Thursday, July 1, 2021

The Flint Anchor - Sylvia Townsend Warner

For this Sylvia Townsend Warner reading week I picked up 'The Flint Anchor', which I bought from an Oxfam shop in a small Leicestershire town in 2010 - it seemed like a good omen at the time. I was there for a new job, finding a Virago Modern Classic that I didn't have seemed propitious - it wasn't. The job was miserable, and 'The Flint Anchor' remained unread.

Helen says this will be the last Sylvia Townsend Warner reading week which I think is a shame. I appreciate the work that goes into organizing it but hope that at some point she has a change of heart and will do another for the selfish reasons that she's not only convinced me to engage with this wonderful writer, she's also provided a lot of background material to consult in her really excellent posts. You can see what she has to say about 'The Flint Anchor' Here.

I picked this book up with a mind full of other things and lost myself to the extent that I read until 2am the first night, and the second. Fortunately, I finished it at 1am last night and feel somewhat fresher today. It's the last of Sylvia Townsend Warner's novels, originally published in 1954, and the portrait of a 19th-century family, so more or less a historical novel - but it's a slippery book to really classify.

I've read a few times about Sylvia's variety as an author, how different all her books are, but that's not how I find them. 'The Flint Anchor' has the same melancholy tone that characterises 'Kingdoms of Elfin', the same preoccupation with religion that I found in 'Lolly Willowes' and 'Mr. Fortune's Maggot', and the same sense of thwarted love and misunderstanding that I found so moving in 'Mr. Fortune's Maggot' is here too. John Barnard might not meet the devil whilst he's out walking, as Lolly Willowes does, but he worships a false idol and the devil might have been a better bet all round.

The anchor of the title is a decorative device set into the walls of the Barnard house in Loseby, Norfolk. John Barnard inherits the lion's share of the family business as a young man and finds he has a gift for making a success of it. Unfortunately, he doesn't possess a similar gift for friendship or love. He pitches into marriage with his sister in laws friend not through any particular partiality but because he's expected to marry and it'll free him of some troublesome relatives. Any desire John Barnard feels for his wife is spent long before the last of their 11 children is born - of whom only 5 reach adulthood.

Of all these children it is only his daughter Mary that John really loves, and loves to the exclusion of everybody else in his life. It's a love that blinds him to her faults and his other children's virtues alike. He will make mistake after mistake in trying to protect her. His wife comfortably descends into genteel alcoholism somewhere around child number 10.

If this sounds miserable, the tone of the book is so detached that I really didn't find it so. We see John Barnard mostly as he sees himself; a little confused, flawed, human, and both overwhelmed by the duty that marriage and fatherhood have pitched him into, and disgusted by the reality of it all. He's ruled by a determination to do his duty whatever it costs him - and those around him. He is essentially a good man determined to do good, but without personal happiness and emotionally isolated the results are bleak. Despite a lifetime of effort on behalf of his community, an effort that carries the town through the worst of times more or less unscathed he can't even inspire admiration or respect amongst them.

It would be easy to see John Barnard as entirely the author of his family's unhappiness, but I'm intrigued by Julia's alcoholism and indolence - she resents the rounds of pregnancy and childbearing, but she is also the instigator of their production. Julia and her children are inclined to blame John for her state, but Sylvia keeps showing us the social and emotional cost of having a mother who is a drunk - it is only Mary, too selfish and ignorant to notice her mother's state who is unaffected by it. 

The eldest daughter could marry and leave, and in doing so could probably have taken some of her younger siblings with her, or at least provided them with a sanctuary, but she chooses not to and eventually joins a religious community. Maybe it's the right decision, but I think there's a sense that all the older Barnard's are joined in the authership of their unhappiness.

The book is also surprisingly open about homosexuality in the fishing community of Loseby. It was still a criminalized when the book was published, and considered as an unspeakable sin by the Barnard family, but in the working part of the town love is love and they're not fussy about where it's found. It's a powerful contrast to the Barnard's who remain in Anchor house with their limited understanding of love and the petrifying value they place on respectability.

What I most admire about Sylvia Townsend Warner, and find in abundance here, is her clear eyed ability to pick something apart and lay it out for our inspection without judgement or emotion. We might feel sorry for the Barnard's, we might recognise something of ourselves in them, or we might just be fascinated by the spectacle - I found this book compelling for all of those reasons and more. 


  1. What a great review, Hayley. It's so true about the contrast of the more relaxed attitude of the fishing community (I thought that conversation with Crusoe was amazing).

    It has made me think of 1 Corinthians 13:2 (I had to look it up! I could only vaguely remember it) '...and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing' - which sums up John Barnard really.

  2. I don't think a single reading is enough to do this one justice. There's such a lot to think about. I've been re reading Persuasion which has been an interesting companion to this one too - it's made me think more about bad marriages and unhappy families, but Warner isn't doing just one thing and it seems like a very on the nose kind of book in a lot of ways for the 1950's.

  3. This is a great description: "her clear eyed ability to pick something apart and lay it out for our inspection without judgement or emotion." I found that very true of The Corner That Held Them as well.

    1. I've loved the reading weeks - not just because they make me take the books off the shelf and read them, but also because of the discussion. She's a remarkable writer, and I'm glad I haven't bolted down all her books yet. There's still plenty to look forward to. The more I read the more common themes and mood I find though, so I'm no longer convinced by the statement that every book she wrote was really different.