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.
“Possibly the most important literary letters to be published this year, but for all that, Peter Haring Judd was unable to persuade a publisher of their potential, and has chosen to self-publish via print on demand with Amazon.. . . The Akeing Heart, a large and impeccably edited collection of newly discovered letters, completely changes our understanding of the emotional dynamics of this messy and bitterly unhappy affair . . . this book relates a powerful love story set in a little-known queer literary landscape before and after the Second World War, and is embedded in the literary circles around Sylvia and Valentine and the Powys clan.”
In 1929 Elizabeth, aged 23, met Sylvia—then 35—at a literary gathering in New York and admired her independence and witty, astringent talk. They got together again in England that summer, and six years later Sylvia invited her to the cottage in West Chaldon, Dorset, shared since 1930 with Valentine. A friendship developed between the American and the two Englishwomen based on mutual interests in literature, the English landscape, herbs, pets, and shared political commitment in a time of looming international crisis. The English women were communists and anti-fascists committed to the Loyalist cause in the Spanish Civil War. They mentored Elizabeth, encouraged her to assert her independence from a socially and politically conservative family and supported her efforts to raise funds for Spanish children dislocated by the civil war.
The relationships altered when Valentine awoke Elizabeth’s hitherto unfulfilled sexuality in an affair that began in late 1938 and stirred each of them deeply. Valentine experienced “violent & ecstatic happiness.” To Elizabeth her lover came “with a sharp sword and a gentle healing hand.” The affair sharpened shared sensibilities, and by its force and staying power seemed to take all three women by surprise. Sylvia, who had accepted other of Valentine’s affairs, soon found this one threatening; Valentine painfully sought to love both women; Elizabeth found herself unmoored from family and friends at home. War in Europe left them on either side of the Atlantic, and for Elizabeth there was a new and quieter love, Evelyn V. Holahan (1905-1984), a professional woman, introduced to her in New York City by Sylvia and Valentine in 1939. (In a curious connection, Evelyn from New York had met the Englishwomen in remote Chaldon in the mid-1930s in search of a wayward sister; she was briefly one of Valentine’s many lovers.) The attraction between Elizabeth and Valentine reignited when they met again ten years later, leaving Sylvia and Evelyn in distress and themselves uneasy and unsure. “I do not know how anyone can believe man to be mortal, who has experienced how instantly, in joy, he becomes a god,” Valentine wrote after a night together in 1949. Sylvia dealt with nearly self-annihilating jealousy; Evelyn’s settled and devoted “marriage” faced dissolution. The stakes were high in personal terms, but though a break threatened, the two households held, and Elizabeth and Valentine crafted a warm and consoling friendship by letter and periodic visits for twenty years until the latter’s death. The echo of the passion remained and both Sylvia and Evelyn lived with the awareness that they had not shared these intense moments of their beloved’s lives.
Peter Haring Judd, The Akeing Heart: Letters between Sylvia Townsend Warner, Valentine Ackland and Elizabeth Wade White (Handheld Press 2017), ISBN 978-1-9998280-3-5. Available from www.handheldpress.co.uk from 30 November 2017.
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MICHAEL CAINES, : 10 January 2014
In 1929, Sylvia Townsend Warner spoke at a literary luncheon in a New York hotel. Her audience included a certain Elizabeth Wade White, the daughter of a rich family in Connecticut, who would, much later, write the first biography of the New England poet Anne Bradstreet.
They stayed in touch, and a close friendship developed that would become a source of misery, especially but not exclusively for Warner, as she lost her partner, Valentine Ackland, to a younger woman whom she had previously advised and encouraged in her intellectual pursuits. In one sense, the affair, which took place around the beginning of the Second World War, was brief. The intimacy it forged between the lovers lasted for years, however, and it would flare up again after the war. This episode in Warner's life, and the pain it caused her in her loyalty to the troubled Ackland, will not be unfamiliar to those who have read, say, Warner's diaries or I'll Stand by You, Susannah Pinney's selection of their correspondence. A member of White's family, Peter Haring Judd, supplies a new angle in The Akeing Heart: Passionate attachments and their aftermath. Judd's account is chiefly drawn from a substantial archive (now in the New York Public Library) of letters (including sixty from Warner, and hundreds from Ackland), poems and Journals by all three women, as well as letters from a fourth party, White's companion Evelyn Holahan, seething at the behaviour of Ackland, the "Dorset Sappho". Yet the interest of The Akeing Heart lies not Just in its tracing of these emotional collisions, but in the alternative chronicle it presents of life in the 1930s and 40s, as these women experienced it - in their travels, their political activities (supporting the Communists in Spain), their apprehension of war's approach. "Long threaten, long last", Warner observes of the political situation in 1938. "If wars are like thunderstorms the next war will be a long one." Ackland, meanwhile, makes a shocking impression on White's parents when she visits, with her necktie, masculine haircut and cigars. She had been, she later admitted, "drunken and lecherous". Apparently, she had made a pass at one of the maids.
This is a self-published book, which shows in minor but distracting ways, and its structure is questionable: there is too much pre-emptive quotation in the linking passages between letters, which feels like stealing the correspondents' thunder; this could have been avoided if the book had been divided instead into a long introductory essay and a discrete selection from the archive. Judd's story is an engrossing one, nonetheless, 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.
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The Akeing Heart
Elizabeth Wade White, 1926, by Ruth Cairns Buell
This is Evelyn, writing in 1949 to her lover and life partner Elizabeth, on the occasion of Elizabeth’s journey to England from the USA, to visit Valentine, Elizabeth’s lover. Valentine had had a brief fling with Evelyn before Elizabeth had met either woman, and was also the lover and life partner of Sylvia. Got that? Now read on.
“First of all please understand that I will never accept, trust or respect V. for reasons I have very definitely and clearly told you. On this matter, any possible doubts I might have had (and I assure you I had none) would have been more than confirmed this past summer by the selfish histrionics she burdened you with at a time when you were already most sadly burdened. However, there is no point or need to discuss this subject as I am sure you know how I feel.
Secondly, I cannot and never will, be able to regard your great love with the degree of respect such a love of yours should have. You have rightly censured me for speaking of your relationship with the Dorset Sappho in “vulgar terms”. The grotesque is usually vulgar, and when you have had sexual relations with a man you are more aware of how grotesque it is for a woman to try to act like a man. All the wedding ring, collar-and-tie, strutting and talking, business is pathetic and grotesque. It is absolutely impossible for me to reconcile my knowledge of you – my wonderfully dignified, intelligent and steadfast Elizabeth – as being a partner to such a spectacle and grotesqueness.”
Well! This extract from the letter might sound like sour grapes, but it also sounds like a woman angry at her beloved letting herself down with a selfish and ridiculous rake. The charismatic Valentine Ackland who had enthralled all three women was a minor lesbian poet, and the partner of the novelist, critic, poet and biographer Sylvia Townsend Warner. A recent reissue of their 1934 joint poetry collection, Whether A Dove or A Seagull, revealed the authorship of the poems that had been anonymised when first published, and, as Ali Smith noted in her review in the LRB, Valentine was not the author of the most accomplished poems. History has shown us that Valentine excelled at being the object of many women’s love, and for causing much anguish and suffering to Sylvia. She was a poet, but she was and is much better known as a wrecker of hearts and a promiscuous seducer to boot.
Why does this matter? In the established biographical studies of Sylvia Townsend Warner – who is a marvellous and under-rated novelist – Valentine is tragic, misunderstood, bedevilled by her drinking and her mid-life passion for Elizabeth Wade White. I haven’t read Claire Harman’s excellent biography of Warner for some years, but my recall of the ‘Elizabeth episode’ as described there is that Elizabeth descended on a hapless Valentine, who was foolish enough to be seduced and then endured helplessly while Elizabeth rampaged around Dorset demanding that Valentine leave Sylvia and live with her. Sylvia meanwhile suffered in a civilised and frozen way, and all ended happily when Valentine stopped drinking and Elizabeth went away. I may have got some things muddled, but that’s the residual effect.
Sylvia Townsend Warner
But The Akeing Heart, a large and impeccably edited collection of newly discovered letters, completely changes our understanding of the emotional dynamics of this messy and bitterly unhappy affair. Claire Harman was apparently very enthusiastic about its publication. Elizabeth – the younger of the women – was befriended by Sylvia and then Valentine in the 1920s, and holidayed with them both on and off during the 1930s. Sylvia was her adviser in art and life. But Valentine and Elizabeth fell shatteringly in love, and Valentine’s solution for this awful triangle was to propose that she and Elizabeth lived together as lovers, and Sylvia stayed with them as their companion. One of the more heart-breaking findings from the letters is that Sylvia, in desperation, agreed to this proposal for some time, until it became obvious that Elizabeth and Valentine were an explosive and destructive combination. The Second World War separated them physically, but they wrote constantly, and Elizabeth sent Sylvia and Valentine frequent food parcels and clothing from the US throughout the war, for which both women thanked her, Sylvia with careful distant courtesy, tempered by the affection she still felt for her protégée, and Valentine with grateful devotion. Elizabeth’s journey to England in 1949, the occasion of Evelyn’s letter quoted above, was her second attempt to claim Valentine as her own. I cannot understand what she thought she was doing with Evelyn, or how Evelyn endured the betrayal. This extraordinarily tangled love story is the heart of these letters.
The editor of this volume, Peter Haring Judd, was Elizabeth Wade White’s godson and executor, and was tasked with clearing out her home after her death. On discovering the letters, and masses of other personal material from her life, her family, her relationship with Evelyn Holahan, and her pioneering work as a socialist philanthropist in McCarthyite America, he realised that he had a book on his hands and the other half of a story that nobody had realised could be told. He has been meticulous in transcribing the letters, and contextualising them with additional research and from his own family knowledge. The index is particularly good, constructed to suit a researcher’s needs rather than following mechanical indexing rules. The resulting book is an important addition to the primary sources for studying Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland.
But even if you don’t care two hoots about those writers, this book relates a powerful love story set in a little-known queer literary landscape before and after the Second World War, and is embedded in the litera