Love amazes, but it does not surprise. I woke to daylight and saw her standing by the bed, looking down at me. ‘Well?’ she asked, rather sternly. I could not conceive why there should be any question, or why her voice should be stern. I was at home in an unsurmised love, an irrefutable happiness. It was early morning, autumnally silent. Realising how mistaken we had been about each other and how in my precipitate ignorance I had thrown out all her experienced calculations, we laughed as people do who have escaped, by miracle, from some deadly peril and find themselves safe and secure.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, Narrative 1 – I’ll Stand By You : The Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner & Valentine Ackland

Thus, begins the story of an enduring love affair that was to last almost 40 years, between two extraordinary women : the great short story writer, novelist and poet, Sylvia Townsend Warner, and the poet Valentine Ackland. During their life together, from 1930 until Valentine’s death in 1969, they regularly wrote to each other, not just when they were apart, but also when they were actually together. The letters are a rich and intimate account of the relationship between the two.

As I am also reading Warner’s diaries at the same time, closely in pace with the letters so as to have a more complete and comprehensive picture of Warner and the place and time during which the documents were recorded, I can see a stark contrast between the two (diaries & letters).

Virginia Woolf once wrote an entry in her diary, “Do I ever write, even here, for my own eye? If not, for whose eye?”. While Woolf uses her journal predominantly to analyse her life, Warner is much more interested in description, and how to make sense of everyday things through observation. When she wrote her diary, it was ‘for her own eye’, as if she were writing letters to herself. She records only what is considered as untypical experiences to her, and not the things that are considered as the norm in her daily living because in her own words :

One need not write in a diary what one is to remember for ever.

As such, because her unanimity with Valentine was the bedrock of her life, she hardly mentions it, noting instead the setbacks and differences. It builds up an oddly negative picture of illness, trouble and disagreement, which will not endear any reader to Valentine, though their love was the be-all and end-all of Warner’s existence.In the years following Valentine’s death, Warner constantly goes back through their happiest times, mining the old life for comfort and the remembrance of pleasure. In one poignant example, Warner recorded the details of a dream she had on 13 January 1972 :

She came and stood behind me, combing my hair: firmly, attentively, steadily; and I said no one could comb my hair but she. It was my black hair, shoulder length, but also my present hair, shaggy and matted.

Such an entry was never recorded in her diaries during the years when such a scenario was most likely to have taken place. This was because, for Warner, it would seem unremarkable during that time when such a thing was considered as part of the fabric of her life, thus need not be recorded.

While she left clear instruction for the publication of their love letters, which she had spent years sorting, re-typing and annotating, she felt her diaries were ‘too sad’ to be published, for they show Valentine in such a generally poor light. The letters on the other hand glorify Valentine, and constitute a monument Warner was proud to erect to their passion. The letters were where Warner had poured out her all, into.

When the solitary (Valentine) came in halfway through Violet’s tea-party, I was not prepared for someone so romantically young and elegant – tall, slender as a willow-wand, sweet scented as a spray of Cape Jessamine, almost as silent too.
Our meeting was not a success. She had come to meet the writer of my poetry, found her talking among talkers, thought her aggressively witty and overbearing. I was disconcerted by feeling myself so gravely and dispassionately observed by someone I was making a poor impression on. She was young, poised and beautiful, and I was none of these things. I re-couped my self esteem by deciding we could have nothing in common and that I need think no more about her, and in my pique I allowed this decision to be slightingly obvious.
I thought no more of her. Once or twice on later visits to Beth Car, I saw her sliding out of the house by the back door as I entered it. Once or twice as I was walking alone over the downs I caught sight of her turning off in an opposite direction.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, Narrative 1 – I’ll Stand By You : The Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner & Valentine Ackland

Although they had gotten off on a rather bad start, once the initial misunderstandings and misconceptions were cleared, they found themselves setting up house together at Chaldon, not as lovers at first, but rather as an arrangement that seemed appropriate to their individual circurmstances at that time.

We continued to be formal. Living at such close quarters and dependent on each other’s consideration for freedom of mind, a degree of formality was essential.
[…] Our relationship was a sort of unintimate intimacy; a relationship between two people who liked each other’s company and leave it at that, fortunate castaways on a desert island. We read. We listened to music….
[…] We learned more about our likings and our opinions, but not much more about ourselves. She did not talk herself and I did not ask questions; it was the code of good middle-class manners we had been brought up to practise, and the fashion of the day reinforced it. Confidences were out.
‘Let us be very strange and well-bred; let us be as strange as though we had been married a great while; and as well-bred as if we were not married at all.’ We followed Millamant’s prescription.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, Narrative 1 – I’ll Stand By You : The Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner & Valentine Ackland

They did not follow Millamant’s prescription for long though.

The letters between Warner and Valentine Ackland were some of the most intense, expressive and explicit letters between lovers that I have ever come across. Or maybe it’s just me who hasn’t read enough love letters to make a fair statement of that. Either way, I’ll leave you dear readers to be a judge of that for yourselves as I’ll be sharing more excerpts of their letters in the next post.

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2 thoughts on ““Love amazes, but it does not surprise.”

  1. From what I read in Warner’s very personal letters to William Maxwell, I can imagine just how explicit she’d be in writing to Valentine. Warner was so open and honest in her writing, all her feelings poured out onto the page. It does make for wonderful reading but what an intense experience!

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    1. Yes, Warner is very transparent in her letters indeed. And she really does seem proud to share this great love of her life with the whole world. Her only precaution in this matter was that the letters are to be published only after ensuring that every person mentioned in those letters are dead. This is to avoid causing any hurt or embarassment to anyone. But as for Warner herself, she had never felt embarrassed or ashamed of her love for Valentine.

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