Sunday, April 1, 2012

What a Handsome Young Man They Had Got

It's always a pleasure when a story goes in a direction I don't expect, but had wished it would; and I especially value writers who are willing to let a story follow its weird in that way.

I'm reading The Flint Anchor (Viking, 1954) by Sylvia Townsend Warner, a historical novel set in England from the early nineteenth-century on. (I gather from the dust jacket that it continues into "the later Victorian days," but I haven't gotten that far yet.) Its center is the family of the merchant John Barnard, who lives in the seaside town of Loseby. Early on Townsend Warner drops a hint, really rather amazing for a 1950s novel:
At the coming-of-age dinner he made a speech, referring to his inadequacy to take his father's place, and announcing an intention to spend the rest of his life (he managed as only a young man can do to imply that there was not much left of it) to the improvement, moral and material, of his native town. Neither the lawyer nor the parson thought much of John Barnard's speech: the lawyer thought it impolitic, the clergyman considered that the morality of Loseby might well be left to those appointed by God and the bishop to look after it. But his work-people clapped and cheered -- not for what he said, but for how he looked while saying it. They had not realized till now what a handsome young man they had got. Under the stimulus of a public appearance, attention, applause, and a little wine, he was revealed as very handsome indeed, romantically handsome, with such glossy dark hair, such large bright eyes, and such well-made legs. Among Loseby fishermen it was taken as a matter of course that men should feel amorously towards a handsome young man. John Barnard on his twenty-first birthday was the image of a man's young man (women might feel that his forehead was too narrow and his nose too sharp), and Job Ransom, bellowing out his toast of "Mr. Barnard -- bless his flesh!" summed up the mood of the occasion [8].
The idea that men might "feel amorously" for other men is never at the center of The Flint Anchor, but it keeps recurring, darting in and out of the narrative like a flying fish jumping out of the water as it follows a boat. And about two hundred pages after the motif is introduced, Townsend Warner makes it clear that she isn't just talking about euphemistic "homosocial desire," but about the possibility of overt erotic feeling and activity between men, managing to be both blunt and decorous about the matter. It's not part of the plot, though it does affect the life of one important character.

I won't provide more detail, just in case anyone reading this might be moved to read the novel -- and you should. The Flint Anchor appears to be out of print in the US, but Virago reissued it in paperback fifteen years ago; it shouldn't be too hard to find. What pleases me is that Townsend Warner created a fictional yet historical world in which such feelings occur, without making them a symptom of decadence on the one hand, or idealizing them on the other. Homosexuality had been a feature of her fiction before, in her sapphic novel Summer Will Show (1936), and in Mr. Fortune's Maggot (1927), as it was in her life: she lived with the poet Valentine Ackland for many years. Her first novel, Lolly Willowes (1926), is about a spinster who decides to become a witch. There's a lightness and playfulness in her writing, even when she's being quite serious -- she was also a Communist, and her leftist politics are woven into much of her fiction along with feminism and same-sex love -- and The Flint Anchor, her final novel by the way, is no exception, as you should be able to tell from the quotation above.

What gave me the pleasure of the story moving in a direction I hadn't quite expected was that I'd noticed several references to males as objects of other males' desire, and then Townsend Warner confirmed that she'd meant them as I wanted to understand them. Often when I've read a book or watched a film I've had the feeling that two men or two women were deeply interested in each other, but the feeling wasn't borne out in the outcome. That makes it all the more satisfying when I get to have the outcome I'd hoped for.

I should point out, though, just for accuracy's sake, that homosexuality in English fiction wasn't unheard of in the 1950s: aside from Townsend Warner, there were Angus Wilson, Iris Murdoch, Christopher Isherwood, Mary Renault, and numerous others. (I really should reread Wilson's earlier fiction; it's been awhile.) But as I remember their works, they usually portrayed homosexuals as decadent, quirky, or doomed. Townsend Warner seems really to have seen us, and herself, as a normal part of the world she observed and imagined with such an objective, witty eye.

(That's Townsend Warner's girlfriend Valentine Ackland in the photo above, but "glossy dark hair"? Check. "Large bright eyes"? Check. "Well-made legs"? Check.)