia Barnard, John's wife, is first turned into a baby-making machine and then, partly to cope with that, becomes a sponge for liquor, seldom getting up off her sofa for decades, her life wasted, her husband never noticing until far too late, and only at her insistence.)
A story from Sylvia Townsend Warner's own family provided the inspiration for the book and what is for me the most compelling characters in it. The back cover of the US hardcover explains it:
"Round about 1800," says Miss Townsend Warner, "my great-great-grandfather, John Warner, married a Miss Townsend. They had a son, and soon after his birth the young wife went back to her father's house. Nothing more is known of John Warner, because his memory was obliterated under the statement that he was a wicked young man who must never be spoken up. That is the germ of The Flint Anchor."As the back cover copy goes on to state, "The story, however, turned out to be not so much about the disappearing great-great-grandfather as about his wife's patriarchal parent, her mother and her brothers and sisters." The germ, though, is represented in the character of Thomas Kettle, who, mostly because of misunderstandings, becomes Mary's first husband. It's difficult to get a "real" sense of Thomas in the book, because so much of what we know of him gets filtered through other characters' perceptions of him. He seems a bit dim-witted, but I kept having a nagging feeling as I read that this was an unjust judgment on him, one produced by the viewpoint characters' class prejudices and by the fact that we seldom see Thomas around people who have any sympathy for him. It is the scenes of him among people who are sympathetic — even loving — that I find some of the most fascinating, and even moving, in the book.
Though the son of a successful printer, and soon the son-in-law of the economically successful John Barnard, Thomas feels most free and comfortable with fishermen. Graffiti chalked on a wall states that Thomas and one of the fishermen are in love, which causes scandal. Though it isn't true, Thomas decides not to deny it, leading to his exile. It seems that though Thomas was not in love with the man in the graffiti, it's more because it never seems to have occurred to him than that he would be against homosexual love. The person who scrawled the graffiti on the wall was, he discovers, his friend Crusoe, a fisherman who actually is in love with him. He and Thomas have a revealing conversation:
"For a man to love a man is a crime in this country, Crusoe."The scene of Thomas's leaving is a powerful one, because in showing the fishing people of Loseby supporting him and treating him almost royally, it gives us a glimpse of all that life in John Barnard's household is not: supportive, communal, friendly, warm, and tolerant — and with a healthy skepticism of wealth and fame. Thomas goes off to other shores, but seems to stay in sea-going places. Later, word arrives that he has died. Is he actually dead, though? The characters believe it, and it is convenient for them, as Mary will now be able to find another husband eventually, but we don't need to believe it. Thomas's letter came from Málaga, a coastal city, and it's entirely possible that he found there a community where he could live with some freedom for the first time in his life. As Howard J. Booth wrote in a recent essay on The Flint Anchor, "Whether dead or alive [Thomas] is beyond both the world of bourgeois respectability and the novel’s purview." He is also beyond history, or at least the history known to the Barnard family and their environs, because old John Barnard is never able to get anyone to listen to him when he wants to say that Thomas was innocent. Thomas's own legend has petrified, and no-one will hear anything else of him.
"Not in Loseby, Mr. Thomas, not in Loseby. Nor in any sea-going place, that I've a-heard of. It's the way we live, and always have been, whatever it may be inland. I can't say for inland. I never went there, and wouldn't want to particular. But in Loseby we go man with man and man with woman, and nobody think the worse."
Other people in Loseby do know Thomas's real story, at least up until his departure: the people in the fishing community. But they are not the recorders of history, nor do their legends make it to the pages of official family chronicles.
The Flint Anchor is in many ways an experimental novel: it experiments with giving readers all sorts of details common to both history and novels while leaving out many of the details that may most matter. It is not a failed historical novel so much as it is a deliberate and carefully orchestrated performance of the failure of historical novels, an anti-novel dressed with the clothes and props of a very traditional novel. As such, it would make an interesting item of comparison with something like John Keene's Counternarratives, or any other book where the goal is to tell the stories left out of official histories and canonized fictions. The Flint Anchor works in an oppposite way, showing us just how much must be expelled, exiled, and silenced when telling the story of a bourgeois family in 19th century England. It is a frustrating novel, and deliberately so.
The ending is powerful because John Barnard finally realizes his failures, realizes how much he has ruined, and we can finally sympathize with him, because we have spent a few hundred pages watching, a few hundred pages wondering why we are not going with the stories that are being lost and are, instead, following along in the line of failure. Perhaps for this novel's experiment to truly be successful, the best readers will do like Thomas and sail away once they see that there is no benefit in sticking with John Barnard.