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A Word is a Bridge: Death and Epistolary Form in the Correspondence of Sylvia Townsend Warner and David Garnett

posted on 2023-06-07, 22:06 authored by Margaretta JollyMargaretta Jolly
A correspondence, Sylvia Townsend Warner once reflected, kept up over a length of years with never a meeting is a bridge which with every letter seems more elastically reliable, but it is a bridge that only carries the weight of one person at a time. When the correspondents meet it collapses, she brutally continued, and they have to founder their way to the footing of actuality (Warner, T.H. White: A Biography)(219). Letters are indeed an elastic bridge, as magical as they are apparently reliable in the capacity to stretch across any distance or time. Yet Warner reminds us of the fragility at the heart of this protean form. Far from the solid and inflexible ground of actuality, an epistolary relationship is created out of the mutual projections of two writers, which, in another of Warners formulations, always risk being slightly out of focus (143). In the following discussion, I build on Warners image to explore the fictions of letter-writing as a positive aspect of the form not just for the correspondents themselves but for the reader of published letters. The ambiguity and intermittency of their appeal to the other can produce powerful literary effects. But we should avoid trying to fit letters into the classical literary mould of a unity constructed by a single author. Too often critics find themselves over-emphasising the monologue at the expense of the dialogue in trying to recoup a correspondences formal complexity. In my view, it is the tension between monologue and dialogue, fracture and unity, which creates letters literary interest, drawing on the sumptuous, desirable, yet anxiety-ridden interlude of the epistolary experience itself (Hallett) 111. Warners own exquisite fifty-six year correspondence with the writer David Garnett exemplifies these tensions. Jovial and harmonious in style and sensibility, the underlying delicacy of its architecture emerges through the editorial intervention of Garnetts son, Richard Garnett. The double-edged nature of epistolary art is most obvious in Warner and Garnetts dryly aesthetic discussion of mortality and the literal interruption of their correspondence with Warners death. In conclusion, I return to Warners image of a bridge that carries the weight of only one person at a time, as a salutory reminder of the irony and poetry of epistolary reassurance.


Publication status

  • Published


Edwin Mellen Press

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Book title

Critical Essays on Sylvia Townsend Warner: English Novelist 1893-1978

Place of publication

New York




Women's Studies

Department affiliated with

  • English Publications

Research groups affiliated with

  • Centre for Life History and Life Writing Research Publications

Full text available

  • No

Peer reviewed?

  • Yes


David Malcolm, Gill Davies, John Simons

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