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The Politics of a Permeable Home

Claire Pelly, King’s College London

Alongside the frustrations of sudden isolation at home since the lockdown have been the joys derived from others’ generosity. An example of this is the new YouTube channel ‘A Bit Lit’, on which academics are broadcasting a wide range of conversations and lectures related to literature and history, often with an early modern focus. These lectures have offered food for thought in two directions: helping me plan for the secondary students I teach as well as feeding into my own research on Sylvia Townsend Warner.

Emma Whipday’s (Newcastle University) first lecture discusses the presentation of the witches in Macbeth, citing contemporary sources’ concerns about physical contamination of the home and their suggestions for ensuring an impregnable home. One source describes how ‘The first and chiefe use of an house is to defend man from the extremity of winde, and weather … [and] to preserve man’s body in health…’, a description which underlies the current civic imperative to stay at home through the pandemic.[1] As Whipday discusses, this text lays out the principles upon which citizens can formulate a legal complaint if they believe themselves wronged by witchcraft, confirming the perception of the home as a legally upheld unit, susceptible to threat and thus requiring formal protection. There are so many similarities here with our current situation; these issues are at play, too, in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s ‘A Love Match’ (1961), a short story which considers the values projected onto the home and the political motivations that lie behind so doing.[2]

‘A Love Match’ is one of many short stories Warner wrote for the New Yorker, alongside her prolific output of diaries, correspondence, poetry, novels and journalism. Its main focus is the domestic arrangements of siblings Celia and Justin Tizard: the non-linear narrative covers events between Justin’s brief 1916 leave from the Somme until the siblings’ death in an air raid during World War Two. It opens in 1923 with the siblings in France, where the invalided Justin is recruited to curate a school’s collection of military paraphernalia. It then flashes back to Justin’s fomer period of leave from the Somme and recounts how, after one of many traumatised nightmares while visiting Celia, an incestuous relationship began that continued ever since.

The incest’s initiation tends to preoccupy readers of the story. Much is made of the biographical echoes of Warner’s account of the start of her relationship with Valentine Ackland, the poet who was her life partner from 1931 until Ackland’s death in 1969. It is taken to be the story’s most radical moment. Gay Wachman celebrates the neutral tone with which the moment is narrated, extrapolating that ‘incest and perhaps all other forms of deviant sexuality’ are thus ‘naturalized’ but she claims that the remainder of Warner’s  story is just ‘a narrative of day-to-day life in a humdrum, middle-class closet’.[3] This view, however, overlooks the consistently radical content of the story, much of which is articulated through Warner’s depiction of the home.

The Tizards’ various homes are not immutable signifiers for Warner. Justin’s experience of PTSD in Celia’s flat graphically demonstrates how no building can mitigate the physical and psychological trauma of war. Though he is impressed with how his sister, significantly, ‘[possesses] these new surroundings’ (p.6), the financial and material stability of home ownership does nothing to deflect the ‘frantic unknown faces and writhing entrails’ that terrify him. As Jenny Edkins describes in her work on the politics of trauma, given that ‘the modern state cannot be assumed to be a place of safety, any more than the patriarchal family can’, the home as a space which maintains those state certainties is fundamentally destabilised by that very patriarchal encounter which generated the trauma: war.[4]

When, in the interwar section of the story, Justin’s employer, Mr Pilkington, finds him well settled and ‘master in his own house’ (the museum) and when Pilkington is impatient with Celia as she vacillates over which house to choose, Warner offers us an unsympathetic character who seems to associate homes with finality and security. Pilkington’s conception of the domestication he seeks for the siblings is akin to that described by George V in a speech to house planners soon after World War One in which the monarch claimed that an ‘adequate solution of the housing question is the foundation of all social progress. Health and housing are indissolubly connected…If ‘unrest’ is to be converted into contentment, the provision of good houses may prove one of the most potent agents in that conversion’.[5]  The metaphor of conversion here conceives of a progression from the negative to positive, as if such a process is irreversible and linear. However, this confidence in the moral efficacy and security of the significance of the home overlooks both the instability of domestication and the reality of the psychology of trauma which Justin’s experience so vividly demonstrates.

Rachel Bowlby has interrogated the term ‘domestication’ to show how the term is often used to criticise an apparent dilution or loss of originality. However, such a gloss overlooks the characteristic of home as ‘the place of origin’ for all ideas and, thus, all radicalism, meaning that domestication is not such a straightforward process after all.[6] In Warner’s story, the ‘squat, mid-Victorian box’ Celia chooses, with its ‘high surrounding wall’ that hides the ‘totality of its ugliness’ (p.3), offends Pilkington’s aesthetic sense but facilitates the Tizards’ continued incest. Here, the impermeable, bounded home is the very thing which allows their defiant sexual rebellion: they play society’s game of apparent compliance primarily so as to pursue their non-compliance. Through her characters’ knowing defiance, Warner plays with the impermanence of impermeability: for, as long as the Tizards ‘[laugh], [chatter] and [kiss]’, ‘safe within their brick wall’ (p.12), the origin story of their relationship – prompted by the porous walls which admitted Justin’s trauma and thus created the need for instinctive physical consolation – pertains. Warner refuses to present the home as either one thing or another: her permeable homes are an expression both of politically inconvenient, individual psychological vulnerability and, when her characters embrace their home’s bounded nature, they do so to acquire freedom from the conservative ideals society hopes to impose.


[1]John Manwood, Robert Mounson, Edward Plowden and Christopher Wray, A Briefe Declaration for What Manner of Speciall Nusance Concerning Private Dwelling Houses, a Man May Have his Remedy by Assise (1636), pp. 1-2, cited by Emma Whipday in ‘Contagious Witchcraft in Shakespeare’s England’, 2 April 2020 <>.

[2]Sylvia Townsend Warner, ‘A Love Match’, in Selected Stories (London: Virago, 2002), pp.?-?. All subsequent references to the story will be placed parenthetically in the text.

[3]Gay Wachman, Lesbian Empire: Radical Crosswriting in the Twenties (London: Rutgers University Press, 2001).

[4]Jenny Edkins, Trauma and the Memory of Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[5]Henry R. Aldridge, The National Housing Manual: A Guide to National Housing Policy and Administration (London: National Housing and Town Planning Council, 1923) reproduced on the dedication page.

[6]Rachel Bowlby, ‘Domestication’, in Feminism Beside Itself, eds. Diane Elam and Robyn Wiegman (London: Routledge, 1995), pp. 71-91.


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