Three’s a crowd : Enter Elizabeth Wade White ~ Letters Between STW & VA (part 3)

EWW (standing - left), VA (standing - right) & STW (sitting)

After leaving the blissful days of Frankfort Manor behind, Warner and Valentine resumed back their previous days of village life, at a cottage in West Chaldon. During this period, both Warner and Valentine began their involvement in politics and were accepted into the Communist Party in the spring of 1935. Both worked for the Red Cross unit in Barcelona during the Civil War in Spain and were sent as part of the British delegation to the 2nd International Congress of Writers in Defense of Culture, in 1937.
Despite their struggles to make ends meet, as can be seen in Valentine’s letter with regards to receiving the doctor’s bill here :
Gray has sent in his bill. It is awful. We must not get ill again for two years anyway. Thank heaven, doctors need not be paid at once, so we’ll keep him waiting (he is rich enough) until my next quarter comes in and I shall not buy any more books at all and no wine.”
Warner and Valentine were still very much in love and committed to each other.

STW – 8 December 1935
I don’t see how you can have any idea how completely you have changed my days. Even I haven’t except when some particular set of circumstances like this pricks it into me. It is as if I had always been in a half light, an eskimo existence of perpetual twilight. Carelessly just now, I said to Mrs Parker, speaking of my arrangement for the evening, that I should be quite happy.
‘No, you won’t,’ she said. ‘You won’t be happy, so don’t you go about to say so. I saw your long face when Miss Ackland was going away.'”

STW – 6 October 1937
“Write to me often, I live by your letters. Write to me truly. I don’t think I am clever enough to read between the lines, or if I think I must, then I read volumes. Write to me truly. Tell me how you are, what your bed is like (I mean, what the mattress is like, the unembalmed mattress). What you are wearing, the colour of your eyes. Tell me the compliments you have, they please me better than they please you, though they may please you too. Tell me what is unpleasant, uncomfortable, annoying, for I shall imagine it anyhow, I would much rather you told me. The best thing you can tell me in any letter is the date, for each date will bring you nearer back. Tell me the date, the hour, whether you are sitting in a straight or a curly chair, whether your window faces east or west.
[….] But most of all, you are so far more than duty to me – tell me how you are, and tell me you take care.”

In August 1937, Warner and Valentine had once again relocated themselves, moving into Frome Vauchurch, a house by the River Frome in Maiden Newton, Dorset, where they were to remain for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately though, it was not to be lived out as “happily ever after”. The arrival of Elizabeth Wade White, an American heiress whom Warner had been corresponding with and trying to raise funds from for the Spanish Medical Aid, changed everything.

We had been in our new house for little more than a year when a new love exploded in it.
I cannot trust myself to write a true account of the twelvemonth that followed. I know she began it in an amazement of passion and gratified desire and I with resolute good intentions to behave as I thought I should behave; that she truly believed she could love (as she said to me) in two directions at once; that in the end, drained of every vestige of joy, every illusion of good intentions, we still trusted each other enough to survive.
But what I remember is so infected by what I felt that it comes back with obsessive reality/ unreality of delirium. There are no letters, no diaries; a few sharply impressed incidents and the witness of poems hers and mine) written during that year is all I dare be sure of.

Elizabeth was my doing. [….] We met twice, I think, when she was in England with her family. She was wealthy. When I was raising money for the Spanish Medical Aid, I asked her to contribute. Later she came to Europe meaning to attach herself to a pro-Republican organisation in Paris, and stayed here for a few days en route. From Paris, she wrote that her courage had failed her, she had got nowhere, she must go home. We pitied her and suggested she should visit us.
But it was not from pity that Valentine fell in love with her.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, Narrative 8 – I’ll Stand By You : The Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner & Valentine Ackland

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A house to live and to love in ~ Letters between STW & VA (part 2)

STW
Little Zeal, 22 August 1931

My Dearest Love,

After I had finished my letter to you last night I got into bed, and felt as I curled up, my warm shoulder – and thought, This is Valentine’s wife.
You have no idea what you’ve escaped. I found in a book of sayings about weathers and signs and times of year a set of sooth-sayings about the character of wives according to the month they are married in. If you had waited a month later you would have married a ‘chattermag’ – in August, a spendthrift. But a January bride, it says, will make a prudent housewife and has a sweet temper.  […..]

Sylvia

Having decided to mark the 11th of  January 1931 as their ‘marriage night’, Warner & Valentine had since then been spending their time between staying together in their little Chaldon cottage, as well as back at their own separate homes in London (for Warner) and Winterton (for Valentine). Occasionally, Warner had to also spend time at her mother’s home at Little Zeal, especially after the death of her step-father. Warner’s mother had her initial reservations towards her daughter’s ‘intense and sudden friendship’ with Valentine, and has shown more hostility than acceptance in the matter. But over time, Mrs Warner slowly mellowed, as shown in one of Warner’s letters in September 1932.

  Meanwhile, wonders do not cease. This evening, while Nora (Mrs Warner) and I were straying around the china cabinet, she suddenly handed me a small object and remarked – By the way, I found this and thought that you and Miss Ackland might like it.
I looked. It was a China pomade pot, circa about 1870, in an early Goss manner. It was dark fig-green, and had on the lid a picture of two ladies out walking. One was tall and one was short, both alike wore black riding-boots, black coats and black top-hats. They were walking past a Gothic cell and a greyhound precedes them; and underneath (have you guessed it?) it says : The Ladies of Llangollen.

The cottage in Chaldon proved too small for a permanent home, and in July 1933, Warner & Valentine took a lease on Frankfort Manor, a beautiful seventeenth century house near Sloley, Norfolk. Here, they enjoyed one of the happiest times of their lives together. However, they were forced to leave about a year later, being drained of their funds in the  heavy legal costs resulting from a libel case involving them and the Chaldon Vicarage.

In a letter prior to leaving London for Frankfort Manor :

STW
Inverness Terrace, 1 June 1933

My dearest Love,

   How carefully I put these dates and places of parting. In the time before you, one day, one place, seemed as good as another to mope in; but now, on this day so like our love, so blue, so fervent, and yet so living and stirring, and in this room that still echoes with your presence, there is an odd reality about being alone, and ready to mope. But mope I will not, I do not so easily forget the promises I made with your lips upon mine; and after I have written to you, I will go down into that placid empty kitchen, and sort out the dishes, the glasses, the cooking pots which however they go, will go to our married estate. […..]
William (Warner’s ageing dog) has gone out to grieve in the garden; he reproached me with wails when I came in alone, and then rushed downstairs to tell his sorrows to the polygonum and the dustbins. [….]
A house is so much to us if we are to live and to love in it. But what is any house to me, any world, any wilderness of a lovely world, or the least, rasping-without, sleek-within, beech-mast cap that may fall on our drive, except for you, my light and my gravity? Care only for yourself, only for all I have.
My love, my dearest most-mated dear, I send you my love.

Sylvia

It was a beautifully proportioned house, with a Dutch gable and a reed-thatched roof – filled with the noise of trees. Valentine found it, exploring inland, but only because her quick eye caught sight of it behind its rampart of trees …. [….] It stood in that stretch of Norfolk where the soil is deep and fertile: a soil for oaks and chestnuts to plunge their roots into. We never found time to count all the trees but there must have been nearly a hundred of them.
‘We have a library now’, I wrote to Llewelyn Powys, ‘all Valentine’s books and mine at last assembled and in order.’ [….] The house was extravagantly too large for us – another reason for delighting in it.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, Narrative 5 – I’ll Stand By You : The Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner & Valentine Ackland

The house and gardens provided them with the perfect rural location in which to write and potter about. Warner’s The Cat’s Cradle Book(1960) was inspired by a family of cats that lived in the hall’s outbuildings. The book is a collection of short stories seen from a cat’s point of view.

It was after William’s death that the rough cats declared themselves. There was an indigenous tribe of them, thick-coated, low to the ground, moving with a swift slouching gait. They preyed on rats and birds, ate acorns and sweet chestnuts and grew familiar enough to come as far as the back door for scraps; but held no intercourse with our housecats, though when we domesticated one of the rough kittens, it attached itself to me with intense affection.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, Narrative 5 – I’ll Stand By You : The Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner & Valentine Ackland

In her autobiography For Sylvia, Valentine describes the house’s attractions as follows:

At Frankfort Manor, then, we lived in a kind of solemn, fairy story splendour. The first spring and summer brought nothing but miraculous days. Every day a fresh discovery; one day I found white currents….another day we met a hedgehog walking up the drive, another day I was picking green peas into a colander and saw the earth near my feet heaving and a mole emerged and I caught it instantly in the colander and carried it in to Sylvia and set it down beside her typewriter on her table.

Warner herself describes their days at Frankfort Manor as follows :

Throughout the autumn, we worked hard and honestly in the kitchen garden.There was about an acre of it, four square plots with flower-borders smothered in bindweed, two asparagus beds and a fruit wall. When we arrived, the ground was under potatoes. These we sold to a fish and chip shop on the Wroxham Road. [….] We made jam and conserves and pickles and sold them. We needed every penny we could raise if we were to stay on in this kind paradise where we were so happy, so hard-working, so good. Goodness is like a flower of the locality. We were never again so unimpededly good as we were at Frankfort Manor.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, Narrative 5 – I’ll Stand By You : The Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner & Valentine Ackland

It was also during this time at Frankfort Manor that their first and only collaborative work, a book of poetry titled Whether a Dove or a Seagull, was published. It was truly a time of happiness and productivity, a time that was to be deeply cherished by Warner.

There was a Victorian wire arch over a path in the kitchen garden, and I remember hanging grey kittens among its lolloping pink roses to get them out of my way as I thinned carrots, and thinking as I heard Valentine whistling nearby : ‘It would not be possible to know greater happiness.’
It did not occur to me that such happiness might be too good to last.

“We had liked, now we loved….” ~ Letters between STW & VA (part 1)

VA
Chaldon, 13 October 1930

I meant to give you this today – anyhow it is obviously yours because your hands are so beautiful. But a mourning ring is not suitable to our state. However, the design is delicate and charming, and the curve and texture of the setting is lovely enough to remind me of you, but nothing is adequate. There is not anything that could speak to you for me.
This is not a letter. I am awaiting your word. I shall tell you nothing, except that I have not yet started to tell you how I love you.
This rose came from the front garden. A month seems an intolerably long time, but I shall spend it in devising pleasures for you. And you will come to taste them? The sun is coming in through the sitting room window and trying to put out the fire – but that legend is not true. I am not put out. And there is a blinding sun shining upon me. You will enjoy it, and be happy, my dear – and not forget me?

Valentine


STW
London, 14 October 1930

My dear love,

The ring is on my finger. I look at it, and remember seeing it on yours. And the rose is beside me, sitting a little self-consciously in a liqueur glass. It must have been the warmth of our love flowing out of the window that bloomed it, for I saw the bud a week ago, a small cross thing, and thought : you will never open before the winter.
You spoke with such determination, and I believe all your words, so implicitly that I did not expect anything, not even ‘This is not a letter’ this morning. So though I woke early I shut my eyes again, and imagined rather successfully, that you had come in and were looking at me.
[….] My hands are not beautiful, my dear. They were once, but now they are spoiled, like most of the rest of me. I say most; for by some strange mercy my sensitiveness has remained unbattered. I can give you that without self reproach or sighing.
[….] Last night I walked into the cottage and saw you sitting alone by the fire, and thinking about me. It will not be long before I come again, not all of a month. And it would take you much longer than a month, my darling, to finish devising pleasures for me. I know you, and how there is no end to your generosity and patient skill to please. I want no pleasure but to be with you, but I will take all you can give me and be grateful.
You can have no idea how many people there are in London. Yet so far I don’t seem to have seen anyone. They are there, and I talk to them, and answer their questions about my cottage, and they seem to hear my answers. But it is hard to believe in them. They are like the bleached shadows one opens one’s eyes to after looking at the sun with one’s eyes shut. My eyes have been a good deal shut lately, my sun, as you know. No wonder my vision is affected. […..] I thought of a ring, too. But you will not put it on till tomorrow, for there was a pearl to be replaced. Meanwhile, here is an ivory armoury for you to play with.
[….] Take care of yourself, I love you so desperately.

Sylvia

VA
Chaldon, 15 October 1930

My most dear love,
How well you know me already. The armoury has occupied me for over an hour. I came donwstairs in my pyjamas and my dressing gown, duly lighted the fire, and sat at the table, selecting first one and then the next delight. [….] I have already selected the finest and sharpest as deadly weapons; to be used on your guests, with your consent, if they really outstay our tender patience. They will have the ineffable consolation of a delicious death. Your gloomy foresight is justified in me. I have had to spend many anxious and cross minutes in searching for the hiding holes which conceal various cereals and spices. I find that during all your careful tour of the storeroom, I was noting down as carefully each movement and form and shape of you. I can walk from larder to cupboard and shelf to shelf with you, even now remembering accurately the shape of your hands and the feel of your lovely shoulder.
But find the pepper I cannot. [….] I wonder, and I am afraid. What will happen when you realise how unlearned I am – and how I know nothing of wit and wisdom. How undeveloped my mind is and how slow. And when you are forced by proof to believe all this – lack of ability, cowardice, and all the rest. [….] I have nothing to give you which is worthy of you, except that my love is great. You must desire the pleasures I am devising for you. I think you will. You would not receive love so beautifully unless you enjoyed and desired it.
[….] My dear, you are not to buy me wine. You are not to buy me anything like that. You are not to spend more than three-halfpence a day (* letter postage at that date) and a certain amount of time. As much of that as you will; when it is not being put to its right use, which is the writing of poetry.
[….] My most loved one. I long for you so much that the weight on my heart is intolerable. Everything which gives me happiness here (and in this house each thing does delight me) and everything I see; small things to please me when I am walking, or shapely things, or rude and angry and strong things. Clouds especially, and trees. They all bring you to me – literally, as if you were led by the hand and my heart cries out because each time you go away unkissed.
When we meet. What will happen – probably no more than a kiss. But let it be soon.

Valentine

 

STW
London, 16 October 1930

My lovely, my dearest, my long lass, tomorrow is the next best day to today. [….] I cannot believe that I shall see you so soon, that you will lighten upon me. My darling, is it possible that we can be happier than ever? [….] Yesterday I went out to dinner and ate , I hang my head to confess it, boiled cod followed by roast mutton. [….] How can you love a woman who has eaten boiled cod?
[….] I could not answer your yesterday letter properly owing to the world being so much with me, and so I had no time to enquire into why you were abashed by Francis’s remarks about the publication of worse poetry than his or yours. Why were you abashed? For his bad manners, I hope, not for your good poems. Do you really think that I don’t know good from bad? [….] Your poetry, I say it again, is true and good, and beautifully and cleanly made. It has really got your quality, it is proud and violent and controlled. I was haunted by it long before I had opened my dull ungrateful senses to you, and I feel exactly about it now as I did then. I read it through and through again the other day, to see if love made any difference. It made none. And I cannot conceive a sharper test than that. With every achieved line I loved you better, but the poems still keep me at my distance, and it is the prerogative of good art to do that to the reader – to be haughty and arbitrary.
How did you make those snail shells smell of you so unmistakeably and excitingly? If you had sent me two of your shirts they could not have plagued me into trembling more. They lie on the table and I eye them every now and then, their defiant smooth colours, their polished slopes; and I shy away, and hear my heart hurry, and know that presently they will have their way with me, and I must pick them up and smell them again. And then what will the Bettys say of my complexion? ‘These women know, I suppose, how you should look.’ Oh, what scorn, fury, jealousy, in those words! You suppose, do you, my tyrant? And haven’t you some definite views as to how I should look, too? No, my lover, I must put those shells away presently. They are more ruthless than you, for I can do nothing to them in return. And if I feel like this now, how shall I live out the muffle of time still between us? Oh, strip off these hours, one by one, till I feel your flesh against mine again….. [….] No, I cannot write any more. I can only express a vindictive wish that when we meet I may get a little  of my own back for this rape and outrage. I looked at your window today. I could just see the top of your door which will let me in. Then I walked on and had an entirely new view of Inverness Terrace – A Valentine’s-eye view.
Tomorrow.
My love, my tremblings, my hurrying heart’s blood.

Sylvia

How comparatively calm I began this letter.

And following Valentine’s arrival in London on 17 October 1930:

It was a five minutes’ walk from my door to hers. When she came to London I reversed the sun. My day began when I went to spend the night with her, lying in a narrow bed under a lofty ceiling. Into the four days between my departure from Chaldon and her arrival in London we had packed a month’s impatience and curiosity. We had liked, now we loved; we had to learn each other all over again.

‘O my America! my new-found land.’ My America was a continent of many climates: reckless, serious, fastidious, melancholy, sophisticated, compassionate, self-willed, self-tormenting, shy, sly, proud, suspicious : a continent of all climates of love, from vehemence to delighted amusement, from possession to cajolery. I had not believed it possible to give such pleasure, to satisfy such a variety of moods, to feel so demanded and so secure, to be loved by anyone so beautiful and to see that beauty enhanced by loving me.
The nights were so ample that there was even time to fall briefly asleep in them, to waken and eat chicken sandwiches (‘tonight I thought we would be vulgar and have champagne’), to admire her by candlelight, to stroll across to the large bare window and look at the northern sky, to be swept into more love-making, to fall asleep in her arms, to wake and admire her by light of day as she lay asleep. Waking or sleeping, it was the stillest face I have ever known, her lips betrayed nothing unless amusement slightly sharpened them into a fox’s smile; to learn what she felt, I watched the pupils of her eyes.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, Narrative 2 – I’ll Stand By You : The Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner & Valentine Ackland

“Love amazes, but it does not surprise.”

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.