20 May 2021
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At last, a biography of Valentine Ackland.
‘One November evening in 1925, two young women from London arrived at the village of Chaldon, in Dorset. They brought with them two suitcases, a gramophone, and a wooden boxful of records; the bare necessities. Both wore trousers and had Eton-cropped hair. The taller of the two, Mrs Turpin, had come to the country to recover from a recent operation to remove her hymen.’
Mrs Turpin was Valentine Ackland, on the run from her recent disastrous marriage. She was soon to meet the love of her life, Sylvia Townsend Warner, already a celebrity for her dashing debut novel Lolly Willowes. They would live in Dorset together in a passionate relationship until Valentine’s death in 1969.
Frances Bingham has written the definitive biography of this remarkable cross-dressing woman, poet and activist, recovering an important part of British lesbian history and creating a testament to queerness and gender identity in Valentine’s transgressive life. Her biography will be published on what would have been Valentine’s 115th birthday.
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Valentine Ackland was a dedicated poet, deeply involved with Communism during the 1930s, and an environmentalist and peace campaigner. Recently released MI5 files show that she was blacklisted for confidential work during the Second World War, and remained under long-term surveillance. Despite her commitment to Sylvia, Valentine had many affairs with women who fell for her androgynous beauty and her masterful conduct of an amour. She also struggled with alcoholism, but the relationship with Sylvia survived all challenges.
You may also be interested in …
Sylvia made a friend in America, Elizabeth Wade White, who was a young poet and a dissatisfied heiress. Their relationship turned bitter when Valentine and Elizabeth fell in love, and Elizabeth would not let go. Read the story of their tumultuous relationships in Peter Haring Judd’s The Akeing Heart.
While her first novel, a fantasy, was succeeded by realist works and historical novels, Sylvia did not abandon the genre. In 1940 she wrote The Cat’s Cradle Book, a wildly imaginative collection of fables purporting to come from the tradition of cats telling tales to their kittens, and prefaced it with a long short story about her life with Valentine in a Norfolk manor, with their cats. These, and other fantasy short fictions, have been republished as Of Cats and Elfins.
After Valentine’s death Sylvia Townsend Warner made a change in her writing. ‘I’m sick of the human heart. I want to write something completely different.’ She wrote the dark fantastical stories that would become Kingdoms of Elfin.
For more information about Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland, visit the Sylvia Townsend Warner Society website.