Review: Frances Bingham's 'Valentine Ackland: A Transgressive Life' Impeccably Researched, Vividly Detailed

by Lewis Whittington

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday May 25, 2021

Review: Frances Bingham's 'Valentine Ackland: A Transgressive Life' Impeccably Researched, Vividly Detailed

Frances Bingham's "Valentine Ackland: A Transgressive Life" is an engrossing portrait of a nonbinary out lesbian poet, freedom fighter, and environmentalist, and voracious lover who openly defied the sexual roles and mores of Edwardian England. In a moving introduction to the book, Bingham describes her affinity to Ackland's life and art as a need to document the untold lineage of gender fluidity.

Molly Ackland was born in 1904. She embraced androgyny at an early age. Her father Richard, who was hoping to have a son, delighted in the fact that Molly dressed in male attire and refined her look and behavior as "boyish."

Everything changed when she was a on student vacation with a female friend and her father found out they were more than traveling companions. He essentially disowned her and her shipped off to a severe Catholic boarding school.

Ackland tried to conform, and even went through the motion of appearing as a beautiful London debutante from a family of wealth. Later, as Bingham reports, she described feeling completely invisible to her parents as a queer child, seeing her childhood as a "sinister heritage." And of her privileged family, she reflected: "I have never known a family as benighted as ours. A complete blank in every place. .no books, no plays, no philosophy, no science, no languages..."

But she did bow to convention enough to marry Robert Turpin, a mutually agreed convincing cover, since Turpin was also gay. They had to be married in the Catholic Church, and, at Turpin's insistence, they had to have sex, which repulsed Ackland. When they couldn't consummate the marriage, their doctor and even their priest, proscribed that Ackland have an operation to remove her hymen, which she agreed to. After this desperate move, Ackland wanted out. She escaped to a remote village with a friend, in men's clothes, and sought an annulment.

Bingham tracks Ackland's active sex life. She often dated several women at once, many of her lovers married to men. But when she met and fell in love with famed lesbian writer Sylvia Townsend Warner, she fully embraced her identity and, as she put it, shed any cover of veiled identity and "became Valentine."

Valentine was writing lots of poetry but struggling to establish her career. Her work was completely underrated in its time, even though she did publish, and there were even readings of her work on the radio. In retrospect, her poetry should be appreciated for its craft and aesthetic impact, as well as vital documentation of her time as an androgynous lesbian writer. Bingham's critical analysis of Valentine's poetry, and selections of her verse are masterfully laced throughout the book.

At the time, Valentine had to suffer the taunts of establishment poets, including Robert Frost, who was "revolted" reading her work in a volume she dedicated to him. Frost was apparently scandalized that Valentine so overtly expressed her voice as a lesbian poet - and so distressed, in fact, that he found it "emasculating."

Sylvia used her standing as a successful novelist to help Valentine, a move that Valentine regretted, feeling that people would assume any success would be due to Sylvia's influence rather than the merits of her work. Approaching 30, Valentine also decided to resume affairs with other women. Sylvia was accepting of that, but their relationship was changing.

They nearly broke up when they became involved in an emotionally charged affair with an American woman, an affair that swung from being an accepted part of their mutual love for sexual freedom to being emotionally damaging.

Meanwhile, both continued their separate writing careers, even as they became immersed in humanitarian work and environmental activism. They took dangerous trips to Spain to fight against Franco's fascist government, and, like many artists of the period, they shared their time, resources, and even their home to support fellow travelers. When they returned to England, they opened their home to refugees who were relocated to Britain during the war.

Valentine wrote about their enduring love in all its unconventional intimacy in her diaries and poems. Throughout the book, Bingham contextualizes every aspect of her relationship with Sylvia. Valentine died in 1969, with Silvia at her side.

Frances Bingham has penned a definitive biography of an important poet of the early 20th century, which includes an incisive analysis of gender roles of the era. Impeccably researched and vividly detailed, the book is also an indelible achievement to queer literature.

Ultimately "A Transgressive Life" is a testament to Valentine's courage and loyalty on all fronts.

"Valentine Ackland: A Transgressive Life," by Frances Bingham, is available from Handheld Press.

Lewis Whittington writes about the performing arts and gay politics for several publications.