The Akeing Heart: Letters between Sylvia Townsend Warner, Valentine Ackland and Elizabeth Wade White is a story of tormented literary lesbian relationships. The British novelist and poet Sylvia Townsend Warner made a new American friend in 1929, Elizabeth Wade White. She came to England to threaten Sylvia’s happiness with her life companion Valentine Ackland. Elizabeth’s neglected partner Evelyn Holahan, also a friend of Sylvia’s, watched stoically as Elizabeth and Valentine played out their passionate and damaging affair.
Valentine was the serial seducer, and Elizabeth the demanding lover claiming her sexuality for the first time. Sylvia kept faith in anger and despair, while Evelyn offered Elizabeth realistic fidelity to balance Valentine’s romanticism.
Diva Magazine published a glowing review of The Akeing Heart on 23 April 2018: ‘Peter Haring Judd has curated the most thrilling, romantic and heartbreaking accounts of a major 20th-century literary love story. Covering the period of the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War, in 1930s New York and Connecticut and in 1950s Dorset, this is an intense and beautifully written exploration of two decades in the lives of four women.’
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Helen Sutherland in the Sylvia Townsend Warner Journal (April 2020) definitely approved of the Handheld Press edition. ‘In reviewing [the original edition of] The Akeing Heart … I identified a number of shortcomings, some of which were sufficiently serious to damage the book considerably as a basis for further research. Nevertheless, in conclusion I argued that “in an ideal world The Akeing Heart would be picked up by a publisher, given the benefit of a firm editorial hand and issued in a revised edition”. Well, sometimes you just get lucky, and fortune, in the guise of Handheld Press, has smiled on The Akeing Heart, making the ideal actual … although the content is unchanged, the well-judged and sensitive editorial interventions have created an entirely different reading experience: the distractions are gone and the women’s voices can be clearly heard.’
Shiny New Books liked this a lot: ‘The growing love between Ackland and Wade White, and its oscillations, are the crux of the book – but it is one peak amid a mountain range … the linking text is a masterclass in how to frame context without becoming too enraptured with one’s own voice … this is the main revelation of the book – everybody still writes to each other as placidly and kindly as before. I had no idea that Warner wrote generous, loving, funny letters to Wade White, even once she knew that they were something akin to rivals. The Akeing Heart’s achievement is filling in all the gaps of a Warner-centric view – showing how complex and many-layered these relationships were.’
Watch our video, in which we explain the background to the book, and the importance of recovering women’s history.
Download and read our Warner biography
Reviews of the first edition (2013)
‘This long-hidden treasure-trove of letters, with its many wonderful new photographs and illustrations, is a revelation. The “other woman’s” voice is heard, and the shape of the Warner-Ackland-White love-triangle changes subtly. The Akeing Heart is the most important and startling addition in decades to what we know about these perennially fascinating writers.’ Claire Harman, author of Sylvia Townsend Warner. A Biography and The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner
‘Judd’s story is an engrossing one, and the best of the Warner letters evince her characteristic joy in language and observation. Most moving are her efforts to retain Elizabeth’s friendship while allowing the affair to take its course.’ Michael Caines, The Times Literary Supplement
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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.
Frances Bingham has written the first biography of Valentine Ackland. You can order it here.
For more information about Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland, visit the Sylvia Townsend Warner Society website.