Reviewed by Simon
How you approach The Akeing Heart will depend largely on how familiar you are with the names Sylvia Townsend Warner, Valentine Ackland, and Elizabeth Wade White. These three are in the subtitle of the book, which declares itself to be their letters. If this is the first you’ve heard of them, or you’ve just come across Warner as a novelist, then you might be expecting something rather literary and spirited. If you’ve read Claire Harman’s biography of Warner, or Warner’s diary, then you’ll be prepared for it to be rather more emotionally taut. But nothing could quite ready the reader for the experience that The Akeing Heart supplies.
I had previously read quite a lot by and about Warner, and so I knew the basic facts. Warner and Ackland were partners for many decades, living together in Dorset. Wade White was the third corner of the love triangle – and, at one point, was moved into the house while Warner moved out, waiting to hear which of them Ackland had chosen. In Warner’s diaries, she is agonised but compliant with this experiment – in Harman’s (excellent) biography, it is difficult not to feel furious with Ackland for her selfishness. In these letters, we get a new and fascinating perspective on the affair that shows nothing is quite as simple as we might expect.
The growing love between Ackland and Wade White, and its oscillations, are the crux of the book – but it is one peak amid a mountain range. We see first how Warner and Ackland together grew to love and value Wade White – often begging her to come and spend time with them, often while she was in her American home. They had bonded over shared interests – the same politics (particularly around the Spanish civil war); the same artistic outlook (notably the painter and textilist John Craske – and I recommend seeking out Julia Blackburn’s eccentric but brilliant biography of him).
In the first half or more of the book, all is well. Ackland and Warner often write at the same moment, and we can put together their growing friendship with Wade White, where all seems equal. It is only on one of her visits – a visit longed for by all – that the love affair between Ackland and Wade White begins. Judd intersperses other letters that Wade White wrote, diary entries, and other factors as part of his well-judged and sparing editorial work – we see it is a transformative moment for Wade White, as she begins to understand her sexuality.
It is not for another ten years that it is all brought back to the fore, and Ackland’s unsuccessful experiment begins – moving Warner out and Wade White in. But in between – and this is the main revelation of the book – everybody still writes to each other as placidly and kindly as before. I had no idea that Warner wrote generous, loving, funny letters to Wade White, even once she knew that they were something akin to rivals. The Akeing Heart’s achievement is filling in all the gaps of a Warner-centric view – showing how complex and many-layered these relationships were.
Judd is a relative of Wade White’s – his mother was her cousin – and this is how he had access to the previously undiscovered trove of letters and diaries. He has selected excellently for this collection, and the linking text is a masterclass in how to frame context without becoming too enraptured with one’s own voice. My only real criticism is the slightly affected title. If ‘the akeing heart’ is explained, then I missed it – or perhaps it’s a reference I don’t understand. Either way, it seems a bit of a silly name to give the book, to me.
I hope I’m not biased when I say that the main attraction in this collection is that nobody writes letter like Sylvia Townsend Warner. I sometimes wonder if they were her greatest moments of writing. And certainly you could spot a Warner letter a mile away – there is something so identifiable about her precise but unusual use of language, throwing in moments of imagery that are profundities hidden by frivolity. As an example, I love the archaeologists bit here:
The town council of Dorchester decided to build themselves a new town hall. They dug the foundations and found the site had been used already: a roman villa, with an extremely beautiful and perfect mosaic pavement in it. Now the archaeologists have got in (like the moth) and the town hall seems indefinitely postponed.
And, particularly the earlier parts of the collection, before emotions run high, we see lots of political and cultural conversations. It includes a fascinating angle on the Spanish Civil War, and fundraising for those affected by it – but also delightful literary incidents:
I wished you had been with us the other day. The Writer’s Association here got up a book sale for the Spanish Medical aid. We raised two hundred pounds, the lord knows how, for it was not very well organised, and badly publicised. It would have amused you to watch the demeanour of the authors present. I was selling at the stall of autographed books, and Miss Rose Macaulay has presented us with several copies of her various works, duly signed. And at intervals she came around to see how they were selling. It was terrible, for they were not selling well. She became arider and arider with each visit, until Valentine and I were reduced to sneaking volumes off the stall and sitting on them, whenever we saw her in the offing.
It is obviously not Judd’s fault that the most climactic emotional moments were not those that could be documented in letter – they were hardly likely to write to each other from different rooms of the same house – but there is still a selection from the period, including those to Wade White’s longsuffering partner Evelyn. Love letters do not make for such good reading as witty ones, and it feels both more prying and more embarrassing to see Ackland and Wade White declare themselves to one another. More impactful are the handful where Warner lays down the law, post-experiment – showing resilience once she is sure of Ackland’s choice. The most politely appalled, though, is Evelyn’s to Ackland, when the latter writes demanding to know her intentions towards Wade White. The whole range of human emotions seem on show in the collection, with all the nuance that brings.
The new publishing house Handheld Press have several silos – new fiction, classic fiction, research – and The Akeing Heart by Peter Haring Judd is the first title under the research banner, and was originally published in 2013 by Peter Haring Judd – which I assume means it was self-published. If so, it is wonderful that the book has been rescued and published in this very attractive edition.
Simon is an Editor at Large of Shiny New Books.
Peter Haring Judd, The Akeing Heart (Handheld Press, 2018). 978-1999828035, 464pp., hardback.
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