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 Pysche – its 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.