Tuesday, April 20

Gay, Communist, Female: Why MI5 Blacklisted Poet Valentine Ackland | Biography books

WWith the help of the Dorset police, MI5 confidently approached three potential subversive terrorists who lived together quietly near the sea nearly 85 years ago. Local officials had been alerted to their shared communist sympathies and were now monitoring the suspects: Ackland, Townsend and Warner, each considered a threat to Britain’s security in the run-up to World War II.

But in fact, as recently released secret service documents show, this potentially dangerous trio under covert surveillance were actually poets. What’s more, there were only two of them: lesbian lovers Valentine Ackland and Sylvia Townsend Warner.

A new biography of Ackland, due out next month, will reveal the Secret Service’s level of confusion about this pair of unconventional writers at the start of the long period during which they both came under state scrutiny. All of his correspondence was stopped and read by MI5 officers without his knowledge, and Ackland’s subsequent attempts to enlist for major war work were blocked.

“There are all these hand-copied versions of his letters, which must have been handcrafted by sitting bureaucrats in tweed jackets, as I imagine,” said biographer Frances Bingham, author of the first great study of the cross. dressing poet and activist. Your book Valentine Ackland, A Life of Transgressor It will be published on May 20 by the Handheld Press to commemorate 115 years since Ackland was born.

“I investigated this part of the couple’s life at the Public Record Office in Kew and could see that the government had searched in vain for some definitive evidence against them,” Bingham said this weekend.

Book Cover: Valentine Ackland: A Transgressive Life by Frances Bingham
Frances Bingham’s biography is published on May 20, 2021, 115 years after Ackland was born.

“The authorities first learned of Ackland in 1935 when he wrote to the British Communist Party. She offered them the use of her car and was ready to become a driver. MI5 assumed it was a man and wrote to the local police saying they should keep an eye on them. “

Ackland, born Mary Kathleen in London in 1906 and known as Molly in her youth, her father, who had no children, had taught her to drive and shoot. His lover, Townsend Warner, was a writer who is still acclaimed for his novels and short stories, including a best-selling debut, Lolly willowes. The couple lived in intermittent harmony for 30 years until Ackland’s death in 1969.

“MI5 told police they wanted to know if there was anything ‘abnormal’ about Ackland,” said Bingham, who has previously edited a collection of Ackland poetry. “While this question and the mistakes about their gender, including the fact that they initially thought Townsend Warner was two people, made me laugh at first, a moment later it shook me. It was clear that being gay and being a threat to society were one and the same in their minds. These people were communists and they were queers, and both were very bad. “

At the age of 19, Ackland had married a man, Richard Turpin. But the union was a mistake from the beginning. And so in 1925, already sporting a youthful Eton crop and menswear, the reluctant wife moved to the Dorset village of Chaldon to escape. She met Townsend Warner, 12 years her senior, shortly after.

Valentine (right, dressed in men's clothing) and Sylvia Townsend Warner (left, wearing glasses).
Valentine (right, dressed in men’s clothing) and Sylvia Townsend Warner (left, wearing glasses). Photography: Warner-Ackland Estate

In 1934, the writers jointly published a sensational collection of erotic love poems, Whether it’s a pigeon or a seagull. The verses appeared anonymously, blurring the identities of the poets.

That year they also joined the Communist Party.

Ackland, who had begun to experiment with a simpler writing style, began to publish widely in the left-wing press. Together, the couple volunteered for the British Red Cross in Barcelona during the Spanish civil war, where they were delegates to a conference of anti-fascist writers in Madrid and visited the front lines in Guadalajara. Ackland’s articles (from “our working correspondent”) captured the idealism and chaos of republican Spain, but he also wrote what Bingham describes as “melancholic poems” lamenting the victory of fascism.

After Spain, the couple moved inland in Dorset, to a riverside house in Frome Vauchurch, where they remained for the rest of their lives. As the war against Germany raged, Ackland felt herself a prisoner in the west of the country, with repeated applications to use her driving skills for the mysteriously repulsed Allied campaign.

“She was a communist in the sense that she was always on the side of the underdog,” Bingham said. “Although she had a wealthy background, she felt like a stranger. He was very anti-Nazi, but even though he was the right age, he didn’t get an interesting job in wartime.

“This was because, without his knowledge, he was blacklisted. All she was able to get was a minor administrative job, and she was eventually transferred to the civil defense, and even there her superiors were warned not to let her see or hear anything. She had no idea. “

Ackland’s poem Teaching to Shoot, from this period, describes the disturbing process of instructing Townsend Warner on how to use a weapon, in anticipation of a Nazi invasion.

Ackland died of cancer at age 63. Townsend Warner survived the woman she called “my light and my gravity” for almost nine years and spent much of that time editing a posthumous collection of Ackland poetry. The nature of the momentand preparing your letters for publication.

“I see Ackland as a pioneering precursor to modern lesbian writing and I want to celebrate her determination to live like herself,” said Bingham, who runs Potters’ Yard Arts in London with her partner, Liz Mathews. “I find his story very inspiring.”


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