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20th May 2021 Handheld Biographies 2
‘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.
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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 her relationship with Sylvia survived all challenges.
‘The lovers (Warner was then 37, Ackland 24) knew that they had embarked on a kind of relationship which, if not exactly unheard of, would take some figuring out. The emotional generosity and sense of adventure that had first drawn them together would – just about – see them through an enduring creative and domestic partnership extraordinary by any standards … the rigorous observance of anniversaries was by no means the only ritualised aspect of this brave new relationship. Bingham rightly insists on its basis as a defiance of convention. But she also wonders whether Ackland might not have seen herself at time as imitating a traditional model of masculinity, in which she was the husband and Warner the wife, while her many other conquests played the part of mistress or casual fling.’ – David Trotter, London Review of Books
‘A new biography of Ackland, out next month, is to reveal the level of secret service confusion about this unconventional pair of writers at the beginning of the long period during which they were both objects of state scrutiny. All their correspondence was stopped and read by MI5 officers without their knowledge, and Ackland’s later attempts to enlist for significant war work were blocked.’ – The Observer
A N Wilson liked the book in The Oldie: ‘Frances Bingham is a doughty champion and a good biographer’.
Just look at the headline from the Daily Mail‘s review: ‘The cross-dressing Communist lesbian, her closet gay husband … and a love story like no other’. Reviewer Ysenda Maxtone-Grahame loved it.
‘Ackland was a powerhouse in facing up to what she saw as an unfair world for women and workers and with this new biography Bingham reminds us what an amazingly modern woman Ackland was.’ – The Morning Star
‘Bingham has given us an admirable biography about a complex subject who was as beautiful to look at as she was difficult to love’ – Gay and Lesbian Review
‘The first full-length study of this poet’s life and work … her poems well deserve Frances Bingham’s sympathetic and considered appraisal’ – Times Literary Supplement
‘ Considering the constraints that English society of the early twentieth century placed on women, Ackland’s simple yet radical act of living her life openly and fearlessly is a remarkable achievement. Her dedication to writing poetry, as well as to humanitarian causes, establishes her as an important figure of her time. With Frances Bingham’s richly detailed, meticulously researched biography, more people now have a chance to discover Valentine Ackland.’ – The Georgia Review
‘This is a remarkable book about a remarkable woman … 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 … a very well-written, measured and sensitive evaluation.’ – Shiny New Books
‘Frances Bingham has penned a definitive biography of an important poet of the early 20th century, which includes an incisive analysis of gender roles of the era. Impeccably researched and vividly detailed, the book is also an indelible achievement to queer literature. Ultimately A Transgressive Life is a testament to Valentine’s courage and loyalty on all fronts.’ – EDGE Media Network
‘Describing her subject as “a complex, mercurial human being”, Bingham prompts the reader to keep turning the pages of this well-researched, idiosyncratic, and fascinating biography … Bingham brings Ackland, a complicated and complex woman, and her poetry, to a new audience.’ – New York Journal of Books
‘Frances Bingham’s biography is well researched, drawing on interviews and documents, some of which were classified because of Ackland’s communist activities. Bingham takes us through Ackland’s life, interlaced with her poetry and writing, and we get a real sense of the struggles she faced.’ – JustWriteRight
‘Bingham justifies the biography largely on the basis of Ackland’s poetic merits, not those of her more famous spouse, claiming that Ackland made her mark in a variety of modes …. By ransacking the archives for Ackland’s own accounts of her life and work, Bingham succeeds in shifting our focus from the bright star of Sylvia Townsend Warner to the dimmer light of her less fortunate partner, who was cursed with the vocation of the poet without the genius.’ – Journal of the Sylvia Townsend Warner Society
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 Sylvia’s first novel, a fantasy, was succeeded by realist works and historical novels, she 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 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.