Purging Stephen Spender

Susannah Clapp

  • Sylvia Townsend Warner: A Biography by Claire Harman
    Chatto, 358 pp, £16.95, July 1989, ISBN 0 7011 2938 7
  • For Sylvia: An Honest Account by Valentine Ackland
    Chatto, 135 pp, £6.95, July 1989, ISBN 0 7011 3562 X

Before she was born, Sylvia Townsend Warner was called Andrew. When she was seven, her mother took against her for failing to be pretty and failing to be male; by the time she was 17 she was known to the boys of Harrow, where her father was a master, as ‘the cleverest fellow we had’. She described herself as repelled by the ‘devouring femaleness’ of her mother and as owning a ‘preponderantly masculine’ intellect. At the age of 36 she fell for a young woman with a face like a sulky choirboy, and relaxed into a lifelong partnership, explaining: ‘I lean more and more on her trousers.’

Claire Harman has written a bright and freshly-expressed biography, which is full of interesting data. Characteristically, she excavates the facts of Warner’s early life, but does not labour their sapphic significance. Nor did Sylvia Townsend Warner. When her mother derided her for being skinny and bespectacled, Warner set herself to become extraordinary-looking, sprouting huge tea-tray hats and dangerously tight skirts. When, at the age of 19, she was courted by the Harrow music master (41, with four children as well as a wife), she launched into an affair which was to last for 17 years. They collected and edited Tudor church music; they visited the cathedral towns of England calling themselves Mr and Mrs Arbuthnot. But when, in 1930, she heard Valentine Ackland wailing through a bedroom wall that she felt unloved, Warner bounded through the door and never again went to bed with a man.

Valentine Ackland was 24, with an Eton crop and a ruffled past. At 16 she was disowned by her father, who advised her that infatuation with an older girl would drive her blind as well as mad. Ackland taught herself to play the piano with her eyes shut. At 20, she was married in Westminster Cathedral, wearing a dress which had a prophetically surgical look around the collar: love-making with her husband proved so painful that she had an operation to remove her hymen. By the time she met Warner she had had more female than male lovers. One of the most recent was Dorothy Warren, Henry James’s goddaughter and Ottoline Morrell’s niece, who on one occasion gave Ackland laudanum before beating her till she bled, and on another tried to strangle her with a tie.

Ackland’s memoir, For Sylvia, which tells some of this past, is absorbing, and stunningly self-absorbed. It deals in blights, anaemias, religious guilts and bad period pains; it is strewn with expressions of love for Sylvia Townsend Warner, and it is strewn with expressions of anxiety which hover between the frank and the fanciful. The most persistent anxiety is about being a dipsomaniac. Ackland says that for years she marked each day in her diary with ‘DD’ or ‘TMD’ (‘Devoid of Drink’ or ‘Too Much Drink’); she says that alcohol made her subject to sudden collapses, faintings and headaches, and that Warner had found her stretched out insensible on the bedroom floor. Yet she also says that she lived unsuspected with her friend for nearly twenty years before confessing her condition.

The soul-baring of For Sylvia conceals as well as reveals. One of the things it hides is Valentine Ackland’s charm. Claire Harman supplies ample details about her exquisitely tailored clothes, sweet voice and amatory talents: ‘She was,’ said Warner, ‘the best lover I ever had.’ But the most pervasive testimony to her attractions is the fact that Warner’s affection lasted, despite her lover’s infidelity and, more taxingly, her envious fretfulness. After several doting years, Ackland began to think of herself as a toy boy. She had difficulty in getting her poems and essays published, and saw herself considered ‘the younger and duller of a pair’. Warner pressed Ackland’s poems on her own publisher, who protested, as publishers will, his ‘excitement’. Warner noted: ‘It was a well-controlled excitement, certainly.’

When Warner turned to writing, she found it ‘as easy as whistling’. She was to whistle up over thirty books. By the time she met Ackland the first two of these, still her best-known and best-selling novels, had appeared. Both are elegiac novels of escape which contain touches of autobiographical prescience. Mr Fortune’s Maggot – conceived in a dream, after Warner had read a volume of letters by a woman missionary in Polynesia – was written ‘in a state of semi-hallucination’: its description of a missionary who loses his faith on a South Seas island is as anti-colonial as it is homosexually aware. Lolly Willowes – in which a put-upon maiden aunt runs off to a damp bit of Buckinghamshire to consort with the Devil – speaks up for wilful and undomestic women, whom it calls witches. It contains a fine fierce statement of Warner’s views on the position of women, and some nice satirical strokes at the expense of a folksy young nob. But it is tainted by whimsy. Claire Harman suggests mildly that it seems ‘ultimately comfortable’ in showing a heroine who struggles ‘for privacy not power’: it can also be read more harshly, as offering its heroine the choice of docility or dottiness.

Warner’s own waywardness is, like the waywardness of Stevie Smith, bound up with the appeal of her work. It is apparent in the independence of her views and in her compact idiosyncrasy of expression. The shells in a munitions factory were ‘discreet of curve, demure of colour, Quakerish instruments of death’; the rosary which suddenly appeared by Ackland’s bedside was ‘curled up neat as a snake’.

Ackland’s move towards the Church revolted Warner. In 1935 they had become members of the Communist Party. They had arranged a bonfire to signal opposition to the King’s Jubilee and set up an appeal to meet the shortage of soap in Spain. Ackland wrote articles for the Left Review mixing reportage with injunction (‘Communism would be a good thing for us, comrades’); Warner addressed Labour Party meetings and wrote poems with a red tinge. On her first visit to Spain she thrilled to a sign declaring ‘Organisation for the Persecution of Fascists’. On her next visit, to attend a writers’ congress, she fell out with Stephen Spender, and was later to urge his expulsion from the Party: ‘let us be sure it looks like a purge ...’