The True Heart by Sylvia Townsend Warner

I must admit to being rather late to Sylvia Townsend Warner, having only woken up to the delights of Lolly Willowes back in 2018. The True Heart (1929) – this author’s third novel – shares something with that earlier book, a kind of magical quality that underpins the engaging narrative. As Townsend Warner herself explains in the preface to a later edition of the book, The True Heart is a loose retelling of Cupid and Psyche, the much-loved story from classical mythology. So loose in fact that reviewers did not pick up the true origins of the narrative at the time of its initial publication. The only person to correctly identify what the author had done in disguising her characters so effectively was Eleanor Townsend Warner, Sylvia’s mother.

The True Heart takes Victorian England as its setting – more specifically, the marshland and farming community near Southend in Essex. When Sukey Bond, a sixteen-year-old orphan, comes of age, she is sent to work as a maid at New Easter farm in Essex. Mrs Seaborn – a patroness at Warburton Orphanage, Sukey’s home since the age of nine – has found her a position with the Normans, the family that manages New Easter. At first, Sukey wishes she could stay with Mrs Seaborn at the Rectory in Southend, a place that serves as a resting point during the journey. In her innocence, Sukey looks up to Mrs Seaborn, worshipping the Rector’s wife for her apparent kindness.

Nevertheless, once Sukey settles in, life at New Easter farm proves pleasant and manageable for the most part at least. The Normans are kind to Sukey, who adapts well to the new environment, her upstanding values and work ethic serving her well in a busy role. The main fly in the ointment is Prudence – Sukey’s predecessor as maid – who now has her sights set on marrying Rueben, the eldest of the Normans’ two sons. Prudence is not terribly welcoming to Sukey on her arrival, quickly imparting all sorts of warnings and cautions about what to watch out for on the farm, most of them unnecessarily crushing. In particular, Sukey is dismayed by Prudence’s disdain for Mrs Seaborn and the latter’s tendency to send all sorts of folk to New Easter – the implication being that Mrs S considers the farm to be something of a dumping ground for charitable cases.

Also of significance here is Mrs Seaborn’s son, Eric, who has lived at the farm for several years, ever since his mother packed him off from the prying eyes of society. A mild-mannered boy at heart, Eric is looked down upon by Prudence and the men of the Norman family – a view compounded by the seizures Eric experiences, which the Normans unfairly put down as a sign of the boy’s weakness or idiocy.

They spoke of him always as ‘Young Eric’, and by their insistence upon his youthfulness seemed to dissociate themselves from him. He was like a pet lamb, grown too large for the house but whom the household had forgotten to put out of doors. (p. 23)

There is a gorgeous fairy-tale-like quality to this novel, a feeling which really comes alive when Sukey and Eric develop a bond with one another that quickly develops into love. That said, there is nothing overtly sexual in their relationship; rather, their connection has an air of purity about it, a sense of innocence that feels natural in its origins.

The shadows wandered over their faces, and a soft wind ruffled Eric’s hair, blowing the outer locks aside. He lay along the grass, his gaze fixed and unspeculative. Looking sideways from her darning, she could scrutinize him at her leisure without being rude. She saw how the sun striking between the leaves outlined his nose with a little golden halo. (p. 26)

Nevertheless, even in the midst of this rural idyll, the hint of danger is never far away. Prudence’s dismissals of Eric continue to unsettle Sukey, as do the impressions of the marshlands with their natural forces and air of mystery.

Prudence’s words had had their accustomed effect and she felt angry and miserable. What did it mean, that Eric was not to be trusted? Why should she ever be sorry for going out alone with him in the marsh? Was the marsh so cruel, so wicked, that it might make him wicked and cruel too? Did it hate lovers so much, the marsh that had lost the sea, that it could in some way bring down their love to ruin? She remembered the afternoon on the saltings: something had frightened her then, though what it had been that frightened her she could not say. (p. 39)

When a sequence of unfortunate events prompts Eric to have a seizure, Sukey declares her love for him, thereby creating a crisis of sorts in the Norman household. Having been provoked into an outburst by Prudence’s taunting, Sukey is locked in her room, effectively separating her from Eric, whom she is desperate to help. The situation is further compounded when Mrs Seaborn arrives to take Eric away, back to the Rectory at Southend, where he is bound to suffer horribly. The next thing we know, Sukey hands in her notice at the farm, leaving her free to set out for Southend in the hope of convincing Mrs Seaborn of her love for Eric.

What follows is a series of wanderings as Sukey travels from one place to another in her quest for a reunion. There are many obstacles to be overcome along the way, mirroring perhaps one of the key elements from Cupid and Pyscheits various challenges. Townsend Warner cleverly weaves these underlying themes into the narrative, from the violation of trust that Sukey experiences at the farm to the strength of her undying love for Eric.

It’s such a delight to see this captivating novel back in print, courtesy of these recent reissues from Penguin as part of their Modern Classics series (my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy). Now that I’ve read a little more of Sylvia Townsend Warner, I am beginning to see what others admire about her work, especially her wonderful sense of vision and creativity. Moreover, there are some beautiful descriptive passages here – lush, evocative imagery that captures the beauty of the natural world.

They had reached the brow of a little rise, and before them the fields sloped downward and away to rich-coloured flats, streaked and dotted with glittering water. Here and there were farmsteads, and a few groups of dwarfish trees showed up black and assertive, at odds with the solitude. Not a shadow fell on the marsh from the cloudless sky, nothing moved there; even the cattle were still, clustered round the trees for shade. It lay in unstirring animation, stretched out like the bright pelt of some wild animal. (p. 8)

While I am not normally a fan of reworkings of classic myths, in this instance I’m more than happy to make an exception. In writing The True Heart, Townsend Warner has crafted something sufficiently different from the original for it to feel imaginative yet reverential. Hopefully there will be more opportunities for me to read STW’s work in future – not least her short stories, which I’ve only glimpsed so far as part of Virago’s Wave Me Goodbye anthology, women’s writing from the Second World War.

25 thoughts on “The True Heart by Sylvia Townsend Warner

  1. madamebibilophile

    I’ve only read Lolly Willowes by STW but I definitely want to read more, she’s so clever and insightful. This does sound excellent, and beautifully written. I’m sure I have some more of hers buried in the TBR, I shall go on a hunt!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      One of the things I like about STW is the diversity of her work. Her novels are all quite different from one another, at least that the impression I get from my experience so far…

      Reply
  2. Simon T

    Lovely review, Jacqui! I have to admit I don’t know the specifics of the Cupid/Psyche myth, so I had no chance of recognising it. I enjoyed this one, though my all-time-fave is Lolly Willowes.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Simon. Yes, Lolly is a firm favourite, for sure. There’s something quite magical about that novel, especially in terms of Laura’s ‘liberation’!

      Reply
  3. jenniferbeworr

    Interesting that you mention the Wave Me Goodbye collection, which I discovered through you! Townsend Warner may have been unique in that anthology for having had two stories included? I don’t own any of her novels, but what interesting themes as well as language – lovely review.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think you’re right about STW being the only author with two stories in that collection. The editor made a specific point about their inclusion IIRC, something about the quality of the pieces and the fact that one of them — Poor Mary — had a reversal of the traditional roles adopted by a husband and wife. I’m so glad you enjoyed that collection. It really is a treasure trove of riches!

      Reply
  4. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely post Jacqui – those quotes are wonderful and really capture STW’s prose, which is so good. Like you, I’m relatively recent to STW, having first read Mr. Fortune’s Maggott some time ago. I loved it and was most impressed, yet it took me until the recent short story from Persephone to re-engage. Those were excellent, and I think it must be the subject matter of her books that sometimes makes me hesitate. Having said that, I’d not actually heard of The True Heart and I do like the sound of it, despite the myth retelling – I think Cupid and Psyche is probably one of the most retold stories! :D

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha, yes! Eudora Welty’s The Robber Bridegroom was also based on C&P, so I believe, and I’m sure there are various other versions, too. Are you a Scritti Politti fan, by any chance? They named their second album Cupid & Psyche 85. I shall have to go back it at some point to listen out for any refences to the myth.

      That Persephone short story collection is very much on my list for the future. In fact it’s probably the STW I’m most keen to read next…

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Lovely. I recall Andy Miller reading one of the stories from it on Backlisted, possibly at the beginning where they discuss what they’ve been enjoying that week…

          Reply
  5. Radz Pandit

    Your review could not have been more timely Jacqui, this book just came through the mail slot today and it does look quite good. Having read only Lolly Willowes, which I really liked, I wasn’t sure which STW to pick up next, especially since I’ve heard mixed reviews on most of her other novels.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      How funny! It’s interesting how STW seemed to vary her style somewhat from one book to the next, without attempting to write the ‘same’ book twice. Unlike Barbara Pym, perhaps, whose books were all relatively similar in tone and theme – until her wilderness years, at least.

      Reply
  6. heavenali

    Oh I am so glad you enjoyed The True Heart, I absolutely loved it. The lovely marsh setting and that fairytale romantic element really captivated me. It’s a very clever reworking of a myth because it’s so subtle.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes! I doubt whether I would have guessed it had I been around at the time of its original publication. It must have been a favourite story within the Townsend Warner family for her mother to have recognised it, especially given the change of setting!

      Reply
  7. Julé Cunningham

    A STW book I’ve not heard of and it sounds marvelous! Definitely one to track down. I love it when an author can write such varied stories, though I know it causes them problems when they can’t be easily categorized.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it definitely illustrates a sense of breadth to her work, the idea that her novels all seem quite different from one another. And even though The True Heart shares some of the magical quality of Lolly Willowes, it still feels distinct enough to be its own book.

      Reply
  8. inthemistandrain

    I wonder if you heard the play on R4 yesterday (Wednesday) about her life? I’m going to listen on i player. I believe that Handheld Press have recently published a book about her lover Valentine Ackland which sounds interesting.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      No, I didn’t! Many thanks for the tip, I’ll have to look it up. Fortunately, it’s very easy to catch up with things these days via BBC Sounds…

      Reply
  9. buriedinprint

    I’ve read this one (at some point I’d had in mind that i would read my way through her books, but this was my last…only because I think the next one was much longer LOL and then I just lost track of the project) but I don’t remember anything, other than it reading very quickly. Which might be why I don’t remember anything. *sigh*

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! I’m sure we all have experiences like that. I know I do, for sure. Maybe the longer one was Summer Will Show? That was my first STW and I didn’t particularly get on with it (partly because of the length)!

      Reply
  10. 1streading

    This should be next in my reading of Warner’s novels so I’m pleased to see such a positive review. What seems clear about her work already is that she is quite a restless writer and each novel seems to start from a different point.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, very much so. While many writers carve out successful careers by essentially writing the same book over and over again, Townsend Warner doesn’t appear to be interested in that approach. Her novels all seem quite different from one another – even The True Heart, despite the magical quality it shares with Lolly Willowes.

      Reply
  11. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    Loved the review, which gave such a wonderful sense of the book! I’m a very big STW fan. Although I’ve read several of her novels (I’m not doing as well with her short story collections) I’ve yet to get to True Heart and Flint Anchor. I was really surprised to see that STW had written this poetic myth/fairy tale, as it seems so different from Lolly Willowes, Summer Will Show or The Corner That Held Them. But, really, isn’t that type of versatility what STW is all about? I find that she’s such a chameleon, making it so very difficult to categorize her work.
    Thanks for the link to the Penguin reissues. I love the covers, particularly this one, and am trying to restrain myself!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Chameleon-like is a very apt description for STW, I think. It’s interesting how she was constantly trying out different ideas, flexing her style to suit various themes. The True Heart does have a touch of the magical quality that Lolly Willowes evokes so well, but the Victorian setting gives it a very different feel. Almost Dickensian some respects. I’ll be very interested to see what you think.

      Reply

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