FRANCES BINGHAM has written a biography that reads like an Iris Murdoch novel, specifically A Fairly Honourable Defeat. It’s a moving portrait of the life of British poet Valentine Ackland (1906–1969), but it’s also about her longtime companion Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893–1978), an accomplished novelist and poet. Both writers have gone out of fashion, and Ackland is often difficult to admire, but they both led rather fascinating lives. (Full disclosure: I met Bingham in 2017, when her play The Blue Hour of Natalie Barney premiered at the Arcola theater in London. After the play, Bingham and I briefly talked about varieties of lesbian relationships in the 1920s.)
Ackland and Warner became lovers in 1930 after passing three bliss-filled days and nights making love. This sexual passion cemented their relationship for life, along with Warner’s promise to “stand by Valentine always.” Ackland sowed the seeds of suffering for herself and others throughout her life by her flagrant sexuality. Warner absorbed the abuse in Christ-like fashion, accepting it without passing it on. Warner’s love was indispensable to Ackland’s sense of security. Each had something to give the other, something they alone could give.
When they met, Molly Ackland Turpin was nineteen years old, almost six feet tall, and extremely thin. She could easily have been mistaken for an English schoolboy: pale, slender, reserved in the extreme, with a lock of dark hair falling over a high forehead. Despite being totally repulsed by her husband, Richard Turpin, she went through with the humiliating removal of her hymen so her closeted gay husband could impregnate her in his rape-like way of lovemaking. She did become pregnant, miscarried at five months, and spent years grieving this loss.