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Sylvia Townsend Warner – a Biography, by Claire Harman

GLBT Week on Vulpes Libris

In amongst the fiction this week, I want to celebrate the remarkable love story of two writers, Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland, whose passionate partnership forms a vivid and deeply moving narrative in this fine biography. Why did I think of this book, for this week? I read it many years ago, was exhilarated and touched by the eroticism and unselfishness of this love affair, and one passage stuck in my mind, ever since.

‘Asked once why she had never been unfaithful to Valentine, Sylvia said “Because she was the best lover I ever had.” ‘ (p122)

How I admired the candour, the open-heartedness of that answer. And there’s another word I’m hunting for – something like joy, relish, happiness. Sylvia and Valentine caused each other immense hurt at times; each misunderstood the other, and failed to confide when one word might have made the difference. Yet they found the greatest joy in one another.

Sylvia Townsend Warner is in my opinion possibly one of the finest, and most unjustly neglected writers of the 20th century. Because her literary voice was so idiosyncratic, her novels so different one from another, her poetry and short stories appealing to a different audience perhaps, somehow she has never been recognised as having produced the coherent body of work that puts her in the same rank as Virginia Woolf or Elizabeth Bowen or Iris Murdoch – yet I think there may be a case that she belongs there. She had an extraordinary mind, and an effortless skill with words that I find breath-taking – such is the clarity and energy of her imagination and intellect. She had a haphazard education as the daughter and only child of a much revered master at Harrow School. She became the protegee (and mistress for the next 17 years) of the eminent musicologist Percy Buck while still in her teens. Through his influence, and her precocious musical ability, she became one of the editors of a monumental edition of Tudor church music – a remarkable achievement of musical archaeology – until she turned her back on music for fiction and poetry as soon as this project was completed. Throughout her 20s, she tried her hand at poetry and fiction, and fell in with a circle of writers that included the Powys family, based in a remote village in Devon, Chaldon Herring. This is where her life converged with that of the poet Valentine Ackland, and, after they had circled one another warily for a while, where they experienced a ‘coup de foudre’.

Valentine Ackland was 24 years old to Sylvia’s 36, and had already led a reckless emotional life of affairs with men and women, one dangerously sadistic, and an annulled marriage. Sylvia exuded confidence and strength of mind; Valentine was plagued by doubts and fears. From the outset, they were completely open to one another as the most passionate lovers, but hid thoughts, feelings and actions from each other. They forged a life of loving rituals – keeping anniversaries, of the day they found the cottage in Chaldon that was their first home; the day they gave their word to each other; St Valentine’s Day and other days that had special meaning for them. They lived in a succession of homes in the country, where their first work was to create a garden together. They shared strongly left-leaning political views, and joined the Communist Party in 1935. They were soon writing for the left-wing press, and travelling to Spain (crossing the border with false passports) to attend an International Congress of Writers, and coming under fire in Madrid. This intensified Sylvia’s anti-fascist, pro-communist views, that lasted well into the 1960s, while Valentine’s waned and she drew closer to the Roman Catholic Church, and once disillusioned by Vatican II, to the Quakers. Somehow, they were so often moving in different directions.

The amazing record of their inner and outer lives, and of their joint life, is formed of a body of love letters, written not just when they were apart, but when they were together, which contained the feelings they shared with one another; and diaries that each kept, and kept from each other. Valentine also wrote a memoir, For Sylvia, in which she sought to explain through her life story the root of her feelings of doubt and insecurity. Sylvia, the more successful of the two writers, felt deeply Valentine’s discouragement, and tried to make it well with a joint publication of their poems, without attributions. This misfired, in critics’ attempts to decode the poems, which pleased nobody. Valentine, for her part, among the rest of her unresolved problems, managed to conceal from Sylvia for many years that she was an alcoholic, and that setbacks in her writing career, and perceived fears about her life with Sylvia drove her back to drinking. Meanwhile, each was fearing what would happen to the other if widowed, and were secretly making provision, saving money that might have been needed for their immediate debts. It was after Valentine’s death that Sylvia, reading her diaries, could reproach herself with her lack of sensitivity to all that was left unspoken by Valentine. Sylvia never stood in the way of Valentine’s affairs, only realising later that this only added to Valentine’s unhappiness and lack of self-worth. Sylvia could have fought and won, which was Valentine was crying out for her to do, but never articulating – she could have refused to compromise. What sad hindsight. However, so many of these decisions to keep counsel, to watch and wait, were taken through an exquisite sense of the risks to the delicate poise of their relationship. More openness, more sharing, less care, less wariness could have blown it apart. As it is, this was a love-match that lasted nearly 40 years, and was only broken by Valentine’s death in 1969.

But, oh, the beauty of what they wrote about each other – how conscious they were of each other’s physical presence, how they consumed each other with their gaze. Here is Valentine, in 1931, watching Sylvia:

Sylvia is writing a poem, I think – judging by the sharply indrawn breath, and her endless cigarettes. She is curled up on the chair next to her writing table, elbows on the table, and one leg curled under her small buttocks. Her hair looks very black against her pretty pink coat. How narrow her hands are – How deeply I love her. My eyes constantly stray from this page, across to her. How much, and how completely I love her. (p122)

Claire Harman’s biography is a book full of astonishment. She unveils in a masterly way the interlocking levels of consciousness and self-consciousness in this deeply loving, deeply physical, deeply sacrificial relationship of love. I do not think I have ever read a love story like it, not even in fiction.

Claire Harman: Sylvia Townsend Warner – a Biography. Paperback ed. Minerva, 1991. 358pp.
ISBN 9780749390867

10 comments on “Sylvia Townsend Warner – a Biography, by Claire Harman

  1. annebrooke
    May 18, 2010

    This sounds amazing! And is now definitely on my list – thanks, Hilary! Axxx

  2. The Literary Omnivore
    May 18, 2010

    That quote towards the end is absolutely lovely, and it’s heartbreaking that Sylvia never knew what Valentina truly wanted until too late. This sounds wonderful.

  3. Jackie
    May 18, 2010

    I want to echo Anne & say how amazing this book (& relationship) sounds. I don’t believe I’ve heard of either writer before and now I’d like to know more about them.Your review was excellent! You gave us the meaty parts of the book, general bios, great quotes & leavened it all with personal feelings. It’s a complex and satisfying post.

  4. rosyb
    May 18, 2010

    Quite a sad feel to this as well, though, isn’t there? And does anyone else feel there is some strange irony that a relationship that needed so much care and secresy and privacy is now set open for the rest of the world to see?

    It was something I was wondering about for this week – the idea of diaries and the value of seeing the realness of same sex relationships in the past and how inspiring that can be…versus the encroaching on someone else’s private life. I don’t think I can quite make up my mind about that question. But I do often wonder why people keep their secret diaries – for themselves or for someone else in the future?

    What do you think, Hilary?

  5. Shelley
    May 18, 2010

    It’s certainly true that “unselfishness” and “love affair” are two terms that are not often mentioned together.

  6. Nikki
    May 18, 2010

    This sounds like the sort of relationship you only really find in fiction. That it’s real only makes it even more heart-breaking. The idea that they had this long affair, loved each other so deeply, and get misunderstood just a few key things about each other is really interesting. Human beings are funny things!

  7. Hilary
    May 18, 2010

    As ever, thanks for all these comments, and for the kind words.

    Rosy, you’ve picked up on a focus for slight unease I had when I started to re-read this book, which lessened as I went along, and, Nikki, I think you’ve hit on something significant.

    I feel almost as though these two writers were living a literary life. They concealed thoughts and feelings from each other, but they recorded them carefully and, I feel, with intention.

    There is an interesting line of speculation in considering what if Valentine had outlived Sylvia – after all, she was considerably younger. Their personalities and outlook on life differed so. Sylvia, as the survivor, had the instinct to reveal, analyse, share with her circle of friends her emotional reaction to losing Valentine, and the meaning of their relationship to her sense of self. She asked a friend to make a drawing of Valentine after her death. She re-read all these records, found comfort in analysing her reactions to them, and even edited their love letters, linking them with narrative (not for publication in her lifetime, but I’m sure you’ll agree, she can only have done this with some sort of instinct to preserve, record, shape and tell the story of their love for each other). The Diaries of both are archived in Dorchester Museum. Other personal papers are in archives in England and the US. Sylvia’s literary executor edited her letters for publication in 1982. And so on.

    I ask myself – would Valentine have had the same instincts? Or might she have taken a different path of destruction and concealment? There can only be pure speculation about this. There is no way of knowing the answer.

  8. Moira
    May 21, 2010

    I’ve finally found the time to read this properly … and what extraordinary, melancholy and ultimately really rather sad reading it makes. The human heart is a very strange creature indeed.

    And that quote is exquisite – it captures perfectly the way love colours, sharpens and focuses the way we view the world.

  9. Judith Bond
    June 1, 2010

    A great post and some very thoughtful comments. If anyone would like to know more about Sylvia Townsend Warner or Valentine Ackland, visit the Sylvia Townsend Warner Society website at for information and details of the activities of this Society, which has about 130 members. Incidentally, I should point out that Chaldon Herring or East Chaldon, where STW and VA first lived, is in Dorset, not Devon, and our Society holds an annual meeting in Dorset. We very often visit the village and the graveyard with its commemorative stone for Sylvia and Valentine.

  10. Hilary
    June 1, 2010

    Thank you, Judith, and apologies for my error in placing East Chaldon in the wrong county (now worrying madly how I let that happen ……).

    I’m very grateful indeed for the additional information, and delighted to find out that there is a Sylvia Townsend Warner Society.

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This entry was posted on May 18, 2010 by in Entries by Hilary, Non-fiction: biography and tagged , , .



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