Reviewed by Gill Davies
This is a remarkable book about a remarkable woman. Valentine Ackland (1906-1969) was “transgressive” in so many ways. She was a cross-dressing lesbian; a communist from a privileged upper middle class family; in later life briefly a Roman Catholic then a Quaker; a pacifist who would have liked to go to fight in Spain; a woman with a love of shooting and driving fast cars; a journalist and a sensitive poet. She had affairs throughout her life including one that almost destroyed her and her life-long partner. The partner was the writer Sylvia Townsend Warner and that relationship has been the source of Ackland’s limited fame until now. Frances Bingham’s excellent biography restores Ackland to her deserved place as a fine writer and a fascinating woman of her time. Previous books (including accounts by Claire Harman and Wendy Mulford) largely concerned Warner although they did cover her partner’s life. Nevertheless, she remained to some extent in the shadow of the better known and more successful writer.
This biography puts Ackland legitimately in the foreground, not only for her “transgressive life” but also for her poetry which is given serious and thoughtful critical examination. Valentine was, as Bingham says, “ an inveterate self-mythologising autobiographer” who chronicled and analysed her own life in vivid and compelling detail. Bingham has drawn extensively on the resources in the Ackland-Warner archive in Dorchester, and her use of this primary material deftly illuminates the life. We are taken from a privileged but loveless childhood, through political and emotional transformations, her commitment to communism (which brought her to the ludicrous attention of MI5) and the Spanish republic, war work, mid-life crises, and a search for spiritual meaning. All of this is accompanied by Valentine’s trenchant self-examination, frequent despair and self-doubt – but also by her wit, humour and clear-eyed commentary.
At the centre of the book, inevitably, is the second great love of Valentine’s life. In 1938, she met Elizabeth Wade White, an American woman with whom she conducted a tortured affair for much of the rest of her life. We know a lot about it because both Valentine and Sylvia wrote their lives relentlessly in diaries, journals, letters (including letters to each other while they were living in the same house) and poetry. As a result, we have an unusually full and detailed account and the raw and anguished personal material (from all parties) can sometimes be difficult to read. The conduct of the affair (that included Sylvia going to live in a hotel so that Elizabeth and Valentine could be together in their house in Dorset) has long been a source of disagreement among Sylvia’s devoted readers, some of whom, myself included, have in the past been critical of Valentine’s apparently narcissistic selfishness. But as Bingham explores the progress of and commentary on the affair she deftly connects it to the troubled formation of Valentine’s personality.
While the book recounts Valentine’s many affairs, more importantly it sensitively examines her background and upbringing to show how much her active sexuality was part of her search for identity. Seduction and love-making were elements in her self-affirmation. This was also manifested in her self-presentation – her clothes (trousers and ties) and interests (mechanical things, guns, cars and so on). Her need for love and acclaim as lover and poet both derived in part from an upbringing with a father she could never please and who rejected her because of her sexuality. The family dynamic is at times horrific, with a mother who was largely passive and a cruel, manipulative older sister. The damage to Valentine’s self-esteem led, amongst other things, to a dangerous dependence on alcohol for much of her life. Her life-story was always in process – writing it, living it, reflecting on it. Thus, her other dominant feature was her intense drive to write, to be appreciated as a poet, read and admired. This too would be a source of self-doubt and anguish, as she was unable to fulfil her aspiration despite having great ability and determination. It was perhaps her professional, if not personal, misfortune to spend her life with the incomparable Sylvia Townsend Warner.
I liked the way that Bingham structures her biography. Her use of chronology is creative – instead of just running from birth to death she starts with an episode demonstrating Valentine’s self-invention. The reader is intrigued by two
women who turn up in rural Dorset in1925 with cropped hair and wearing trousers.
“The taller of the two, Mrs Turpin, had come to the country to recover from a recent operation to remove her hymen. Her friend Mrs Braden thought this was tremendously funny.” This is also a good place to start because it she goes on to describe the landscape and community that would become home to Valentine and Sylvia for most of their life together. One feels that the whole life is always in this biographer’s grasp, she knows where she is going and is an astute and sometimes ironic commentator on her subject. In her Introduction, she writes that biography “should be a kind of time-travelling co-operation between the quick and the dead; an exploration of one character by another, completed by the reader’s participation.” That is exactly what she achieves here.
Frances Bingham has been researching Ackland for at least twenty years. Carcanet published her selection of the poetry with a critical and biographical commentary in 2008 as Journey from Winter. She has had to wait longer to see her biography in print but it was worth it. And what a very well-written, measured and sensitive evaluation it is. Handheld Press are to be commended on producing such an attractive book with well-chosen photographs and a very striking cover. For readers familiar with Ackland, the book gives insightful and significant new assessments of the writing as well as the life. For those encountering Ackland for the first time, it is both an intriguing biography and a differently angled view of social, cultural and political life in the first half of the twentieth century. Do read it!
Frances Bingham, Valentine Ackland: A Transgressive Life (Handheld Press, 2021). 978-1912766406, 344 pp., paperback.
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