O n 2 January 1931 , Valentine Ackland sent her new lover, Sylvia Townsend Warner, a book about bisexuality. ‘After reading it carefully,’ she reported with evident relief, ‘I discover that you and I are admirably suited to each other.’ Warner was quick to imagine bisexuality as a kind of physiological oscillation. ‘Do we do it in alternate spasms, do you think, like synchronised oysters … or is one both at once?’ The book’s author, Theodore J. Faithfull, described on the title page as ‘principal of the Priory Gate School’, had something altogether less strenuous in mind. To him, bisexuality did not concern sexual preference. Rather, it was a way to acknowledge the bipolar presence in an individual of the ‘attributes, instincts and desires generally attributed to males and females respectively’. One is bisexual psychologically, Ackland explained. She was the sort of person whose ‘psychological sexual balance’, in Faithfull’s terms, demanded the frequent ‘discharge of libido’. When it came to libido, others might prefer to ‘receive’ and ‘retain’ rather than to discharge. By Ackland’s account, Warner belonged to the second category. The lovers (Warner was then 37, Ackland 24) knew that they had embarked on a kind of relationship which, if not exactly unheard of, would take some figuring out. The emotional generosity and sense of adventure that had first drawn them together would – just about – see them through an enduring creative and domestic partnership extraordinary by any standards. And yet there’s a warning note in that apparent complicity, however playful, with Faithfull’s emphasis on what can be ‘generally attributed’ to ‘males’ and ‘females’.
Both women came from the metropolitan middle classes. Warner’s father was a widely respected teacher at Harrow, Ackland’s a dental surgeon at Bart’s Hospital whose pioneering work on reconstructive techniques during and immediately after the First World War earned him a CBE. Both fathers were much loved, and both died suddenly at a relatively young age. Neither daughter received much in the way of formal education, but each took every available opportunity to educate herself. There the resemblances end. Warner’s stroke of luck was that her mother’s subsequent remarriage freed her to pursue an independent life in London. She had already joined the editorial board of an ambitious project to catalogue Tudor church music. A salary of £3 a week, plus an annual allowance of £100 from her mother, left her in an enviable position. She pursued friendships with a wide range of artists and writers, including the charismatic sculptor and Bloomsbury habitué Stephen Tomlin, and the novelist David Garnett, whose publishing connections were to prove invaluable.
Now in her late twenties, Warner was hungry for new experiences. In July 1922, while she was browsing in the cheap section of Whiteley’s Department Store in Bayswater, she noticed a map of the Essex marshes, all ‘blue creeks’ and ‘wide expanses of green’. Over the new few months, the Dengie Peninsula in Essex, marshland bounded by the Blackwater Estuary to the north, the River Crouch to the south and an encircling sea wall to the east, became a favourite haunt. These expanses of green are now mostly wind farm or vineyard. At the outer tip of the peninsula, the seventh-century chapel of St-Peter-on-the-Wall, built on the site of a Roman fort, has for company the austere concrete box of a decommissioned power station. The ancient oak trees at Mundon Hall were already beginning to die when Warner first saw them; the trunks still stand in spindly echelon. It was during a visit to the Essex marshland that she became, as her biographer Claire Harman puts it, ‘properly her own person’. For the first time in her life, she was later to recall, she felt ‘socketed into the universe and passionately quiescent’. As far as I’m aware, nobody ever had the temerity to describe Warner as quiescent. On the contrary, she became known for her forthrightness, and for the strength and durability of her convictions. She could be a formidable presence. Yet her diaries and letters demonstrate over and over again how important it was to her that she immerse herself in a milieu or environment. She felt identity above all as a relation. But she did not immerse herself in order to stay put or to sink roots. Hers was a promiscuous localism driven by the desire for changes of scene. The metaphor of the socket suggests that she aimed whenever possible to put herself in circuit with otherwise inaccessible sources of energy and information. Passionate acquiescence gave her something to be forthright about.
Warner’s 1922 visit to the Dengie Peninsula led to a feverish production of poems, accepted for publication in book form as The Espalier by Chatto and Windus in 1925. Her editor at Chatto, Charles Prentice, asked if she had anything else to hand, so she sent him the manuscript of Lolly Willowes, a novel about a witch: its publication in 1926 made her famous.* Lolly Willowes tells the story of a middle-aged spinster aunt – ‘useful and obliging and negligible’ – who decides on a whim to move to a village she has spotted on a map of Buckinghamshire (the woodland coloured green, the main roads red). Great Mop turns out to be a centre of witchcraft excellence. ‘Aunt Lolly’ no more, Laura Willowes secures an interview with the Devil, whose opening bid for her soul is a permanent release from the patriarchy (cheap at the price). By Warner’s account, witchcraft was heresy pure and simple: a protest against Christian orthodoxy rather than a religion in its own right. In The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921), a book she knew well, Margaret Murray had advanced the far more radical view that European witches were the inheritors of a ‘joyous’ pre-Christian fertility cult in which women had always played a prominent organising role. Although it was rare for the fertility rites in which they participated to descend into a ‘Bacchanalian orgy’, Murray thought, they clearly enjoyed sex.
Laura Willowes, by contrast, is a loner who feels miserably out of place at the only Witches’ Sabbath she attends, a rave held in a nearby field. Her plea for the Devil’s help has to do above all with the restitution of the right to passionate acquiescence. Men, she complains, have managed to keep women interminably active, without ever bothering to acknowledge the scope or value of that activity. It wouldn’t be so bad if women were allowed to remain ‘passive and unnoticed’ – to ‘sit in their doorways and think’, the way men were. Laura seems to speak for her author when she tells the Devil that putting women in circuit with heresy’s electrical force has the cardinal virtue of reminding them ‘how dangerous, how incalculable, how extraordinary they are’. Witchcraft ‘strikes them real’. She sockets herself in woodland. ‘This was her domain.’ The domain, furthermore, is as much network as conservation zone. ‘She laid her cheek against a tree and shut her eyes to listen. She expected to hear the tree drumming like a telegraph pole.’ She wants signals as much as sensations. The ‘far-off pulsation’ of a goods train labouring up an incline – another drumbeat – seems to ‘inform’ rather than wash over her, as though sending a message. She is now so fully in circuit with this environment that her mood changes once the train has reached the top of the incline and the drumbeat modulates. The red on the map – a diagram of a system of communication – matters almost as much as the green. It is in order to keep her newly established domain ‘inviolate’ that Laura will make her ‘compact’ with the Devil.
The American poet Jean Starr Untermeyer was struck by Warner’s ‘vital awareness’ as a person. This ‘vibrant quality’, Untermeyer noted, ‘is what gets into her work’: her letters, for example, like her conversation, ‘flow spontaneously into form’. Her fiction does this too. Seized by an idea, Warner would often complete the opening section of a story within a matter of hours, scarcely altering a word. So it was with her second novel, Mr Fortune’s Maggot (1927), which concerns the mortification of a hapless South Seas missionary. Timothy Fortune, thinking himself in an earthly paradise, discovers that his only convert to date, a boy called Lueli with whom he has fallen deeply in love, has continued to worship an old god in secret. Convinced that he is a failure, Timothy abandons his mission in despair. The fiction flows into form around an essential formlessness. Laura Willowes and Timothy Fortune – ‘mute, middle-aged English failures’ – represent, as Harman notes, ‘the most unpromising material’. Where there is no promise to speak of, character can only ever form by acquiescence. Laura Willowes and Timothy Fortune are memorable because they acquiesce with such passion in the conditions specific to a ‘universe’ selected more or less at random (his ‘maggot’, or whim, is the choice of a particular island as an appropriate field for missionary work). Warner felt such remorse at ejecting this most unfortunate man from paradise at the end of the novel that she later provided him with a new lease of life. The idea that he might by pure chance end up somewhere else altogether, ‘at a house in the pampas’, so caught her imagination that she at once went out for a walk in a rainswept London park, ‘discovering how hot the hour of siesta can be and hearing the sunflower seeds crackle for miles and miles’. The first two thousand words of ‘The Salutation’ (1932), written that day, create what is perhaps the most vibrant of all her atmospheres.
B y the late 1920s, Warner was a fixture on the literary scene, with a second book of poems to her name, as well as a third novel, The True Heart (1929), set in the Essex marshes. She had a wide readership. The only real cause for concern was the increasing desultoriness of her long-standing affair with an older, married man, the musicologist Percy Buck. Life had in the meantime not dealt so kindly with Mary Kathleen Macrory Ackland – universally known as Molly. Robert Ackland’s charisma had always had a punitive edge: he insisted that his daughter accompany him on his rounds in the surgical wards; and then afterwards, according to Warner, to the brothel he frequented, where she would be told to wait in the parlour. There’s no doubt that, as Frances Bingham writes, he amply indulged Molly’s taste for ‘pursuits which were – in contemporary terms – masculine’. Indulgence had its limits, however. Robert reacted violently to the news of an affair with another pupil at a finishing school in Paris. The surrogate son had turned out to be the kind of daughter whose vivid interest in anything but procreation made it impossible, he must have felt, to see what sons were for. Molly was banished to a dismal domestic college in Eastbourne (ironically, she was to note, the sort of place her father would undoubtedly have regarded as a ‘hotbed of vice’). A few months later, he was dead, after a short illness. Molly wasn’t allowed to attend the funeral. She knew that he had died hating her for becoming what she most wanted to be.
Molly was at that time in love with Bo Foster, an intelligent woman ten years her senior. Bo, however, still lived with her parents and, while there was no doubting her desire for Molly, insisted on absolute discretion. She wasn’t about to set up house with another woman. Marriage began to look to Molly like the only way to escape from the surviving members of her decrepit family. Her mother, Ruth, was needy, smothering and idiotically pious, while her elder sister, Joan, a borderline psychopath, had contrived to make her childhood a misery and showed no sign of letting up any time soon. Both did all they could to humiliate Molly. ‘She is harm,’ Warner was to say of Joan. Still, there was always the colonial marriage market. Rodric Heming, whom Molly had last laid eyes on eight years before, when they were both eleven, and who now ran a tea plantation in Java, proposed by letter. Richard Turpin, on the other hand, had the advantage of being present in the flesh, and after a six-week acquaintance duly ousted the tea planter. Turpin was gay, which made for a tepid courtship on both sides. ‘Molly had been converted to Catholicism by Bo,’ Bingham notes, ‘and passed it on to Richard, who probably thought that religion would help, too.’ After civil and religious ceremonies, and a truly miserable honeymoon, Richard, desperate to straighten himself out into a conventional husband, began to insist with renewed desperation on his marital rights. His advances disgusted Molly. The couple’s medical and spiritual advisers (male and female) put the blame on her. Her hymen was too tough. It had to go. This ‘medicalised rape’, as Bingham calls it, proved a turning point in Ackland’s life.
On a November evening in 1925, Molly Turpin, as she was then known, arrived in the Dorset village of Chaldon Herring in the company of her friend Rachel Braden. Chaldon Herring lies in a fold of the downs between Lulworth and Dorchester. Molly had come to Dorset to recover from the effects of the operation. When Richard finally tracked her down, he was kept at arm’s length for a while, with Rachel’s assistance, and then sent packing. Molly stayed on. Almost six feet tall, slender, invariably dressed in trousers, with her hair cut short in an Eton crop, she made a striking addition to the cast of a village which was already home to several members of the literary-bohemian Powys clan (Theodore, Llewellyn, Gertrude and Katie). She had decided to become a poet: a resolution which was to shape the rest of her life, for better and for worse. Bo visited frequently, and on one of these occasions Molly decided to change her name to the more ambiguous – and vastly more resonant – Valentine. Divorce from Richard would soon make her an Ackland again. She was the sort of person to whom things happened, and, increasingly, she made them happen. Although based in Chaldon Herring, she took a studio flat in London, at 22 Doughty Street. Much to Bo’s distress, she was dating other women, and at least one man. A pregnancy and devastating miscarriage ensued. Another thing that happened to her was Dorothy Warren, owner of a defiantly avant-garde gallery in Maddox Street, handsome, rich, and, it would seem, a sadist. Bingham speaks darkly of the ‘laudanum and razor-blade experiences’ Valentine was to enjoy/endure under Warren’s tutelage. She resolved to end any lingering ambiguity. By the end of 1928 – the year of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness – she could write in her diary ‘Of course I am a Lesbian.’ And, she fervently hoped, a poet.
Warner had been introduced to Chaldon Herring by Stephen Tomlin in March 1922, and was subsequently to prove instrumental in securing a publisher for Theodore Powys’s fiction. Her first encounter with Ackland, at a tea party, did not go well. But their shared love of poetry drew them together. Warner bought a cottage for her own occasional use, and installed Ackland as steward. They moved in on 23 September 1930 and became lovers soon afterwards. The exchange of letters about Faithfull’s theory of psychological bisexuality was followed on 12 January 1931 by a declaration of mutual commitment that they were thereafter to celebrate as their wedding day. Such anniversaries mattered a great deal to them. One of the most poignant items in the extensive Warner/Ackland archive at the Dorset History Centre in Dorchester is a booklet of poems and photographs, bound with brass fasteners, that Ackland handmade for Warner for Valentine’s Day 1948. The rigorous observance of anniversaries was by no means the only ritualised aspect of this brave new relationship. Bingham rightly insists on its basis in a defiance of convention. But she also wonders whether Ackland might not have seen herself at times as imitating a traditional model of masculinity, in which she was the husband and Warner the wife, while her many other conquests played the part of mistress or casual fling. Some of the attributes, instincts and desires ‘generally attributed’ to males and females respectively, as Faithfull had put it, became manifest in their behaviour. Warner was a serial homebody: an accomplished cook, gardener and seamstress. Ackland did most of the heavy lifting: ‘I lean more and more on her trousers,’ Warner declared. For the time being, at least, the discharge of libido flowed in a single direction only, although Warner was on one occasion summoned to Ackland’s London flat to discover that she had been badly beaten up by a vengeful Dorothy Warren.
A dedication to the development of technique which had always been Ackland’s primary defence against insecurity found some suitable quasi-domestic outlets. She could certainly shoot straight. Her diary for 1935 reveals that by 21 October she had already reached her target of a hundred rabbits a year. There was further cause for satisfaction. It looks to me as though she used her expert marksmanship as a way to measure the altogether less steady progress made in her long-drawn-out struggle against alcoholism. Each alcohol-free day is marked ‘D.D.’, for devoid of drink. In October 1935, she reached a century of abstentions on very nearly the same day as her century of rabbits for the pot. Wessex wildlife had, however, no reason to relax. On 2 November, she killed a partridge. ‘One shot – at running bird – hit him through breast.’ Ackland felt much the same way about cars as she did about rifles. Warner happily entrusted herself to ‘a suavity of driving which was like the bowing of a master violinist’. In July 1931, she rewarded the suavity by purchasing a second-hand Triumph two-seater. She once spoke of longing to see Ackland’s body ‘limpeted to the car by trousers’. The gendering of other kinds of expertise was to prove a good deal more ambiguous. But it is no coincidence that one of Ackland’s boldest and most technically assured love poems should feature a hand moving ‘at brain’s command’ down between a lover’s thighs like a plane directed by radio signal to its target (a technology then barely at an experimental stage). In 1934, Chatto and Windus published Whether a Dove or Seagull: 55 poems by Ackland, 54 by Warner. The book’s main purpose was to establish Ackland as a promising young poet in her own right; yet the poems she included made no special effort to distinguish themselves from those of her much better-known partner without whose participation it would not have been published in the first place. Ackland allowed the ensuing lack of individual recognition to haunt her for the rest of her life. As ever, her sister was quick to rub salt in the wound, scornfully pointing out that Valentine’s entry in the index to the Chatto catalogue read ‘Ackland, Valentine, see Warner, S.T.’
Still, another, equally important – and revitalising – collaboration was shortly to absorb most of their energies. Dismayed by the advance of fascism in Europe, Ackland and Warner took the decisive step of applying to join the Communist Party of Great Britain. Since all correspondence with Communist Party HQ was routinely intercepted, MI5 was soon requesting further information from the local constabulary. A remarkably detailed report on the new recruits found its way to the director, Sir Vernon Kell, who was led to inquire whether either of them appeared to be ‘in any way abnormal’. However, since Ackland’s numerous firearms certificates had in the interim proved to be perfectly in order, there were no grounds for further action. The immediate problem lay with the party, which continued to classify ‘intellectuals’ – deviant or not – as bourgeois. Warner and Ackland had to work extra hard to counter the impression left by the unabashed elegance and poise of their appearance and manner. They did this through wholehearted participation in the less glamorous obligations of activism: rallies, marches, protests, delegations, committee meetings, agitprop. Warner added to her reputation for forthrightness by learning to heckle. Before long, Ackland was able to send the Left Review an acerbic account of Chaldon Herring literary bohemia, which managed to omit any mention of their own presence in the vicinity. That presence can’t itself have been an issue, to judge by the speed with which party members embraced the idea of a Wessex mini-break. The visitor I’d like to hear more about is Professor Shelley Wang, of the Chinese Communist Party, who had been lecturing in Dorchester on the topic of revolution. Such was the weight of the books he brought with him that he arrived on their doorstep with his suitcase under one arm and its handle under the other.
In the summer of 1936, the progress of the war in Spain provided a new focus for activism. At first, that mainly meant fund-raising. Ackland, however, was keen to see if party HQ might be able to devise a mechanism for her entry into the fray – especially if it was likely to involve an actual machine. She immediately answered the party’s call for volunteers by offering a lift to Spain to anyone willing to share her ‘small fast two-seater’ (an MG Midget had by this time replaced the faithful Triumph). According to the AA’s Continental Road Map, Ackland reassured Warner, the distance was only 850 miles. ‘That is very small indeed.’ The offer was declined. The two relatively brief visits they did make to Spain – in the autumn of 1936, to join a Red Cross unit, and then the following summer as members of a delegation of writers that included André Malraux, Octavio Paz and Langston Hughes – left a deep and lasting impression.
Summer Will Show, set for the most part in Paris during the 1848 revolutions, and Warner’s most ambitious novel to date, was published while they were with the Red Cross in Barcelona. She had been at work on it for a number of years, but its completion coincided with the white heat of political commitment. The biographers agree that there’s something of Ackland in the tall, aristocratic Sophia Willoughby, who arrives in Paris in search of her errant husband, Frederick, but subsequently enlists in the struggle, collecting scrap metal for the manufacture of ammunition and distributing copies of the Communist Manifesto. And there’s something of Warner in the older, uglier, wilier, Minna Lemuel, Frederick’s Jewish mistress, a spellbinding storyteller perfectly at home in the sort of ‘shabby’ intellectual bohemia Marx had learned to relish a few years earlier while writing the Economic and Political Manuscripts. Warner took special care to distinguish between the February uprising, which resulted in Louis Philippe’s abdication and the formation of a bourgeois republic, and the June bloodbath, during which the army and the reactionary Gardes Mobiles overran barricades set up in the working-class quarters of the city. In February, Minna initiates Sophia into the romance of popular revolt. She even donates a bundle of duelling pistols (minus her best set) to the insurgents. In June, Sophia will leave her behind, literally and figuratively, when she commits herself to the communist cause. Their steadily intensifying intimacy has thrown into relief an ideological divergence. In its investigation of the complicated mutual promptings of queer desire and the desire for social and political change, Summer Will Show is as powerful a novel of ideas as any produced at the time.
By the same token, it has little time for ‘unpromising material’. The main characters are if anything larger than life. They have to embody and articulate the desire for change. Minna dies on the barricades in a scene that would be preposterous if its melodramatic swagger didn’t also give shape to the confusion of sexual, racial and class hatreds unleashed by counter-revolutionary violence. Caspar, the mixed-race, illegitimate son of Sophia’s slave-owning uncle, follows her to Paris, and is promptly suborned by Frederick into enlisting in the Gardes Mobiles. Furious at Minna’s seduction of Sophia, he screams ‘Jewess!’ at her as he drives his bayonet into her body. But Warner also meant to ensure that the social and political reflection on human nature provoked by emergency did not preclude, or gloss over, the broader acknowledgment of mortality prompted by attentiveness to unpromising material. The grave, she might have thought, given her familiarity with Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, is the ultimate socket. The novel’s persistent association of Minna with cat-like behaviour produces at a crucial moment a thrillingly unapologetic threnody or funeral hymn for a non-human species (Sophia is about to start collecting scrap metal for bullets). A lengthy paragraph enumerates the many ways – some natural, others not – in which cats meet their deaths. Warner was by no means alone (in science, if not in literature) in supposing that non-human animals grasp identity as a relation. During the years between the world wars, the great Estonian-German biologist Jakob von Uexkűll transformed the study of animal consciousness by demonstrating that all organisms experience life in terms of a species-specific, subjective, spatio-temporal frame of reference uniquely adapted to the environments they inhabit. He called this frame of reference an Umwelt, or immediately surrounding ‘world’. I don’t imagine that Warner boned up on Umwelt theory, although she could have done (the July 1934 issue of The Countryman included, in addition to one of her poems, a review of a book about animal behaviour by Uexkűll’s leading British disciple, E.S. Russell). But she, too, believed that the diligence with which non-human animals adapt themselves to their immediate worlds renders them of greater rather than lesser interest when it comes to an understanding of the human animal’s often fretful and ill-considered adaptations.
I n July 1937, shortly after their second visit to Spain, Warner and Ackland moved to a house near the village of Frome Vauchurch, where they were to remain for the rest of their lives. The following year was a bad one for the republican cause, as Franco’s armies, with support from Germany and Italy, made significant advances on several fronts. It also saw the publication of After the Death of Don Juan, which Warner described as an ‘allegory’ of ‘the political chemistry of the Spanish War, with the Don Juan – more of Molière than of Mozart – developing as the fascist of the piece’. The descent into hellfire turns out to be fake news broadcast by Leporello. Reappearing at his father’s estate in the remote village of Tenorio Viejo, Don Juan sets about organising the brutal suppression of the unrest his reappearance has provoked. Warner fleshes out the allegory with a gallery of social ‘types’ that is more Zola than Pilgrim’s Progress. Just as Don Juan slowly assembles the political and military alliance which will secure his grip on power, so typology itself yields with despairing grace to an appetite for raw particulars. Even Don Tomas, the epitome of the village priest as ruling-class stooge, starts to notice things as he walks down the street: a rabbit skin nailed up to dry; a woman scraping dandelion roots into a basin; a ‘cactus-shaped pattern’ in the dust where some water has been spilled. It’s Warner, no doubt, rather than the stolid Don Tomas, who sees the pattern in the spilled water. She has risked fidelity to character by aestheticising ordinary experience. The gamble will work if it serves to foment a grasp on life compelling enough to oppose the glorification of violent death. Like Summer Will Show, After the Death of Don Juan is a book of temperatures. Allegory’s cool abstractions remain in subtle tension with the warmth generated whenever a social type is suddenly struck real by exposure to Umwelt.
Ackland seems to have begun the Second World War imagining that she was Sophia Willoughby. The notes on contributors for the October 1940 issue of the literary magazine Lilliput describe her as at work on a long poem ‘in periods between looking after the salvage dump of her Dorsetshire village’. The poem got written. The remote prospect of musketry apart, however, the only available jobs were secretarial. Confinement to the typing pool did not suit her at all. Warner helped run the Dorset branch of the Women’s Voluntary Service, while also – much to MI5’s disquiet – lecturing regularly to the troops.
As a writer, she had decided to double down on the unpromising material. The Corner That Held Them, largely written during the war but not published until 1948, is her longest and most ambitious novel, and (as she put it) her most ‘personal’. It chronicles in unhesitatingly lucid detail the lives led by the nuns sequestered in the imaginary East Anglian convent of Oby between the years 1349 and 1382. There are one or two ongoing emergencies (the Black Death, Wat Tyler’s Rebellion) to negotiate, but for the most part the action consists of the various overlapping ‘broils’ which embed the women and men (priest, bailiff, accountant) who staff the institution ever more deeply in a domain as specific as Laura Willowes’s woodland or Timothy Fortune’s South Seas island. The Corner That Held Them is the ultimate Umwelt novel. Its title lends it a faint resemblance to Uexkűll’s tireless investigations of the habitats of sea urchin, jackdaw and ichneumon wasp. Like Uexkűll, however, Warner believed that a human Umwelt, because it is so often felt to be lacking even when most complete, invites its own transcendence. She couldn’t resist revolution as a subject. So it is that the more adventurous among the women and men of Oby somehow contrive to put themselves slyly in circuit with radical experiment in the arts (poetry, music, embroidery).
Warner published one further novel, The Flint Anchor (1954), which in a sense returns her to where she began as a writer. Like Mr Fortune’s Maggot, the story involves an over-conscientious mentor – a 19th-century Norfolk merchant, rather than a missionary – and a disciple whose commitment to the project we soon begin to doubt. There’s something of Laura Willowes, too, in the way that the disciple, tiring of his role as husband and business partner, discovers a Great Mop of his own in the taverns frequented by the local fishermen. Homosexuality, he declares with provocative insouciance, is a ‘local custom’. Warner was to remain hugely and for the most part happily prolific (poems, stories, fables, a biography, a county guide). There were quite a few crises: notably that caused by Ackland’s determination to reinvigorate herself and her poetry by returning to the Roman Catholic Church. In Ackland’s case, Warner thought, religion was a waste of good trousers. How shocking, she complained, to see those long legs ‘crumpled in a pew’. The Catholic texts that Ackland left lying around – a selection of nostrums entitled Holy Crumbs, for example – provided further entertainment. But she felt that Ackland’s observance of Church rituals, dutiful to the point of abjection, merely reinforced the problem it was meant to resolve: a crippling lack of self-esteem. Some bitter quarrels ensued. None lasted long enough to destroy their absolute conviction that love for each other had been the great event of both their lives. Ackland died of cancer on 9 November 1969. Warner survived for a further eight years. The remainder of her life amounted, Bingham observes, to an ‘act of remembrance’. She went to extraordinary lengths to preserve and whenever possible to publish Ackland’s literary remains. Her efforts made possible the welcome reassessment of Ackland recently undertaken by Bingham and other scholars.
All that said, Warner’s most significant (if not always most appreciated) resource as a writer lay in the things she found out about herself when left to her own devices. During the summer of 1949, Ackland decided to revive a dormant but by no means extinct affair with the American socialite and activist Elizabeth Wade White. A further and quite possibly decisive discharge of libido seemed to be in the offing. The deal was that at the beginning of September Elizabeth would move in with Valentine for a month while Sylvia, having with her usual efficiency removed all traces of herself from the house at Frome Vauchurch, went into exile in a hotel in Yeovil. Why anyone thought this was a good idea is unclear. Settling into the grim little hotel room, Warner reproached herself for the speed with which she had begun to adapt to this new circumstance: ‘How soon,’ she noted in her diary, ‘the feeling of home establishes itself – looking round on it ownerly’. ‘Ownerly’ is a proper Warner word, not known to the dictionaries and not very socialist either, although in her mind it had less to do with possession than with being possessed. The feeling it expresses is one the novels had long since sought to articulate. When after the first night on his island Timothy Fortune waves goodbye to the fellow missionaries who have escorted him to it, he already feels like a host who from seeing off a group of guests ‘turns back with a renewed sense of ownership to the house which the fact of their departure makes more deeply and dearly his. Few hosts indeed could claim an ownership equally secure.’ This is the security of ownership Warner herself felt able to claim over the various corners that held her during her life. Any Umwelt in a storm.
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As well as Lolly Willowes, Penguin has recently reissued the novels Mr Fortune’s Maggot, Summer Will Show, After the Death of Don Juan, The Corner That Held Them and The Flint Anchor.
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