A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
This is Evelyn, writing in 1949 to her lover and life partner Elizabeth, on the occasion of Elizabeth’s journey to England from the USA, to visit Valentine, Elizabeth’s lover. Valentine had had a brief fling with Evelyn before Elizabeth had met either woman, and was also the lover and life partner of Sylvia. Got that? Now read on.
“First of all please understand that I will never accept, trust or respect V. for reasons I have very definitely and clearly told you. On this matter, any possible doubts I might have had (and I assure you I had none) would have been more than confirmed this past summer by the selfish histrionics she burdened you with at a time when you were already most sadly burdened. However, there is no point or need to discuss this subject as I am sure you know how I feel.
Secondly, I cannot and never will, be able to regard your great love with the degree of respect such a love of yours should have. You have rightly censured me for speaking of your relationship with the Dorset Sappho in “vulgar terms”. The grotesque is usually vulgar, and when you have had sexual relations with a man you are more aware of how grotesque it is for a woman to try to act like a man. All the wedding ring, collar-and-tie, strutting and talking, business is pathetic and grotesque. It is absolutely impossible for me to reconcile my knowledge of you – my wonderfully dignified, intelligent and steadfast Elizabeth – as being a partner to such a spectacle and grotesqueness.”
Well! This extract from the letter might sound like sour grapes, but it also sounds like a woman angry at her beloved letting herself down with a selfish and ridiculous rake. The charismatic Valentine Ackland who had enthralled all three women was a minor lesbian poet, and the partner of the novelist, critic, poet and biographer Sylvia Townsend Warner. A recent reissue of their 1934 joint poetry collection, Whether A Dove or A Seagull, revealed the authorship of the poems that had been anonymised when first published, and, as Ali Smith noted in her review in the LRB, Valentine was not the author of the most accomplished poems. History has shown us that Valentine excelled at being the object of many women’s love, and for causing much anguish and suffering to Sylvia. She was a poet, but she was and is much better known as a wrecker of hearts and a promiscuous seducer to boot.
Why does this matter? In the established biographical studies of Sylvia Townsend Warner – who is a marvellous and under-rated novelist – Valentine is tragic, misunderstood, bedevilled by her drinking and her mid-life passion for Elizabeth Wade White. I haven’t read Claire Harman’s excellent biography of Warner for some years, but my recall of the ‘Elizabeth episode’ as described there is that Elizabeth descended on a hapless Valentine, who was foolish enough to be seduced and then endured helplessly while Elizabeth rampaged around Dorset demanding that Valentine leave Sylvia and live with her. Sylvia meanwhile suffered in a civilised and frozen way, and all ended happily when Valentine stopped drinking and Elizabeth went away. I may have got some things muddled, but that’s the residual effect.
But The Akeing Heart, a large and impeccably edited collection of newly discovered letters, completely changes our understanding of the emotional dynamics of this messy and bitterly unhappy affair. Claire Harman was apparently very enthusiastic about its publication. Elizabeth – the younger of the women – was befriended by Sylvia and then Valentine in the 1920s, and holidayed with them both on and off during the 1930s. Sylvia was her adviser in art and life. But Valentine and Elizabeth fell shatteringly in love, and Valentine’s solution for this awful triangle was to propose that she and Elizabeth lived together as lovers, and Sylvia stayed with them as their companion. One of the more heart-breaking findings from the letters is that Sylvia, in desperation, agreed to this proposal for some time, until it became obvious that Elizabeth and Valentine were an explosive and destructive combination. The Second World War separated them physically, but they wrote constantly, and Elizabeth sent Sylvia and Valentine frequent food parcels and clothing from the US throughout the war, for which both women thanked her, Sylvia with careful distant courtesy, tempered by the affection she still felt for her protégée, and Valentine with grateful devotion. Elizabeth’s journey to England in 1949, the occasion of Evelyn’s letter quoted above, was her second attempt to claim Valentine as her own. I cannot understand what she thought she was doing with Evelyn, or how Evelyn endured the betrayal. This extraordinarily tangled love story is the heart of these letters.
The editor of this volume, Peter Haring Judd, was Elizabeth Wade White’s godson and executor, and was tasked with clearing out her home after her death. On discovering the letters, and masses of other personal material from her life, her family, her relationship with Evelyn Holahan, and her pioneering work as a socialist philanthropist in McCarthyite America, he realised that he had a book on his hands and the other half of a story that nobody had realised could be told. He has been meticulous in transcribing the letters, and contextualising them with additional research and from his own family knowledge. The index is particularly good, constructed to suit a researcher’s needs rather than following mechanical indexing rules. The resulting book is an important addition to the primary sources for studying Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland.
But even if you don’t care two hoots about those writers, this book relates a powerful love story set in a little-known queer literary landscape before and after the Second World War, and is embedded in the literary circles around Sylvia and Valentine and the Powys clan. The letters by all four women are beautiful, loving, passionate, desperate, angry, tense, matchlessly expressed, and packed with literary, social, political and wartime history. Sylvia Townsend Warner’s estate gave permission for her letters to be published, for which scholars of the twentieth-century novel should be thankful, because in them her writer’s voice is heard again. The letters of Valentine, Elizabeth and Evelyn twine and snap at each other, recreating their passions in articulate and controlled literary language that never forgets the meanings of words, and never uses a clumsy expression when something can be said in a way that is elegant and true. They are writers’ letters first, as well as lovers’ letters and women’s letters.
They are also possibly the most important literary letters to be published this year, but for all that, Peter Haring Judd was unable to persuade a publisher of their potential, and has chosen to self-publish via print on demand with Amazon. The resulting book’s physical quality is perfectly good, though maybe a little floppy, since it runs to nearly 400 pages. It deserves a proper publisher who will give it a little light editing, get it into library-standard format, and benefit from the sales to scholars, libraries, and Warner and Ackland completists. So who will rush to snap up this terrific opportunity?
Peter Haring Judd (ed.) The Akeing Heart. Passionate Attachments and their Aftermath: Sylvia Townsend Warner, Valentine Ackland and Elizabeth Wade White (2012) ISBN 978-1484867181 €14.57.
Kate podcasted about Sylvia Townsend Warner’s splendid first novel, Lolly Willowes, on http://www.reallylikethisbook.com.
The portrait of EWW is taken from the Mattatuck Museum website, http://www.mattatuckmuseum.org/, copyright the Mattatuck Historical Society: the images of EH and VA are taken from The Akeing Heart; the image of STW is taken from The Guardian website.