Thursday, 7 June 2012

For Sylvia by Valentine Ackland

When I started reading For Sylvia: An Honest Account by Valentine Ackland (published posthumously, in 1985) I was rather prepared to loathe the author.  I've recently read Sylvia Townsend Warner's Diaries, and I haven't come across more heartbreaking diary entries than those concerning the period when Ackland (STW's partner for decades) decided to move her lover Elizabeth Wade White into their home, while Sylvia Townsend Warner moved out to a hotel, as some sort of experiment.  Although Warner is devoted to Ackland until Ackland's death, and indeed until her own, she comes across as a selfish, cruel person.  It is perhaps unsurprising that when writing about herself, a more sympathetic portrait is drawn - and the fact that Ackland writes so well swept me along for a lot of it.  Although I have to say, a more miserable portrait than the cover photo I do not think I have ever seen.  I'm not sure a more miserable portrait is possible.  It didn't make me immediately warm to her.

For Sylvia isn't wholly an autobiography - it is, as the title suggests, an account of Ackland's life, written for Sylvia. Having said that, the 'for Sylvia' bit doesn't particularly influence the style or structure - she isn't addressed as 'you' at any point, but remains 'Sylvia' - so perhaps it is safest to call For Sylvia a memoir.  In essentials it deals with two broad aspects of Ackland's life - one being her romantic life, and the other being her battle with alcoholism.

Ackland starts by addressing that which every memoir needs: the pivotal moment of its subject's life:
The 'crisis': it has been laid down that this should grip the reader's interest, grapple him to the author, and amke it impossible for him to put the book down until he has finished it, or at least impossible for him to return it to the lending library by the next post.  But the 'crisis' in this particular life is very difficult to describe; for one thing, it is hard to know whether it happened in a flash or whether, in point of fact, it matured rather slowly and broke, as it were, creamily and in silence.  This 'crisis', too, is not directly concerned with a sexual upheaval, which makes it perhaps less enthralling to the reader than it was to the author.  However; it happened, and it was undoubtedly the sharpest possible crisis any life can know, for all it was so quiet and did not so much as cause a ripple on the surface of domestic life.
She is writing of her alcoholism, which had dominated much of her life for 19 years.  More particularly, the crisis is actually the end of this domination.  I know they say you cannot cure alcoholism, but the night in question - 8th October 1947 - was the last time Ackland felt the need for alchol.  Although with very, very little Christian faith at this point (she wavered quite a lot) she prayed to God.  'There was no reply.'  And yet, the following evening, after being ill all day, 'I suddenly realised that I was walking in tranquility and with perfect confidence; and that tranquillity and assurance has never left me.'  I don't wish to undermine the battles faced by those with alcoholism when trying to stop drinking; I am merely recounting the 'crisis' with which Ackland opens her memoir.

It is quite a structurally peculiar way to start.  Although Ackland does mention alcoholism at many points throughout For Sylvia (which, by the way, is short - 135 pages, including a 24-page introduction by Bea Howe) the rest of the memoir is structured chronologically, and focuses upon her various relationships, especially those with the anonymous R and X. 

I shan't summarise Ackland's accounts of her various love affairs - they take up most of the book.  I will simply write that (a) it is astonishing the number of women who throw themselves upon Valentine without the slightest provocation, and without knowing that she was a lesbian - Valentine herself didn't know for the first few, and (b) that it can't have made for very charming reading for Sylvia.  Although Ackland writes very well about her life, and has a simple, calm, flowing style which I had not expected of her, she isn't being very kind to her intended audience.  I get the feeling that, just as I forgot that Sylvia had been apostrophised at the beginning, so Ackland forgot, and became too involved with the tangled webs of her love affairs.  And they are often very tangled.  Ackland got married to a poor, bewildered man after a lengthy engagement - saying, shortly beforehand, that she will either marry him tomorrow or not at all.  She refuses to consummate the marriage, but immediately commits adultery with her long-term female lover.  Indeed, there is barely a time when Ackland isn't being, or considering being, unfaithful.  'I wonder,' she writes at one point, 'if anyone in the world was ever so idiotically vile as I was, for the best part of my youth.'  Ah!  A moment of self-awareness! (one thinks).  But one would be wrong.  Despite devoting paragraphs at various junctures to praise of Warner's character and their love for one another, the reader then comes upon this:
I write this on a day when I have heard that I at any time now another one I love will come to live with me here, in this house where Sylvia and I have lived for twelve years together, through bitterness of private woe, through war, through my degradation and shame and throuhg the almost two years accomplished of my heavenly rescue and our increasing happiness and peace.  I do not know how this new thing has come about, nor whether it is the work of heaven of hell.  I cannot, for more than a moment at a time, realize what it will be like to be here without Sylvia - or anywhere without Sylvia.  But I have a conviction that this must be tried; although it is so dangerous that I can scarcely dare measure it even in my fancy.
I couldn't remember, whilst reading For Sylvia, whether it has been written before or after this crisis in their relationship (for it was not permanent; Ackland chose Warner, and Warner came back to her own home, her own possessions) and was quite shocked that Ackland could write the above excerpt in the midst of eulogising their love.  I daresay I shouldn't judge her, but it is difficult to read her wanton cruelty, having read Warner's diaries.  In a book which centres on a person's actions and motivations, it is impossible not to assess and respond to them.

Whilst I was reading For Sylvia, the genuine quality of Ackland's writing, and (for some reason) its merit as good prose, made me feel a little more sympathetic to her.  I remain, of course, sympathetic to her plight with alcohol.  But in remembering her unkindness, her cruelty to Sylvia, and her absurd belief that it 'must be' done, I lose patience altogether.  It should be possible to separate writer and person, and I do admire Ackland more as a writer than I thought I would, but For Sylvia is an exercise in self-delusion - interesting, involving, but also infuriating.


  1. I find this fascinating, Simon. In her introduction to 'Lolly Willowes', Sarah Waters seems to eulogise the relationship between Valentine Ackland and Sylvia Townsend Warner, but you've given me an entirely different perspective! I did read a biography of Sylvia about 15 years ago which hinted at unhappiness in the relationship; I've also dipped into Sylvia's diaries and read about Ackland's death. Poor Sylvia, I feel....

    1. I read somewhere - maybe in Sarah Waters' piece, now you mention it - that meeting Valentine had 'saved' Sylvia. How I spluttered!

  2. I've also read this, albeit years ago, but I agree that Valentine can be difficult to like. She comes over a little better in the Claire Harman biography - I think Sylvia's diaries are, quite reasonably, an outlet for her feelings and therefore the Valentine that emerges from them is quite negative - and in the selection of letters between the women published as I'll Stand By You. Valentine's life always seems rather thwarted to me, she couldn't seem to find her place anywhere, which is very sad.

    1. You're right, of course, I can't judge entirely by her diaries. I do have I'll Stand By You, so must read that soon - I'll have to get over my prejudice before I start reading, though!

    2. There are lots of lovely STW letters to sweeten the pill! I cannot see STW as somebody who required 'saving' in any way. However, I can see why Sarah Waters wants to celebrate their relationship - for a lot of their time together, it did work well, and detailed, intimate accounts of long-lasting lesbian relationships like this are like hen's teeth, at least pre-1960.

    3. I suppose that's what Waters (or whoever did say it) meant. To my mind, the only person who saved her in any way was David Garnett - she often attributes him with being the first to suggest that she could be a writer.

      And those lovely letters! If she had written nothing else but her letters to William Maxwell, she would still be a great writer.

  3. I know I would find this difficult to read. My sympathies are wholly with Sylvia and the more I read about Ackland, the worse I feel for the devoted Sylvia.

    1. Oh, I know! Poor Sylvia. The odd thing is that she seemed grateful to Valentine in the end, so perhaps I should just let her feel what she wanted to feel.


Thanks so much for taking the time to comment - my favourite part of blogging is reading your comments!

Annoyingly, Blogger often messes up with comments... try refreshing, or commenting Anonymously (add your name in, though!) or using Firefox/Chrome instead of Internet Explorer. (Ctrl+c your comment first!)

Failing everything, email me: simondavidthomas[at] - or just email me anyway :)