- From the Middle Distance:Sylvia Townsend Warner's War Pastorals
In his essay "Dingley Dell & The Fleet," W. H. Auden considers "two kinds" of "dream pictures of the Happy Place"—a world in which suffering, duty, and the ravages of time do not exist.1 Auden says we imagine such places as Edens (Arcadia) or New Jerusalems (Utopia). The differences are mainly temporal—Arcadias are past, Utopias are future—but it is clear that, for Auden, Utopias entail more than a hint of danger since they necessarily include "images of the Day of Judgment," visions of the cleansing and purifying rites by which worthy Utopian wheat is separated from unworthy chaff ("Dingley Dell," 410). Hitler, Auden observes, was a Utopian. In a startling, and perhaps startled, footnote Auden states: "To my surprise, the only creators of Edens during the last three centuries I can think of, have all been English" (411n1). Auden's inability to locate a single other writer of "Edens" in 300 years suggests the extent to which pastoral—for Auden—has shaped or even been responsible for modern British literature.2 But his essay on The Pickwick Papers, with its reference to Hitler and the concentration camps, also marks a particular historical instantiation of the pastoral mode.3 Let's call it pastoral's war moment.
But we had might better call it pastoral's world war moment since Virgilian pastoral itself originates in war and has long offered poets particular resources for thinking not just about divisions between country and city, or present and past, but the complex organization of social life and the contingencies of historical circumstance.4 While the consequences of English pastoral during the 1930s and 1940s inform recent scholarship attempting to articulate a period of "late modernism" connected [End Page 289] to the wane of Empire and to a retrenchment of interest in British nationality as such, "pastoral" in these works is often deployed disparagingly.5 Undoubtedly British pastoralism in World War II traded in shopworn images of England that perpetuated ideologies of the countryside purposefully blind to rural realities. Understanding pastoral exclusively as a vehicle for mystification, however, ignores the mode's flexibility for writers experiencing world war from beyond the city's limits. 6 Sylvia Townsend Warner was one such writer. She lived in villages in Norfolk and then Dorset during the war, and her wartime corpus—including short stories, poems, and personal correspondence—demonstrates a uniquely productive engagement with the pastoral mode in conditions of "total" war. The English countryside has long been an arena in which patriotism, nostalgia, and various anxieties over sociocultural, economic, and political change converge, and World War II British cultural production drew on deeply felt conventions of rural life and literature. Warner's war writings can be chiseled out from this larger landscape in a few ways. Her war pastorals foreground the uneven nature of modern war experience, and they highlight war as an acoustic, rather than visual or spectacular, phenomenon. Drawing on the powerful medium of radio, Warner crafted an expressive, flexible aesthetic that underscores pastoral's ability to register, rather than simply mystify, modern war.
Because she lived far afield of London, Sylvia Townsend Warner's experience of aerial bombardment, especially during the months of the Blitz, was uneven: she endured property losses and that most unsympathetic term, "light bombing," yet physical distance from urban centers buffered her and her partner, Valentine Ackland, from prolonged attack. She gleaned most of her news about the war from radio. This kind of propinquity to war—shifting, sporadic, and mediated—is best described as the proximity of "middle distance," a term I take from the work of Marianna Torgovnick, who uses the expression to describe her own reaction and relation to 9/11. She was in Manhattan during the attacks, but far enough away from the World Trade Center to not immediately register the events. She calls this position one of "middle distance," which, she argues, names:
a feeling of spatial, temporal, or emotional connection, in this case all three, but with my only stakes the stakes available to many others. And yet I went, I must have gone, into a...