- 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.
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!
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.
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;
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.
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.
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 the unhappiness Elizabeth ultimately caused Valentine that made the situation so hard to endure. During 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. Well, of course I can really. We all know the power and addiction of physical love. Thankfully, their relationship survived, though of course scarred hearts never completely heal. 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 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 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 Townsend Warner 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;
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 Valentine’s Day, and that it is also a tribute to Rob. Coincidentally, we too have been together for 39 wonderful years.
UPDATE – CHRISTMAS 2019
Oh my goodness. Among my Christmas gifts this year is a book by Peter Haring Judd. He was Elizabeth Wade White’s Godson and second cousin. It is titled The Akeing Heart; Letters between Sylvia Townsend Warner, Valentine Ackland and Elizabeth Wade White. The epigraph is perfect;
The book provides much on the love triangle from Elizabeth’s perspective. Also included are letters by her long term partner, Evelyn Holahan. Knowing what happened between the four women, I find the book almost too painful to read, yet impossible to put down. It’s so hard not to dislike Elizabeth intensely for her betrayal of Sylvia’s loving care and friendship. Many of the letters refer to the war; the privations endured by Sylvia and Valentine and the physical separation it created between Valentine and Elizabeth.
Fortunately the agony is relieved by joy in the commonplace. Townsend-Warner in particular writes engagingly of the home and garden she and Valentine shared, and of books, paintings and treasured pets.
I am a passionate gardener and a collector of old bottles and pill-boxes. For this reason an observation Sylvia made on New York city’s skyline (1929) is a special pleasure; ‘The skyscrapers pop up everywhere, as randomly as though someone had scattered a packet of skyscraper seed. The general effect of the skyline is much like a collection of medicine bottles, of all heights and shapes, rising from a solid floor of little pill-boxes.’
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