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Gay, communist, female: why MI5 blacklisted the poet Valentine Ackland | Biography books

With the help of Dorset police, MI5 were confidently closing in on three subversive potential terrorists living quietly together near the sea almost 85 years ago. Local officers had been alerted to their shared communist sympathies and were now monitoring the suspects: Ackland, Townsend and Warner, each one deemed a threat to Britain’s security in the run-up to the second world war.

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

A new biography of Ackland, out next month, is to reveal the level of secret service confusion about this unconventional pair of writers at the beginning of the long period during which they were both objects of state scrutiny. All their correspondence was stopped and read by MI5 officers without their knowledge, and Ackland’s later attempts to enlist for significant war work were blocked.

“There are all these hand-copied versions of their letters, which must have been made in longhand by bureaucrats sitting around in tweed jackets, as I imagine it,” said the biographer Frances Bingham, author of the first major study of the cross-dressing poet and activist. Her book Valentine Ackland, A Transgressive Life will be published on 20 May by Handheld Press to mark 115 years since Ackland’s birth.

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

Book cover: Valentine Ackland: A Transgressive Life by Frances Bingham
Frances Bingham’s biography is published on 20 May 2021, 115 years to the day since Ackland was born.

“The authorities first heard about Ackland in 1935 when she wrote to the British Communist party. She offered them the use of her car and was prepared to become a driver. MI5 presumed she was a man and wrote to their local police force saying they should check up on them.”

Ackland, born Mary Kathleen in London in 1906 and known as Molly in her youth, had been taught to drive and to shoot by her father, who had no sons. Her lover, Townsend Warner, was a writer who is still acclaimed for her novels and short stories, including a debut bestseller, Lolly Willowes. The couple lived together in intermittent harmony for 30 years until Ackland’s death in 1969.

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

At the age of 19, Ackland had married a man, Richard Turpin. But the union was a mistake from the first. And so, in 1925, already sporting a boyish Eton crop and men’s clothes, the reluctant wife moved down to the Dorset village of Chaldon to escape. She met Townsend Warner, 12 years her senior, soon afterwards.

Valentine (on the right, dressed in men’s clothes) and Sylvia Townsend Warner (left, wearing glasses).
Valentine (on the right, dressed in men’s clothes) and Sylvia Townsend Warner (left, wearing glasses). Photograph: Warner-Ackland Estate

In 1934 the writers jointly published a sensational collection of erotic love poems, Whether a Dove or Seagull. The verses appeared anonymously, blurring the identities of the poets.

That year they also both joined the Communist party.

Ackland, who had begun to experiment with a simpler writing style, started to be widely published in the leftwing press. Together, the couple volunteered for the British Red Cross in Barcelona during the Spanish civil war, where they were delegates to an anti-fascist writers’ conference in Madrid and visited the front lines at Guadalajara. Ackland’s articles (from “our worker correspondent”) captured the idealism and chaos of republican Spain, but she also wrote what Bingham describes as “melancholy poems” that lamented the victory of fascism.

After Spain, the couple moved inland in Dorset, to a riverside house in Frome Vauchurch, where they stayed for the rest of their lives. As the war against Germany played out, Ackland felt imprisoned in the west country, with repeated applications to use her driving skills for the allied campaign mysteriously turned down.

“She was a communist in the sense that she was always on the side of the underdog,” said Bingham. “Although she was from a wealthy background, she felt an outsider. She was very anti-Nazi, but despite the fact she was the right age, she didn’t get an interesting wartime job.

“This was because, without her knowledge, she was blacklisted. All she could get was minor clerical work, and she was eventually moved over to civil defence, and even there her superiors were warned not to let her see or overhear anything. She had no idea.”

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

Ackland died of cancer at 63. Townsend Warner survived the woman she called “my light and my gravity” by almost nine years and spent much of that time editing a posthumous collection of Ackland’s poetry, The Nature of the Moment, and preparing their letters for publication.

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

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