SYLVIA AND VALENTINE; A LOVE STORY

I have read many love stories over the years, both true and fictional.  However, none have affected me so powerfully as that of  an English couple;  the writer Sylvia Townsend Warner and the  poet Valentine Ackland.

Originally I came upon their story in  a library  copy of a biography of Sylvia by Claire Harman,  first published in 1989.

Paperback edition, pub. 2015

Cover of the paperback edition, pub. 2015

In 2016 I discovered  the book was still in print, and asked my husband Rob  to buy it for me as a Christmas gift.  More than 20 years on, I could recite many lines by heart. The second reading  still made me  smile….and weep!

Sylvia at work.

Sylvia at work.

The pair met in  the autumn of 1930, when Sylvia was 36 and Valentine 24. It was Sylvia’s first same sex love affair. Valentine, despite being  much younger, had a  brief marriage behind her, plus a string of affairs with both men and women.

Sylvia and Valentine.

Sylvia and Valentine.

The ethereally 'still face' of Valentine, that captured Sylvia's heart.

The ethereally ‘still face’ of Valentine, that captured Sylvia’s heart.

Of their various homes together it was  17thC Frankfort Manor in Norfolk where their happiness was most  complete. They shared a love of nature and gardening, and thus  the old home was perfect (as it would be for me!).

Oddly enough, I included a charming  gesture  by Valentine at Frankfort Manor in one of my own books ; ‘Another day, in full sun, I was picking green peas into a colander and saw the earth near my feet heaving, and a mole emerged.I caught it instantly, in the colander, and carried it into Sylvia, who was writing in her room. and set it down by the typewriter on her desk.’   Rob and I once had a similar experience in a  country churchyard, while walking the Thames Path. We didn’t manage to catch it though.

Claire Harman created a wonderful image of the house and its surrounds;

Extract from Claire Harman's biography of Sylvia Townsend Warner.

Extract from Claire Harman’s biography of Sylvia Townsend Warner.

When income from writing failed to cover expenses, Sylvia tried to sell homemade  products from their garden. It all sounds delightful, especially the chestnut jam, but the venture was not a success.

 

sylviawarnerdesbowerbd-003

Valentine in Squire mode!

Valentine in Squire mode!

Although Sylvia seemed curiously unaware  of  any problem, Valentine  struggled with alcohol addiction for many years of their life together.  Her lack of success  as a poet and her financial  reliance on Sylvia  meant that  her self esteem took a battering.  She was often wracked by self loathing. Through it all, Sylvia’s love and loyalty never wavered.

Valentine was also serially unfaithful, although the affairs were rarely serious.  It seems wrong to judge her when Sylvia herself was so generous. She explained with simple sincerity that she loved Valentine and  never desired anyone else. However, she understood that things were different for her younger partner. Her acceptance of the dalliances was  definitely not martyrdom; ‘She was so skilled in love that I never expected her to forego love-adventures….they left me unharmed and her unembarrassed.’
For the most part this was true, but there came a time when things were not so simple.

LOVE HURTS

The gravest threat to their life together was a serious  affair Valentine began  in  1938 with a wealthy young American , Elizabeth Wade White. For Sylvia, it was  also  the unhappiness Elizabeth  ultimately  caused Valentine that made the situation so hard to endure.   During the the most traumatic period Elizabeth arrived  from America to spend a  month with  Valentine.  Sylvia actually  moved out of their home, although Valentine sent her daily letters;

Everything that is our love is first-best: it is whole and perfect, and even though I have become  maimed and so bitterly defrauded you. still because of your truth and integrity  (in you and in loving me) it has always kept the quality of being perfect and whole.’

Oh dear, it takes a lot to make me cry, but I found reading abut this whole business  almost unbearable.   I cannot  fathom how she could hurt Sylvia in this way; or risk losing her. Thankfully, their love and their  relationship survived.  When the affair  was finally at an end (prolonged by Valentine and Elizabeth’s separation during  World War II), Valentine wrote to Sylvia;

‘I love you entirely…with my whole heart and soul, and have loved you so from the first moment and shall, for sure and sure, until the last, and if there is never  a last moment, how happy I shall be because then I need never stop being in love with you, and I cannot for the life of me think of a greater happiness than that.’

Her wish was fulfilled, though in tragic circumstances.  After 39 years together, the couple  were parted only by Valentine’s  premature death from  metastasized breast cancer in 1969.  She was 62. Following  cremation, Sylvia carried the precious remains to a funeral service in St Nicholas’s church, East Chaldon, where they had met and fallen in love;

I followed Mr Tate up the steep path into the church. holding my Love and my mate in my arms.’

It was only when reading Valentine’s diaries after her death that Sylvia understood the depth of her partner’s self doubt, which had even led her to question  Sylvia’s love.  And in her grief,  Sylvia felt  she had  misunderstood  and hurt Valentine by accepting the infidelities as she did.  Fortunately, she had reassured Valentine in a letter written in 1968, when it was clear her beloved was facing death. The final paragraph  said everything,

‘My love, my Love. And my heart’s thanks for all you have given me, all your understanding, your support, your tenderness, your courage, your trust. And your Beauty, outside and in, and your delightfulness. Never has any woman been so well and truly loved as I.’

Who are we to suggest this wasn’t so?

On the back of the page  Valentine had written, ‘This letter in my greatest treasure and must be carefully  preserved and given  back to Sylvia if I die.’

 

Sylvia in later life, with her beloved cats.

Sylvia in later life, with her beloved cats.

‘Widowed’,  Sylvia  lived on alone at  Frome Vauchurch in Dorset, their home since 1937. A letter written by Valentine in 1968, towards the end of her life  had  gently urged ….‘Try to live on, because life is so beautiful; earth and trees and music and poetry and creatures….’

Sylvia in the garden she loved and nurtured at Frome Vauchurch.

Sylvia in the garden she loved and nurtured at Frome Vauchurch.

Sylvia found solace in work, close friends, her garden, her cats, and in compiling  the couple’s hundreds of love letters for publication. The main criticism when they appeared was that there were too many avowals of love by both parties, and too many gentle admonishments  to rest, eat well, stay warm  etc.  But of course this  is what sustains and enriches a long relationship  (there is a reason why my Rob’s nickname is  ‘Dr Bob.’).

Sylvia died on May 1, 1978 aged 84.  Her coffin contained an envelope marked V.A.   She  was laid to rest with Valentine under the same  stone.

I so admire this couple. They were brave and honest, and not just in the openness of their relationship.  They lived entirely by their   social and political convictions. At one point they were successfully sued after standing up for the rights of a badly treated servant girl. It was huge financial blow, and the cause of them having to leave Frankfort Manor.  For many years they were committed members of  the Communist Party, which certainly hampered  Sylvia’s career.

The epitaph carved on their grave  after Valentine’s death translates as  ‘I did not wholly die.’  Certainly she lived on in Sylvia, who was comforted by dreams so vivid she was  sometimes woken by  her dead lover’s presence;

sylvias-dream

Together forever beneath a single stone.

Together forever beneath a single stone.

How I would have enjoyed knowing Sylvia. Her personality is perfectly expressed in a letter of thanks she wrote to a close friend in response to  a gift. I included it  in this article. Tiny Gifts Received With Grace

Now that I have reached the end of this little piece  I realize  it is also a Valentine’s Day  tribute to Rob.  Coincidentally, we too have been together for  39  wonderful years.

FEEL FREE TO LEAVE A COMMENT IN THE BOX BELOW. REMEMBER TO COMPLETE THE ANTI-SPAM SUM BEFORE PRESSING ‘SUBMIT’

 

 

 

9 Comments
  1. Firstly, please may I say many, many congratulations on your 39 years together with Rob. I am proud to know you both as friends.
    And what a brave story you tell about Sylvia and Valentine. I don’t want to even think about any deep psycho-analysis on the individuals, but feel that Sylvia certainly seemed to draw the short straw at times. I suspect Valentine’s contribution to their relationship, and her ‘affairs’ contributed a lot to her own eventual problems. Sylvia’s generosity in both wealth and love appeared to be faultless, although her behaviour was somewhat naive at times. It wasn’t an easy period in life for same sex couples to be in love, although coming from a well-heeled background certainly helped, especially when you had an estate large enough to hide from neighbours.

    • Pauline

      Thanks Marcia. I will always be conflicted over this couple’s relationship. We have been discussing it at length in a writing group. Sylvia is a bit of a hero of mine.

  2. I have taken note of the biography and author, so hope to read the book myself in due course.

    • Pauline

      I sent the author a brief note to say I was pleased it was still in print, which she very graciously responded to. I read the other books re Sylvia and Valentine at the State Library.

  3. A moving story for Valentine’s Day – thank you, Pauline.

    • Pauline

      Thanks Ann. Sylvia is someone I would love to have met. I’ve never forgotten the special thank you letter she wrote to a friend about the gift of a matchbox. I must add the link.

  4. That was such a heart-rending real life story of love and devotion. I don’t know whether I could have forgiven so easily as Sylvia did. There was such patience in their love for each other that I found it hard to imagine.

  5. How beautiful! How lovely to read such a powerful real-life love story. @mirymom1 from
    Balancing Act

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