Saturday, February 28, 2009

Project 1929: "The True Heart"

Sylvia Townsend Warner, The True Heart. Originally published by Chatto & Windus, 1929. Reprinted by Virago Modern Classics.

The True Heart, as Sylvia Townsend Warner reveals in her very brief introduction to the Virago reprint, is based on the story of Eros and Psyche as told in Apuleius's The Golden Ass. The story in Apuleius is a folktale embedded in the larger narrative, a tale about the love of a beautiful mortal girl, Psyche, for the immortal Eros (Cupid), and about the quest she must undergo before she can be united with her love. Warner's veiled retelling is set in Victorian England, in the year 1873. Sukey Bond (Psyche) is a poor orphan who goes into service as a maid for a farm family in the Essex marshes, where she falls in love with Eric (Eros), the "idiot" son whom Mrs. Seaborn (Venus) has sent away to live on the farm. When Sukey's love for Eric is revealed, Mrs. Seaborn arrives to take him home, and Sukey begins her long journey to find him again—a journey that takes her to Buckingham Palace and an audience with Queen Victoria.

The novel is a sophisticated fairy tale. The narrative often shifts abruptly from place to place, slows down or fast-forwards with dizzying speed. The beautiful and deeply textured descriptions and the odd encounters give the novel a fantastic, dream-like quality. Sukey, the main character, heightens this odd feeling of unreality. She is innocent, but determined. She moves through life as through a dream, her innocence insulating her from the facts of life while giving her a childish faith in the impossible.

According to Gay Wachman, in the book Lesbian Empire: Radical Crosswriting in the Twenties, the novel should be read in the context of the eugenics movement in early twentieth-century Britain. Among some of the upper class, the sexuality of the lower classes, of non-white races, of the mentally handicapped was suspect: the supposed promiscuity of those groups had to be controlled, the eugenicists believed, by sterilization if necessary. The love between Sukey and Eric, Wachman argues, needs to be seen in this context. The attitude is reflected in a conversation that takes place in Mrs. Seaborn's kitchen when Sukey, believing she's pregnant, comes looking for Eric:
"Fancy an idiot getting a girl that way," remarked the housemaid, filling her mouth with currants. "I shouldn't have thought it hardly possible."

"Oh, they're wonderful at it. Like the blacks..."
Ironically, Sukey is so innocent that she thinks merely kissing Eric has made her pregnant.

The removal of Eric from the farm is precipitated by an interesting event. The farmer's son has become engaged to Prudence, the farm's former serving girl. To celebrate the engagement, Sukey is asked to slaughter a cock for dinner. Sukey tries to get Eric to do it for her, but he won't. When she chops off the cock's head, Eric falls into a fit. This crucial episode certainly makes sense in the context of eugenics and the movement for sterilization of the "feebleminded."

At another farmhouse where Sukey finds work as a maid, she sees on the wall an engraving titled "The True Secret of England's Greatness." It shows Queen Victoria presenting a Bible to a dark-skinned subject. Sukey imagines herself in the subject's place, kneeling before the Queen. When Sukey finally has her audience with the Queen, what strikes Sukey (and the reader) is not Queen Victoria's imperial majesty, but her sorrow. She is a widow sorrowing for her lost love, a mother sorrowing over a wayward son.

In the end, the novel is about the power and the strange unreality of romantic love. Romantic love is a dream from which one wakes to the realities of marriage and a life together, to a different kind of love.
I love. The maiden can speak thus boldly, and only the maiden, whose love is still her own to proclaim, an intensity cloistered in its own fire, an inviolate astonishment. Already it seemed curious to her, and slightly embarrassing, that she should have spoken so. Never again would her lips utter such brazen boasting. She would say instead: I never saw such a child for tumbles; Your father always was a one for gooseberry tart; My mind misgives me that she is sickening for something; Don't forget to put on a clean shirt; Wasn't there something else I meant to order from the grocer?
The weird unreality of the novel, the slight "feeblemindedness" of the two lovers, may after all be no more than the unreality and feeblemindedness of all young love, which is succeeded by a deeper reality and an entirely new kind of living joy.

Current Reading/Future Reviews:
James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States)
Olivia Manning, School for Love (New York Review Books Classics)

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