Taking Sides – Sylvia Townsend Warner, the Arts and MI5

31 Oct

In the summer of 1937 – the second year of the Spanish Civil War – the journalist Nancy Cunard circulated a letter to ‘the Writers and Poets of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales’ asking if they were for or against Spain’s Republican government in its bitter struggle against that country’s right-wing rebellion. The question, Cunard believed, came down to whether, ‘You (are) for, or against, Franco and Fascism’.  The great majority of respondents sided with the Republic rather than General Franco’s fascist rebels and predictably, given her membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), Sylvia Townsend Warner’s reply was both pro-Republic and anti-fascist.[1]  That would have come as no surprise to Britain’s Intelligence agencies since Sylvia’s activities and opinions had been subject to MI5’s sustained interest for the previous two years.  Within days of her application for Party membership arriving at the CPGB headquarters in King Street, London, MI5’s Director, Sir Vernon Kell, had written to Major Peel Yates, the Chief Constable in Dorset, requesting police assistance in the planned surveillance operation.  MI5’s suspicions were soon confirmed: Miss Townsend Warner and her partner, Valentine Ackland, were observed to be ‘great readers’ – the local constabulary, in common with others, found that unsettling.  Moreover Ms Ackland shot rabbits with her rifle and preferred men’s clothing to ‘female attire’.  The two ‘literary ladies’, it was reported, were presently involved in a libel case and were actively seeking ‘to transform a patch of rural England into a little Soviet’.[2]  Any deviation from MI5’s accepted norms of behaviour warranted closer, sustained attention and Sylvia and Valentine were not the first to be categorised because of their looks and characteristics.  For example, its agents were troubled by – and recorded – someone’s ‘communist appearance’ (the historian Christopher Hill); the publisher James MacGibbon’s red silk tie; George Orwell’s ‘bohemian’ look[3]; intellectualism (the poet W H Auden); looking scruffy and unwashed (John Cornford)[4]; pacificism (the novelist Storm Jameson); and having long hair (the poet Randall Swingler).  When a copy of Stendhal’s ‘The Red and the Black’ was found by customs officers in the luggage of the writer Ralph Bates, that was enough to have him branded an active revolutionary communist.  Such judgements were not confined to the 1930s either: the former Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath, speaking in the House of Commons in 1988, declared that some people in the Security Services ‘talked the most ridiculous nonsense’, recalling that, for some officers, seeing ‘someone reading the Daily Mirror’ on the tube justified suspicion and surveillance.  A former MI5 officer, Miranda Ingram, who worked for the agency in the early 1980s, held that some fellow officers ‘thought that people who wore jeans were potentially subversive’.[5]  Arguably, it was only after the attack on New York’s Twin Towers that a different surveillance target replaced the spectre of communism.The files on Sylvia Townsend Warner that are available to view at the National Archives (TNA) extend to some 349 pages.[6]  Reading through them, there is no doubting the dogged and obsessive nature of the surveillance to which she and Valentine were subjected.  Few stones in that peaceful Dorset valley are left unturned, from the location of the house the two women shared – 24 West Chaldon, an  ‘old detached farmhouse… about 200 yards from the roadway’ – to questions as to whether they appeared ‘to be in any way abnormal’.  The files contain ‘Returns of Correspondence’ which itemised the nature of all incoming mail, together with copies of opened letters, photographs, police reports on the women’s activities, including the details of an investigation into whether a telegram received at West Chaldon had been written in code.   Unsurprisingly any involvement in politically related activities was duly noted.  These included the International Writers’ Congress in Spain; attendance at a meeting of communist journalists at the Nanking Restaurant in London’s Denmark Street; the Party’s Writers’ Group; journalism for Left Review, Russia Today and the Daily Worker; and Sylvia’s role as secretary of the Association of Writers for Intellectual Liberty.   



The interest taken in Dorset’s two ‘literary ladies’ was matched by similar levels of watchfulness directed at writers and artists across the country as a whole.  Special Branch, for example, provided a steady flow of surveillance reports to MI5 on those thought to be potential volunteers to fight in the war against Franco in Spain.  That list comprised over 4,000 names.  Scrolling through the KV (Security) files at the TNA reveals a disturbing number of writers and artists whose private lives were kept under scrutiny for years.  Each of them, for whatever reason, had been judged by the Intelligence agencies to be a threat to the state and worthy of surveillance.  Typical targets were the novelists Ralph Bates (‘correspondence arrives from Russia’); Storm Jameson (‘left-wing pacifist’); and Doris Lessing (says that ‘everything black is wonderful and that all men and all things white are vicious.’)  Few writers and artists with left-wing leanings escaped and the TNA holds files on many of them, including, for example, Christopher Isherwood, George Orwell, J B Priestley, C  Day Lewis, John Cornford, Olivia Manning, Randall Swingler, W H Auden, Stephen Spender and Kingsley Amis, as well as the artists Paul Hogarth, Julian Trevelyan, Clive Branson and Felicia Browne. 



Special Branch and MI5 were nothing if not methodical in the way potential prey was identified and pursued.  If an interest had been triggered in Writer A or Artist B, then those individuals with whom he or she came into contact, however innocent, were judged to be worthy of suspicion and follow-up.   The system was based on a principle of contagion.  In Doris Lessing’s case, for example, those tainted by association included the people she wrote to in London; those who travelled with her, or had offered accommodation, as well as others who had stayed in the same house as her.  A file on each would be duly opened.  Where a name was already subject to surveillance then it would be capitalised and cross-referenced.  In Doris Lessing’s file the names included teachers, school inspectors, foreigners (especially those with Eastern European connections), civil engineers, civil servants, government health inspectors and so on.  MI5 routinely conducted investigations ‘with a view to establishing the identity of contacts’, a process which was true of the ‘the cultural field generally’ and involved obtaining ‘the names of intellectuals sympathetic to the Party who may not already be known to us.’[7]  The result was an exponential rise in the files on MI5’s already groaning shelves.   Reggie Smith – the novelist Olivia Manning’s husband – was subject to considerable telephone bugging and his habit of extensive name dropping proved fertile ground for the opening of new files – and additions to old ones for such as Peggy McIVER, Gordon CROOKSHANK, Terry GOMPERTZ, Alex McCRINDLE, Margaret BECK, Harry POLLITT and Margot HEINEMANN.[8] 



Sylvia Townsend Warner was no exception when it came to MI5’s determination to construct connections, real or imagined, between its suspects.  The agency seemed hell-bent on establishing a spider’s web of artists and writers believed to be conspiring to undermine the political establishment.   For example, it believed that Sylvia had been commissioned to look ‘for accommodation for friends connected with the Party who ostensibly are needing a rest’.  It noted the connections between her and the writer and Spanish Civil War veteran Tom Wintringham; her proposed attendance at a Congress in Spain with Auden, Isherwood and John and Rosamond Lehmann; the reassurance she felt in Madrid courtesy of Ralph Bates; the shared involvement in the ‘Soap for Spain’ campaign, again with Rosamond Lehmann, as well as Rebecca West, Rose Macaulay and Vita Sackville-West; and her antipathy towards Stephen Spender.[9]  



Sylvia’s Party membership had been prompted by events in Germany, notably the Reichstag Fire of 1933.  An instinctive anarchist, she later claimed that she became a Party member ‘because I am against the government.’  She was not alone: by 1939, membership of the CPGB had reached 16,000.  The Thirties was a period when to be a communist was somehow to be in tune with the times.  The artist Julian Bell caught the moment when he observed that ‘We are all Marxists now.’   For the poet Cecil Day Lewis – under MI5 observation from 1933 after signing the Anti-War Manifesto – it was the last period in history, ‘that anyone believed in anything’.[10]  Membership of the Party was particularly strong amongst artists and writers.  The reasons were clear: rising unemployment and widespread poverty as well as hunger at home and the growing threat of fascism across Europe.  Writers in particular, by the very nature of their art, were highly visible if and when they condemned government austerity, or articulated views that could be categorised as socialist.  When a left-wing writer chose to put his or head above the parapet, the Intelligence agencies’ were very soon aware of the fact.  



The poet John Cornford, for example, was accorded suspect status in March 1933 – he was just seventeen – when a letter was intercepted concerning the potential affiliation of the London School of Economics Medical Society to a left wing organisation.[11]   MI5 interest in Christopher Isherwood began with an intercepted letter from John Strachey dated 1 December 1932 (Strachey was already being watched).  J B Priestley’s file was opened (in June 1933) when his letter to Nancy Cunard attracted official interest.  Similarly, a letter from Stephen Spender to John Lehmann in June 1934 began the long and thorough scrutiny of the poet’s activities.  In Sylvia’s own case, surveillance appears to have begun with a letter of January 1935 from Valentine to Communist Party HQ at 16 King Street – she was keen to offer the use of her ‘small racing car… for two clear days a month’ and her own services as driver to move either ‘stuff’ or ‘comrades’.  The car was ‘fast (and)… could cover good distances’.[12]



Such surveillance did not go unnoticed, nor was it without its victims.  Olivia Manning and Reggie Smith, for example, were all too aware that their telephone was regularly tapped – indeed it was the subject of jokes for years with their circle of friends. ‘The boys in blue are listening,’ Reggie would say when conversation was punctuated by suspicious noises.  The listeners seemed to have endless patience and were reluctant, it seems, to call a halt to ongoing surveillance.  The artist Rosa Branson, for example, believed that her telephone was monitored for many decades after her father, the artist and poet Clive Branson, was killed in Burma in 1944.   She suggested to me with a smile that the listeners must have been intrigued by her daughter’s conversations about GCSE coursework with her friends back in the 1990s…



Given that so much time and money was spent on this complex and intensely intrusive campaign against left-leaning writers and artists, what was its overall impact?  For some, it was merely an irritant, but for others it had a profound effect on their lives: careers were blighted and aspirations changed for ever.  Blacklists were drawn up and potential opportunities closed down.  The poet Randall Swingler, in particular, was denied the chance to build on his considerable success as a writer and poet that he had achieved before the war.  Priestley’s broadcasts to the nation were taken off air during the war; Clive Branson’s commission as an officer never happened; Paul Hogarth was summarily dismissed from the army; Doris Lessing was prevented from returning home to Africa for many years; Auden and Spender were tarred by association with Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean.  It is poignant to reflect that while these operations against artists and writers were being waged, the hugely damaging and treacherous activities of Guy Burgess, Kim Philby and Donald Maclean among others were missed.  



The costs associated with this web of duplicitous, secret and longstanding surveillance far outweighed the benefits to the state arising from it: the working hours of the men and women involved were incalculable – all those bugs secreted in people’s and organisation’s telephones; the listeners’ hours spent head-phoned and unmoving and the mind-numbing transcription of so many mundane phone calls; the expenses incurred in agents’ travel and subsistence; the cash in envelopes for information received from ‘discreet sources’; the associated costs protecting those same sources; the dogged, mechanistic sequence of file opening, cross-referencing and maintenance long past any reasonable end-date – the whole complex edifice, designed (if that’s the word) to combat the threat of communism, brought very little in the way of benefits.  As well as the financial cost, there was a moral bill to be paid too.  The whole enterprise was an ugly, demeaning process which bore uncomfortable resemblance to the dubious, unforgiving methods employed by the very regimes the establishment most feared.  The novelist Geoffrey Household touched on the issue when he described a situation where ‘all the weapons of communism were to be used to defeat communism.’[13]  Not every weapon in the armoury was used by the British secret police.  In its secret war against British artists and writers, the victims were spared the worst excesses of  Stalinism, but there is no escaping the fact that hundreds of poets, writers, artists, journalists, historians, philosophers and broadcasters were obliged to work under the baleful eye of the nation’s unforgiving Intelligence agencies, aware perhaps of its interest, but ignorant of the extent of its surveillance and its associated malign influence.  



W H Auden, C Day Lewis and Stephen Spender were typical of the poets entangled in the complex net created by MI5 and Special Branch in the 1930s: Auden was deemed ‘an intellectual communist’ in September 1938, while Spender’s activities in Spain and elsewhere encouraged MI5 in January 1937 ‘to keep a sharper eye on him in future.’  The artist and sculptor Felicia Browne was thought ‘worthy of some enquiries’ by MI5 as early as May 1934.[14] Once the anticipated war had begun in 1939, residual doubts held by MI5 about writers and artists often became enough to curtail the role that the suspect might play in the fight against Hitler.  Both Spender and Orwell could not understand why their skills were not utilised in the early years of the conflict – Spender’s ability to speak German for example was neglected – and both were left kicking their literary heels in the early years of the war.  In January 1941, MI5 thought it necessary to advise the Ministry of Information that Day Lewis should be kept under ‘a close watch’.  In November 1940, the novelist Storm Jameson was branded ‘Communist and pacifist.  Unsuitable’.  J B Priestley’s  ‘left wing tendencies’ were noted by MI5 in May 1939, although it was finally conceded that he ‘might be used with caution’.  The painter, poet and activist Clive Branson’s file is unsettlingly brief: ‘Communist’, his political beliefs starkly recorded, but not his death fighting the Japanese in Burma.   It is worth adding that by then Soviet Russia was an ally, despite its Stalinist brand of communism.  Without it, the war might well have been lost.  



The sustained monitoring of Sylvia and Valentine was just part of a much wider surveillance exercise, prompted in their case by their contacts, links with the CPGB and, truth be told, by their life style – their bookishness and Valentine’s habit of wearing ‘male clothing in preference to female attire’ when she was at home.  It takes little imagination to hear the guffaws of the reporting police officer and his colleagues amongst the Dorset Constabulary when that idiosyncrasy was reported. [15]  MI5 in December 1938 wondered whether the Home Office should be alerted to the ‘nefarious activities of Valentine Ackland and Sylvia Townsend Warner’.  



Eventually the files on MI5’s targets amongst the artists and writers of the 1930s and 1940s were set aside, gathering dust on the shelves as other, newer, targets revealed themselves.  Indeed, some of those whose activities and beliefs stirred the interest of MI5 during those decades became establishment figures themselves, even accepting honours from the British government: Cecil Day Lewis and Olivia Manning both received CBEs, while Stephen Spender was knighted in 1983.  Typically with middle age and success, left-wing passion tended to fade.  C Day Lewis, writing in 1960, commented that ‘the intolerant young man I used to be would view with suspicion the measure of inner peace I have achieved.’  The writer Jenny Diski recalled Doris Lessing’s usual answer to being questioned about her erstwhile membership of the Party: she ‘would give a deep sigh … and explain that she was never a party member.’[16]  Olivia Manning – who was only subject to MI5’s continuing interest because of husband Reggie Smith’s flamboyant communism – even voted Liberal in the 1974 General Election.  It is salutary to reflect on the fact that hitherto she had voted Conservative and only lapsed ‘out of disgust with Edward Heath’s failure to settle the miners’ strike and put the country back to work.’[17]  Storm Jameson became a firm anti-communist and supported the Labour Party.  She wrote an indictment of communism which formed the foreword to a paperback edition of The Diary of Anne Frank published in 1951.  However, during the Cold War, it ‘remained clear that the kind of Europe she had in mind was still fired by … anti-capitalism.’  Like Spender’s brush with American money and influence, she was caught up in a similar situation with CIA funds being channelled into PEN.   



The poet Randall Swingler was perhaps the most significant victim of MI5’s secret war: a major communist poet and influence before the war, he was almost a forgotten figure thereafter.  His work was turned down by the BBC and the Arts Council; his adult education courses closed down; and no one published his work after 1950.  ‘By the early 1960s Randall Swingler was already air-brushed out of the picture, unemployed and unemployable.’[18]  Broken and acutely depressed, he died after collapsing in a Soho street in 1967.  He was only 58 years old.  



A sub-plot of this story of MI5’s campaign of surveillance on those artists and writers deemed to be communists, fellow-travellers or just plain ‘left-wing,’ is the number of connections between them.  It was of course a factor in the burgeoning mountain of data that MI5 collected – the contagion of connection.  Randall Swingler, for example, worked closely with Reggie Smith at the BBC; the artist Wogan Philipps was married to John Lehmann’s sister, Rosamond, before she left him for Cecil Day Lewis; Felicia Browne was part of a ‘Euston Square’ Circle which also included Auden and the artist William Coldstream; the spy Donald Maclean went to Gresham’s School, an institution which was also attended by Auden, Tom Wintringham and Stephen Spender among others.   The artist Clive Branson was at the Slade with William Coldstream who was a friend of Auden; Auden lodged with Coldstream at one point; Coldstream had an affair with Sonia, George Orwell’s second wife and Tom Wintringham had links with Storm Jameson and Sylvia Townsend Warner…  



While many left-wing artists and writers who were subject to MI5’s surveillance tended to lose their faith in communism or socialism, particularly after the Hungarian uprising in 1956, there were some exceptions.  One such was the writer and academic Margot Heinemann, a woman who adhered to her communist principles to the end.  ‘I’d do it all again,’ she insisted in 1986.  It is salutary to note that her MI5 file remains sensitive.  Attempts to have file MEPO 38/67 released through the Freedom of Information Act have been refused – ‘under Section 17’ – in other words because of ‘issues relating to national security’ or the potential for compromising ‘our law enforcement function.’  Evidently ‘investigative techniques employed in the 1930s’  threaten ‘present day policing.’[19]  Phone tapping and the opening of letters continues…







On 6 March 1953, Valentine Ackland sent a letter to Harry Pollitt, the Secretary of the CPGB.  She had, she wrote, ‘dropped contacts and ceased being a member of the CP some years ago (I think, in or around 1944). I did not send a formal resignation, but now – because I am trying to tidy up and set my affairs in order, I want to do so.’[20]   It seems that Valentine Ackland’s MI5 file was finally closed four years later and her last years were marked by a struggle with alcoholism, a growing Catholicism and a series of romantic dalliances that caused considerable pain to Sylvia Townsend Warner.  She died in November 1969.  



Unlike her partner, Sylvia Townsend Warner retained a stubborn support for Communism, although her earlier activism was forgotten.  Her membership lapsed during the 1950s, although it seems she never formally resigned.  There was a view that ‘Sylvia had been kept off both radio and television for two reasons: her membership of the Communist Party and her lesbianism.’   Her literary reputation suffered ‘after the worm of McCarthyism’ had burrowed deep into the cultural world and she became ‘a literary casualty of the Cold War.’  There would be no more novels from her.  Her explanation for that loss was a despondent one: ‘We had fought,’ she said, ‘we had retreated, we were betrayed and now we were misrepresented’.[21]  In 1970 she wrote to David Garnett: ‘ I am now like the Sylvia you first knew, for I have reverted to solitude.  I live in a house with three cats; and when the telephone rings and it is a wrong number I feel a rush of thankfulness’.[22]  By the time she died in May 1978, her MI5 files were closed, albeit unreleased.  That would come much later, and then only with parts redacted, with certain documents retained where they contained what it judged to be ‘sensitive information’.  It follows that these once-secret files need to be read with caution: there are gaps and omissions; these ‘may be due to administrative error, but that can hardly explain the remarkable absence from her record of a significant aspect of Warner’s political activity: her diligent pursuit of accommodation and guarantors for endangered European anti-fascist writers seeking refuge in the UK.’[23]  In seeking to elicit historical truth from these documents it is as well to remember where they come from, an organisation steeped in misinformation and secrecy.  



This secret war was not just confined to writers and artists.  Scientists too were on MI5’s watchlist: these include J D Bernal (the lover of Margot Heinemann) and Professor J B S Haldane who complained about what he saw as an increasing level of surveillance: ‘MI5 seems to be largely preoccupied with British Communists and sympathisers in positions where they have access to secret documents.’[24]  Soon after completing my book The Secret War Against the Arts, I came across Haldane’s name in the afterword of Salley Vickers’ novel The Librarian.  Haldane was, it seems, known to Vickers’ parents ‘through their membership of the Communist Party’;  Vickers’ father was taught English by T H White, the author of The Once and Future King and it was through White that Salley Vickers met Sylvia Townsend Warner who had ‘long been a favourite of mine’. (It was no coincidence that the heroine of Vickers’ book is called Sylvia.)  The fourteen-year-old Vickers had told Warner that she wanted to be a witch when she grew up; Sylvia, it seems, ‘paid me the compliment of saying that I seemed to be ‘promising material.’  That made this reader smile and then provoked a further thought about the times when Haldane, Heinemann, Jon and Freddie Vickers, Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland, and the rest were threatened by the contagion of connections that underpinned MI5’s modus operandi.  Those connections were the threads that drew and held them together, a powerful antidote to a faceless, intrusive bureaucracy.   




Richard Knott’s book The Secret War Against the Arts was published by Pen & Sword in September 2020.  It focuses on a significant number of writers and artists who were either members of the Communist Party of Great Britain or were suspected of being ‘fellow travellers’.  In addition to Sylvia Townsend Warner, the book considers the experience (amongst others) of George Orwell, Stephen Spender, Olivia Manning, Storm Jameson,  W H Auden, J B Priestley, Doris Lessing, Julian Trevelyan, Randall Swingler, Paul Hogarth, Clive Branson and James Boswell.  The book covers the period 1936-1956. 



[1] The responses – nearly 150 of them – were published as Authors Takes Sides in November’s ‘Left Review.’  Most of the responses (127) supported the Republic; sixteen (including those from T.S. Eliot and Vita Sackville West) were neutral, while just five (among them Evelyn Waugh and Edmund Blunden) declared for Franco.


[2] Sylvia Townsend Warner in the 1930s by Maroula Joannou in A Weapon in the Struggle edited by Andy Croft, p. 93.  


[3] ‘This man has advanced communist views (and) dresses in a bohemian fashion’ was the view of a Special Branch officer in January 1942.


[4] ‘His personal appearance appeared similar to a person who has not washed for at least a week’ – so a fastidious Detective Sergeant from Cambridge Borough Police reported in October 1933. 


[5] Blacklist: the Inside Story of Political Vetting by Mark Hollingsworth and Richard Norton-Taylor, page 128.


[6] TNA, files KV2/2337 and 2338.


[7] TNA, KV2/3941 – the file on the historian Christopher Hill.  


[8] The capitalisation reflects the existence of a current file on the person named.  The spelling is as the MI5 officer recorded it.


[9] The feeling seems to have been mutual.


[10] The support for the Party survived the war years.  My father-in-law told me, in 2017 when he was 96, that he had asked his father to vote for him by proxy in the 1945 General Election since he was still to return from service overseas.  ‘I told him to vote Communist,’ he said, ‘if there was a candidate.’   


[11] The Society of the First of May Committee.  TNA KV2/1996.  


[12] TNA, KV2/2337.  


[13] In his novel A Rough Shoot.  


[14] Felicia Browne was killed in Spain in August 1936.  


[15] A report submitted in October 1935.


[16] In Gratitude by Jenny Diski, 2016.


[17] Olivia Manning by Deidre David, 2012.   


[18] A Man of Communist Appearance: Randall Swingler by Andy Croft; see www.andy-croft.co.uk

[19] Letter to the Author from the Metropolitan Police, dated 24 October, 2017.


[20] TNA, KV2/2338.  


[21] A Weapon in the Struggle op. cit., p. 103.


[22] Sylvia Townsend Warner: A Biography by Claire Harman, page 305.  


[23] Nefarious Activities: Sylvia Townsend Warner, Valentine Ackland and MI5 Surveillance, 1935-1955 by Judith Bond and Mary Jacobs. 


[24] TNA, KV2/2366.  Winston Churchill had claimed in the build up to the General Election of 1945 that no Labour Government could govern without a Gestapo of its own. 


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