In the late 1930s—war in Spain, the threat of another great European war, and heated politics—the lives of three literary women became entwined through friendship, shared interests, and sex. Two were English and lived in Dorset for much of their lives, Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978), poet, novelist, short story writer, and her life partner, Valentine Ackland (1906-1969), poet. Elizabeth Wade White (1906-1994), the future biographer of the poet Anne Bradstreet, was Connecticut-born and educated. The depth of feeling in the affair between Valentine and Elizabeth changed the emotional lives of all three women, the emotions remaining with them for the rest of their lives. They each experienced “The countless gold of the akeing heart,” in Blake’s poignant phrase.
Amazon Posting; Kaite Welch review, April
The Akeing Heart
Sylvia Townsend Warner, Valentine Ackland & Elizabeth Wade White, Ed. Peter Haring Judd
My note for posting on Amazon: 5/1/18
Author’s note. I commend Handheld Press on the elegant treatment they have given this revised
edition. The book is designed beautifully in highly legible type, the dozens of expressive
photographs are imaginatively placed on the pages, the hardcover copy fits comfortably in the
hand. What a satisfaction it is to have this haunting account of the joys and pains of love and
physical passion be so winningly presented.
Here is a review just in of this new edition:
In this revised edition of love letters between novelist and poet Sylvia Townsend Warner, her
partner Valentine Ackland and the two other women who occasionally came between them, 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.
Kaite Welch, Diva: Books, April 2018
Reviewed by Simon 6/15/2018
How you approach The Akeing Heart will depend largely
on how familiar you are with the names Sylvia Townsend Warner, Valentine Ackland, and
Elizabeth Wade White. These three are in the subtitle of the book, which declares itself to be
their letters. If this is the first you’ve heard of them, or you’ve just come across Warner as a
novelist, then you might be expecting something rather literary and spirited. If you’ve read Claire
Harman’s biography of Warner, or Warner’s diary, then you’ll be prepared for it to be rather
more emotionally taut. But nothing could quite ready the reader for the experience that The
Akeing Heart supplies.
I had previously read quite a lot by and about Warner, and so I knew the basic facts. Warner and
Ackland were partners for many decades, living together in Dorset. Wade White was the third
corner of the love triangle – and, at one point, was moved into the house while Warner moved
out, waiting to hear which of them Ackland had chosen. In Warner’s diaries, she is agonised but
compliant with this experiment – in Harman’s (excellent) biography, it is difficult not to feel
furious with Ackland for her selfishness. In these letters, we get a new and fascinating
perspective on the affair that shows nothing is quite as simple as we might expect.
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. We see first how Warner and Ackland together
grew to love and value Wade White – often begging her to come and spend time with them,
often while she was in her American home. They had bonded over shared interests – the same
politics (particularly around the Spanish civil war); the same artistic outlook (notably the painter
and textilist John Craske – and I recommend seeking out Julia Blackburn’s eccentric but brilliant
biography of him).
In the first half or more of the book, all is well. Ackland and Warner often write at the same
moment, and we can put together their growing friendship with Wade White, where all seems
equal. It is only on one of her visits – a visit longed for by all – that the love affair between
Ackland and Wade White begins. Judd intersperses other letters that Wade White wrote, diary
entries, and other factors as part of his well-judged and sparing editorial work – we see it is a
transformative moment for Wade White, as she begins to understand her sexuality.
It is not for another ten years that it is all brought back to the fore, and Ackland’s unsuccessful
experiment begins – moving Warner out and Wade White in. But in between – and 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
Judd is a relative of Wade White’s – his mother was her cousin – and this is how he had access
to the previously undiscovered trove of letters and diaries. He has selected excellently for this
collection, and the linking text is a masterclass in how to frame context without becoming too
enraptured with one’s own voice. My only real criticism is the slightly affected title. If ‘the
akeing heart’ is explained, then I missed it – or perhaps it’s a reference I don’t understand. Either
way, it seems a bit of a silly name to give the book, to me.
I hope I’m not biased when I say that the main attraction in this collection is that nobody writes
letters like Sylvia Townsend Warner. I sometimes wonder if they were her greatest moments of
writing. And certainly you could spot a Warner letter a mile away – there is something so
identifiable about her precise but unusual use of language, throwing in moments of imagery that
are profundities hidden by frivolity. As an example, I love the archaeologists bit here:
The town council of Dorchester decided to build themselves a new town hall. They dug the
foundations and found the site had been used already: a roman villa, with an extremely beautiful
and perfect mosaic pavement in it. Now the archaeologists have got in (like the moth) and the
town hall seems indefinitely postponed.
And, particularly the earlier parts of the collection, before emotions run high, we see lots of
political and cultural conversations. It includes a fascinating angle on the Spanish Civil War, and
fundraising for those affected by it – but also delightful literary incidents:
I wished you had been with us the other day. The Writer’s Association here got up a book sale
for the Spanish Medical aid. We raised two hundred pounds, the lord knows how, for it was not
very well organised, and badly publicised. It would have amused you to watch the demeanour of
the authors present. I was selling at the stall of autographed books, and Miss Rose Macaulay has
presented us with several copies of her various works, duly signed. And at intervals she came
around to see how they were selling. It was terrible, for they were not selling well. She became
arider and arider with each visit, until Valentine and I were reduced to sneaking volumes off the
stall and sitting on them, whenever we saw her in the offing.
It is obviously not Judd’s fault that the most climactic emotional moments were not those that
could be documented in letter – they were hardly likely to write to each other from different
rooms of the same house – but there is still a selection from the period, including those to Wade
White’s longsuffering partner Evelyn. Love letters do not make for such good reading as witty
ones, and it feels both more prying and more embarrassing to see Ackland and Wade White
declare themselves to one another. More impactful are the handful where Warner lays down the
law, post-experiment – showing resilience once she is sure of Ackland’s choice. The most
politely appalled, though, is Evelyn’s to Ackland, when the latter writes demanding to know her
intentions towards Wade White. The whole range of human emotions seem on show in the
collection, with all the nuance that brings.
The new publishing house Handheld Press have several silos – new fiction, classic fiction,
research – and The Akeing Heart by Peter Haring Judd is the first title under the research banner,
and was originally published in 2013 by Peter Haring Judd – which I assume means it was self-
published. If so, it is wonderful that the book has been rescued and published in this very
Simon is an Editor at Large of Shiny New Books.
Peter Haring Judd, The Akeing Heart (Handheld Press, 2018).