Valentine Ackland: A Transgressive Life (Handheld Research)
“The archetypal Valentine, summoned up for the person who has never met her, appears trousered, not merely trousered but actually cross-dressed, as she perceived herself, and this is how she remains. . . .” so writes author Frances Bingham.
Describing her subject as “a complex, mercurial human being,” Bingham prompts the reader to keep turning the pages of this well-researched, idiosyncratic, and fascinating biography of Valentine Ackland, a poet whose work, and very existence, is relatively unknown.
Ackland lived during the emergence of modernism. She refused to acquiesce into a pre-determined woman’s life. She promoted her authentic self through her attitude, behaviors, and dress. She wore attire commonly attributed to men and caused a stir. She dropped her husband’s name and reverted to her own and adopted a new first name: Valentine. The name was ungendered, androgynous, and it was not a pseudonym. Valentine Ackland was unique and so is this biography.
The author’s description of Ackland’s childhood goes beyond unhappy. Her mother was difficult, neurotic, and miserable in her marriage. Her sister, whose “bullying violence was physical, as well as psychological,” raises the specter of Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. And, her father was “eloquent in his anger, physically daunting, and prone to ungovernable rages and bleak depressions . . .” One understands why Ackland wrote, “I never had any sense of there being anyone I could turn to for protection or shelter. . . . There was never anyone to rely on.”
Ackland’s only escape, as for most young women at the time, was marriage. It was a short-lived union but caused her to escape to a cottage in Chaldon and into a new name and a new life.
In spite of the family-driven obstacles, Valentine Ackland created a body of work that reflected her personal struggles, her loves, and her politics. The poetry rises and falls with the rhythm of Ackland’s life and that prompts one to pause and look beyond the words.
“And now in welcome the sky
Lights star after star on high, and the world sails on,
Stately, a ship into darkness going, tall on the seas
Of calm and eternal light;
And all on board her are safe and bound for home.”
The one constant in Ackland’s life is her decades long relationship with Sylvia Townsend Warner. Bingham’s description of this relationship is one of the most fascinating parts of Ackland’s story. The relationship survived in spite of Valentine’s disruptive behaviors that would have dashed less durable alliances.
Bingham exposes a woman who, at times, is not easy to like. While she had a reputation for being charming and personable, and her sexual prowess with women was widely acknowledged, she was also mercurial, unhappy, and dissatisfied. Nothing seemed to fit well for her. She seems to always be searching for something and failed to find it. She found it difficult to accept that her work was good, because she struggled in having it published. And when her poetry was published or read aloud on radio, she often found fault. While she failed to achieve poetic stardom during her life, the body of work she created continues to be worthy of notice.
The arrangement of chapters and information is unusual. The lack of linear development of Ackland’s life story is distracting, but this may reflect the author’s view that nothing in Ackland’s life followed a well-defined path.
No one biography can address everything about the subject. In this effort a number of questions are left unanswered. What prompted Ackland’s sister to engage in such violent behavior toward her sibling? Why did Ackland become disenchanted with the Catholic Church? What prompted Sylvia’s abhorrence of Catholicism? The reader can imagine the answers but having a sound basis would be helpful.
Readers will discover that while neither the unanswered questions nor the disjointed progression detract from this remarkable book, they do prompt an interest in learning more about Valentine Ackland and the people in her life.
Bingham brings Ackland, a complicated and complex woman, and her poetry, to a new audience. Valentine Ackland may be best understood with the final poem in the book.
“When you look at me, after I have died,
And not the tidy hair, the sleeping head,
Closed eyes and quiet hands—Do not decide
Too readily that I was so. Instead,
Look at your own heart while you may, and see
How wild and strange a live man is, and so remember me.”
And we shall.