Poets Valentine Ackland and Sylvia Townsend Warner accomplished something daring, provocative, and seemingly preposterous: they lived together openly in a committed lesbian relationship in early-to-mid-twentieth-century England. Of the two, Ackland was the most visibly gender nonconforming: dressed in trousers, shirt, and tie, her hair cut in the “Eton crop,” she was often mistaken for a man. Twelve years her senior, Warner was already a successful writer when they met; her 1926 novel Lolly Willowes is now considered an early feminist classic.
In this important addition to feminist scholarship, Frances Bingham brings these two stubbornly unconventional women to life, shaping a narrative gleaned from the Sylvia Townsend Warner–Valentine Ackland Archive. The author describes this treasure-trove of the couple’s letters, diaries, and poems as containing “innumerable mementoes of a shared life: love-letters, Christmas cards, notes, postcards, telegrams, their hotel room reservation card for ‘Mr and Mrs Ackland.’ ” Bingham adds, “The books smell of the river which ran past their damp house, the ghost of Gauloises cigarette smoke, the vanishing trace of scent from the writer’s wrist.”
For the most part, Bingham avoids romanticizing the story of the two women, resisting the “pornography of nostalgia,” to quote Simon Heffer from The Age of Decadence: A History of Britain, 1880 to 1914. Ackland and Warner came from privileged backgrounds and had resources most people lacked; i.e., money and rooms of their own, the requirements for writing that Virginia Woolf stipulated in 1929. Their financial security allowed them to travel and write, and retreat when needed to the relative obscurity of the English countryside. Nevertheless, they experienced more than their fair share of tragedies, from Ackland’s multiple affairs and alcoholism to the tragic consequences of World War II.
The book includes a selection of photographs, which depict the iconoclastic Ackland throughout various stages in her life. A photograph from 1915 shows her at nine years old, dressed for riding in boots and pants, holding a crop. Under a broad-brimmed hat, she looks directly at the camera, her expression both eager and shy. Her father, Richard Ackland, encouraged this boyishness in his daughter when she was a child, but when he learned of her relationship with another girl at a Paris boarding school at the age of sixteen, he became furious: “He took Molly’s first adolescent love affair as proof of absolute, permanent lesbianism, apparently recognizing it immediately . . . as an expression of her true self.” (“Molly” was Valentine Ackland’s childhood nickname. She chose “Valentine” for herself at the age of nineteen.) Ackland’s parents sent her to another boarding school; ironically, this school turned out to be a hotbed of institutionalized lesbianism, with its headmistress favoring the female students who accepted her attentions.
By the time she was nineteen, Ackland had endured the death of her father; a short, disastrous marriage; an operation to remove her hymen; and a miscarriage. She took refuge in the sparsely populated village of Chaldon, Dorset, a practice she would repeat for most of her life. In Chaldon, Ackland found a small, tolerant community of artists and writers. Members of the Bloomsbury set, including Virginia Woolf, also spent time there. In addition, Bingham writes that the area had “a special atmosphere, a sense of secrecy, of being entirely separate from the rest of the country, not on the way to anywhere.”
In Chaldon, Ackland met Sylvia Townsend Warner, the great, lasting love of her life, in the late 1920s. She was in her early twenties and Warner in her mid-thirties. The two had much in common: the loss of their fathers early in life; domineering, demanding mothers; feeling isolated from general society; and poetry. In the chapter titled “Valentine’s Trousers,” Bingham describes how Warner wooed Ackland, first with invitations to tea when they were in London, then a caretaking job at her newly purchased Chaldon cottage (which they would both inhabit when in the country) and with poetry. It proved successful: by 1930, they were a couple. Ackland soon ended her relationship with another woman to focus solely on Warner; for her part, Warner ended a years-long, clandestine love affair with a much-older man, who also happened to be her former music teacher.
Bingham’s portrayal of the English countryside, from Chaldon in Dorset to Sloley in Norfolk, is one of the many pleasures in this largely sympathetic telling of Ackland’s life. These remote villages, with their isolated cottages and neighbors willing to look the other way, provided a haven for the two women. In “Sylvia’s Lover,” Bingham details their early years together, including those heady first few weeks. Of this time, Ackland later wrote, “Our lives for the next few weeks scarcely knew night or day or any change in the weather: we knew nothing except our joy and pleasure and the thousand-and-one, infinitely fine adjustments we were making, to fit always closer and closer together.” Warner, after initially wanting to keep their affair secret, “expected her friends to be unshockable” and embraced the “ ‘natural’ state of being outcast with Valentine.”
After four years together, however, their relationship began to show strain. As a writer, Ackland always felt inadequate when compared to Warner, who had enjoyed success as both a poet and a novelist long before they met. In 1934, the two published a joint poetry book, titled Whether a Dove or Seagull, which contained poems they had both written but were not “individually attributed,” as Bingham puts it. This proved disastrous for Ackland. The world was just not ready for these poems, written “explicitly about women’s sexual experience.” The book damaged both their reputations, and Ackland was “relegated to a netherworld of ‘difficult’ minor poets,” never publishing another major collection in her lifetime.
A year later, Ackland came under the scrutiny of MI5, the British Security Service. Via a letter written to the Communist Party headquarters, she ’d offered them the use of her car, and herself as a driver. From then on, for most of the rest of her life, MI5 read and recorded all of her letters. More troubles occurred in the women’s lives: Ackland drank heavily, and, after five years of being faithful to Warner, began a series of affairs. Warner tolerated this behavior: “monogamy was not expected in their circle.” And yet, Warner herself seems never to have taken any lovers besides Ackland.
The women’s new commitment to leftist ideals, and their concern over the brewing Spanish Civil War, led to a rather unusual method of recruitment: “Sylvia wasn’t above using Valentine’s charms to attract prospective new members” to the Communist Party. One such recruit, Elizabeth Wade White, a descendant of colonial American poet Anne Bradstreet, would create an enormous calamity for Ackland and Warner. In 1938, Ackland and White began an affair that would last for years, absorb Ackland while undermining her mental and physical health, and test the limits of Warner’s patience. White dropped into Ackland and Warner’s lives like a bomb, refusing to go away even when the others begged her to. For years, she and Ackland communicated via long, emotionally charged letters, while Warner somehow carried on in the background.
More troubles from the world outside arrived at their doorstep in the form of World War II: in 1939, evacuees from London moved into the women’s home, Ackland’s mother Ruth’s estate in Norfolk was requisitioned, and while they were away helping Ruth pack and leave her estate, a bomb hit their Dorchester home. The war and its miseries dragged on, with food shortages, an extremely cold winter, and Ackland’s continued heavy drinking, to name just a few.
Through it all, Ackland wrote poetry. Starting at the age of fifteen, she wrote voluminously, sometimes as many as five poems in a single day. In 1930, a few months before they became a couple, Warner wrote to Ackland: “I like your way of writing, the lines are sleek and cold like the pebbles the sea has but just now left.” After the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945, Ackland wrote the poem “August 6”:
When out of the clear sky, the bright
Sky over Japan, they tumbled the death of light,
For a moment, it’s said, there was brilliance sword-sharp,
A dazzle of white, and then dark.
Into that cavernous blackness, as home to hell,
Agonies crowded; and high above in the swell
Of the gentle tide of sky, lucid and fair,
Men floated serenely as angels disporting there.
In the book’s last chapter, Bingham explores the various reasons why Ackland was not better known in her own time. Ackland’s reputation as a “gender rebel,” as well as her role as Sylvia Warner’s lover, still have the potential to eclipse her poetry. In spite of pressure to conform, Ackland “was not a conventional woman, and did not intend to be bound by social expectations.” At the same time, “during Valentine’s lifetime, one woman poet per thousand was more than enough for most people. . . . [I]t was partly Sylvia’s success that made it difficult for Valentine’s work to be ‘read on its own merits.’ ” In addition, the isolation of living in the country instead of London limited them from making contacts and attending literary functions. In spite of these impediments, Ackland hoped her work would eventually be read, and, since her death in 1969, several volumes of her poetry and letters have been published.
Starting with Valentine Ackland as a young woman in her twenties boldly exploring her sexuality, then investigating her lifelong relationship with Sylvia Townsend Warner and her identity as a poet, Bingham depicts a woman of strong appetites and convictions who was simply incapable of compromising herself. Considering the constraints that English society of the early twentieth century placed on women, Ackland’s simple yet radical act of living her life openly and fearlessly is a remarkable achievement. Her dedication to writing poetry, as well as to humanitarian causes, establishes her as an important figure of her time. With Frances Bingham’s richly detailed, meticulously researched biography, more people now have a chance to discover Valentine Ackland.
Valentine Ackland: A Transgressive Life. By Frances Bingham. Bath, UK: Handheld Press, 2021. 344 pages. £15.99.