Perhaps you’ve read Sylvia Townsend Warner’s short stories, or the volumes of poetry she wrote (some with her partner, Valentine Ackland). Lolly Willowes, her best-known work, is a sly novel about a spinster who takes up witchcraft, and well worth seeking out. But my favorite, and the one that’s been on my mind lately, is her 1967 biography of T. H. White, a small masterpiece of humanity.
White, born in 1906 and known to his friends as Tim, was the author of the Arthurian epic The Once and Future King and a number of successful sci-fi titles. A former teacher, he was prone to passionate enthusiasms—falconry, snakes, plans—and wrote a memoir about his experience training a goshawk. Townsend Warner captures his boundless excitement about these things, his humor, his kindness. But more than anything, this is a portrait of loneliness. White had no known relationships with men or women. Townsend Warner speculates that White was “a homosexual and a sado-masochist,” although others disagree on the question of his sexuality. In any case, he was profoundly alone; Townsend Warner wrote, “Notably free from fearing God, he was basically afraid of the human race.”
He did love his dog, an Irish Setter called Brownie. Townsend Warner writes extensively about his bond with Brownie, the love he could not express in other facets of his life. Upon Brownie’s unexpected death, he wrote the following heartbreaking letter to his friend David “Bunny” Garnett, presented in its entirety on the Futility Closet blog. Read this only if you are feeling emotionally tough:
Dearest Bunny, Brownie died today. In all her 14 years of life I have only been away from her at night for 3 times, once to visit England for 5 days, once to have my appendix out and once for tonsils (2 days), but I did go in to Dublin about twice a year to buy books (9 hours away) and I thought she understood about this. To-day I went at 10, but the bloody devils had managed to kill her somehow when I got back at 7. She was in perfect health. I left her in my bed this morning, as it was an early start. Now I am writing with her dead head in my lap. I will sit up with her tonight, but tomorrow we must bury her. I don’t know what to do after that. I am only sitting up because of that thing about perhaps consciousness persisting a bit. She has been to me more perfect than anything else in all my life, and I have failed her at the end, an 180-1 chance. If it had been any other day I might have known that I had done my best. These fools here did not poison her — I will not believe that. But I could have done more. They kept rubbing her, they say. She looks quite alive. She was wife, mother, mistress & child. Please forgive me for writing this distressing stuff, but it is helping me. Her little tired face cannot be helped. Please do not write to me at all about her, for very long time, but tell me if I ought to buy another bitch or not, as I do not know what to think about anything. I am certain I am not going to kill myself about it, as I thought I might once. However, you will find this all very hysterical, so I may as well stop. I still expect to wake up and find it wasn’t. She was all I had.
love from TIM
Shortly after, he added,
Dear Bunny, Please forgive me writing again, but I am so lonely and can’t stop crying and it is the shock. I waked her for two nights and buried her this morning in a turf basket, all my eggs in one basket. Now I am to begin a new life and it is important to begin it right, but I find it difficult to think straight. It is about whether I ought to buy another dog or not. I am good to dogs, so from their point of view I suppose I ought. But I might not survive another bereavement like this in 12 years’ time, and dread to put myself in the way of it. If your father & mother & both sons had died at the same moment as Ray, unexpectedly, in your absence, you would know what I am talking about. Unfortunately Brownie was barren, like myself, and as I have rather an overbearing character I had made her live through me, as I lived through her. Brownie was my life and I am lonely for just such another reservoir for my love. But if I did get such reservoir it would die in about 12 years and at present I feel I couldn’t face that. Do people get used to being bereaved? This is my first time. I am feeling very lucky to have a friend like you that I can write to without being thought dotty to go on like that about mere dogs.
They did not poison her. It was one of her little heart attacks and they did not know how to treat it and killed her by the wrong kindnesses.
You must try to understand that I am and will remain entirely without wife or brother or sister or child and that Brownie supplied more than the place of these to me. We loved each other more and more every year.
For all its melancholy, Townsend Warner’s biography, with the beauty and compassion of its prose, is ultimately a wonderful experience. It’s true, White’s ending was as lonely as much of his life. But this biography testifies to his strengths, as does his epitaph: “Author who from a troubled heart delighted others.”