Some of the most moving writing concerns Ackland's taking a lover and trying to live with both women, which had a profound impact on Warner. Interestingly, the pair wrote even when not separated, as if to clarify their thoughts and feelings. These letters will appeal to those interested in learning more about these fine writers, their reactions to one another, and the times they lived through: the Spanish Civil War, World War II, and the postwar era. -- Nancy R. Ives, SUNY at Geneseo, New York
I'll Stand by You: Selected Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Acklandby Sylvia Townsend Warner, Valentine Ackland, Susanna Pinney (Editor), Valentine Ackland, Susanna Pinney
A collection of letters that gives an account of the love between the novelist Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland, which lasted as a "marriage" for over 30 years. It also covers their involvement in the Spanish Civil War, in Communism and in World War II.
- Random House Adult Trade Publishing Group
- Publication date:
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- 6.03(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.18(d)
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The course of our future life was determined by an unamiable farmer.
As Theodore Powys would not stir out of the landscape of his novels, his London admirers had to go to the remote village of Chaldon in Dorset if they wished to meet him. I was such an early admirer that I counted as a friend and from the mid-twenties onward I used from time to time to stay with him and his wife, Violet, at Beth Car a small red brick house on a grassy hillside. It was from Violet that I first heard of Valentine. Valentine rented a cottage in the village. She lived by herself. She had married before she was twenty but the marriage had been annulled. She went for long solitary walks, wearing trousers (at that date, a novelty). She did not eat enough to keep a mouse alive. She and Theodore lent each other books. She was believed to write poetry but never spoke of it. Her mother, a widow, lived in London and was well-off. The village approved of her; she was polite to everybody and very open-handed. When Mr Goult let her drive the village bus, she drove it much faster than he did. Violet omitted to tell me that this rustic solitary had been finished in Paris.
This is the world exactly as Adam had it
Spring now, and willows flowering, and I alone
In an ash-wood, with the birds around me
Clamouring and flying, the small birds like leaves' shadows
Threading through the hedge.
As Adam may have done, I sit
On a felled bough in sunlight,
Admiring how my hair glitters
The bright gold blown lock over my brow
As Adam must have sat, the whole world his.
All around me slender branches, felled for sticks, not flowering
Ashboughs, grey and smooth, and withy wands
Silk-berried still, and the lambs' tails falling
Tasselled from the hazel sticks straight sticks and brittle
I snap them in my hands, making a summer noise.
Between this wood and the field tall ash-plants stand
And bend beneath the wind, their smooth stems making
Noise like footsteps as if someone went
In nailed boots over the stony plough of the field;
But no one is near.
No one is near. The sunlight on branches,
On black ash-buds, on my glittering hair
The sunlight and the trees conspire,
Banish time, outwit time
There is no one to come here.
The wood comes up to spring, thirsty,
As a horse comes to clear water
Drinks long and lazily,
I, with the world gone, with earth my own,
Sit solitary and glad, watching my Kingdom thrive.
When the solitary came in, halfway through Violet's tea-party, I was not prepared for someone so romantically young and elegant tall, slender as a willow-wand, sweet scented as a spray of Cape Jessamine, almost as silent, too. Our meeting was not a success. She had come to meet the writer of my poetry, found her talking among talkers, thought her aggressively witty and overbearing. I was disconcerted by feeling myself so gravely and dispassionately observed by someone I was making a poor impression on. She was young, poised and beautiful, and I was none of these things. I recouped my self-esteem by deciding we could have nothing in common and that I need think no more about her; and in my pique I allowed this decision to be slightingly obvious.
I thought no more about her. Once or twice on later visits to Beth Car, I saw her sliding out of the house by the back door as I entered it. Once or twice when I was walking alone over the downs I caught sight of her, turning off in an opposite direction. Forgetting that the company of my black chow-dog made me immediately identifiable, I assumed it was a fortunate coincidence. Sometimes Violet spoke of her: she had pleurisy, alone and unfed in her cottage; so-and-so was in love with her but she would not have him; she had been riding Katie's mare; she was in Italy.
I suppose it was a year or so after our first encounter that I got a letter asking me if I would like to borrow her cottage during the summer. There was a walnut tree. She would be away between such and such dates. I replied, truthfully as it happened, that I was unable to leave London, that she was very kind, that I was fond of walnut trees. This generosity from someone I had slighted, and the warrant of the dates that no involvement hung on it, abashed me.
I was to be more abashed. In a village, everything becomes known. The unamiable farmer heard that Valentine had offered me her cottage; assuming that she would be sub-letting it at a vast profit, he swelled with resentment and turned her out at a week's notice.
This, and that Valentine was now lodging elsewhere in the village, I heard from Violet when I next visited Beth Car. My conscience pricked me. As a result of meaning to do me a kindness, Valentine had lost her cottage, and with it her independence, her privacy, the way of!ire she had chosen. All this had come about through me; I was not responsible but I was the cause. I could do nothing to amend it; but when next we met I would try to mend my manners.
As our meetings hitherto had been merely accidental collisions this intention might have proved difficult to carry out if it had not been that we were both very fond of Theodore.
I thought he was looking unwell and Violet uneasy. This afforded a decent pretext for going to call on her. I asked if anything was wrong at Beth Car. She told me that everything had been going wrong since Theodore's younger son had given up his job on medical advice and come to live at home. Savage with boredom, he was avenging himself on society by tormenting Theodore, frightening Violet and making mischief between them. I would soon see for myself, she said. I did, and was as much concerned as she. There was nothing we could do; but as onlookers we drew together, and before I left I asked her to let me know how things went on. When she came to London that winter we met to share letters from Violet, to find no comfort in them, to think of no way to better the situation and to explore happier interests we had in common. One of these was poetry. I was curious about hers, but whenever there was an opportunity to ask about it, she whisked the opportunity away. So we went on walking round each other till a letter from Violet reported that Francis (the younger son) had written enough of his poems to fill a book, and wanted to find a publisher. I groaned, knowing what would be expected of me. Had I seen them, she asked. I replied that I had seen as many as I cared to and went on: 'The poems I want to see are yours.' She did not protest or disclaim. 'I expect they are bad,' she said. 'I know they are weak. But how is one to tell for oneself? What I need is criticism savage criticism.' She took a folder of poems out of a drawer, hesitated, discarded, exclaimed, 'All this fuss about nothing!' and gave me a handful to take away. As I read them that evening, I felt as though I had carried away a lapful of pebbles from a sea-shore they were so weighted with intention, these brief poems. Like pebbles, they gave no impression of accomplishment, or skill though some were remarkable skilful or knack. Like pebbles, I thought, like those fragments of broken glass worn smooth and sea- coloured; like knives and arrowheads shaped out of flints. Some were bad. None were sham. Of the comparisons which occurred to me, I went back to pebbles, poems sleeked and shaped by the working of a restless mind. I could see they were immature; but it was as written poems they were immature: there was no immaturity in the intention.
Some poets have facility which is a kind of innocence in their stars. Others and here was one of them are born with the destiny of difficulty. Hard task-masters to themselves, they mistrust their natural flow, and at the same time savagely reject what is not authentically their own. The difficulty extends: I had undertaken to be critical. But what the devil was I to say?
Praise, encouragement, technical niceties, would be risky offerings to this well-mannered young creature whose reserve masked such a lonely and sardonic mind. More than ever I regretted that lost cottage.
As it cries out from under the cover
Of mind, he rises up, leaves his lover,
Leaves his house, wealth, food behind
And goes out.
As it cries to him, he answers, but obeys
Nothing he knows. Intermittently throughout his days
He follows, alone; scared when it shows,
Terrified when it dies to him.
And so on. He trembles when it calls him,
But must follow. Suspicious of all that then befalls him,
He loses peace, love, zest, and finally life
And nothing done.
And nothing done. For at the end all he masters
Is the route of the way of numberless disasters,
No more and where all others have found their way to grief
He comes, too, to grief alone.
At the Easter week-end of 1930, I went to Chaldon for Violet's birthday, which was also her silver wedding day (she had got up at daybreak to admire the splendid iced cake garlanded with silver doves which Valentine had given her). It was a late spring; no one had seen a swallow; but on Easter Monday it suddenly became warm and benign, celandines opened on every bank, rooks were building. Valentine appeared in a summer shirt. During tea Theodore spoke of taking a walk up the Drove a lane leading northward out of the village and over the ridge called The Five Marys because of the five tumuli along its summit and after tea we set out. We were partway up the Drove when Violet asked me why I did not buy Miss Green's cottage? Which cottage was that, said I, and who was Miss Green? Before she could answer Theodore said he was sure I would be happy there: Miss Green had died in it. We turned back to look at it. It was a small slate-roofed cottage with nothing to be said in its favour except that it was totally unpicturesque and stood by itself. Planted in front of it was a notice-board with a placard: FOR SALE. FREEHOLD. We fetched a very large key from the Inn. We unlocked the door. It opened into a fair-sized living-room, smelling of rust and cold soot dominated by a rusty kitchen-stove. Behind it under a salt-box roof was a back-kitchen with a copper. A narrow corkscrewing stair, shut off by a door, led to two communicating bedrooms above. Everything was peculiarly dingy. But it was for sale: Freehold: an unevictable tenure. I looked at Valentine. Her face told me nothing. Freehold. 'If it could be put into order, would you live' I stopped myself in time 'would you move here, and keep it warm for me, be my steward?' Even with this last moment emendation, abolishing the constraint implicit in a gift, I did not expect her to say yes. 'I should like to very much.'
So that was settled. We returned the key and walked on up the Drove, agreeing that a back door to escape by was an essential amenity and must be added. She had noticed more than I: that the living-room was floored with Portland stone flags, that the bedroom windows looked out on a view of the hill called High Chaldon, that there was a row of young ashtrees on the high turf bank between the garden and the field beyond.
As for the unamiable farmer who had brought all this about, after acknowledging the word, Freehold, I never gave him another thought. And next morning, I was gone. I had never bought a house I was not in that walk of life. But after writing to the house-agent, I somehow remembered that people who buy houses get a surveyor's report before they make an offer. Headed: The late Miss Green's Cottage the report stated: 'This is a small undesirable property situated in an out of the way place and with no attractions whatsoever.' Then came a grudging admission that it was structurally sound. I made my offer, wrote to Valentine, and bought a dusky wall-mirror with gilded plasterwork scrollings, a pair of bellows and a wastepaper basket. She undertook to provide a satinwood bonheur du jour, two papier mâché chairs and a folio bible. Other essentials would gather in time.
While the house-agent and I bickered about the price and Violet's letters became full of rumours about other possible buyers who would pay enormous sums, and a nephew who wanted to live there himself, I made some more purchases and a great many lists. Though I was too busy to be systematic (I had arranged to be very busy and animated that summer, to distract my thoughts from a personal unhappiness), I was practical by fits and starts. Kindnesses and windfalls came in. My mother promised kitchen equipment. Valentine, suppressing comment on my theory that things like hammers could be got from Woolworth, bought garden tools, an axe, a chopping-block, and a vintage spade, smooth as silver. In July my stepfather, an architect, met me at Chaldon where we spent a day conferring with the local builder about the back door and the brick hearth which was to replace the rusty kitchen-stove. The garden was full of pink shoe-rose poppies too fleeting to be sent to Valentine, who was at her mother's flat after a wisdom-tooth extraction which had brought on a haemorrhage, lying flat and pale with Browne's Pseudodoxia, The Historie of the World, a Siamese cat and two by-blow kittens on the bed. I had been to visit her the day before, meeting her mother for the first time.
I was still contracted to that emended invitation about keeping the cottage warm for me. I had thought this would be easier to assent to, and when Valentine assented I felt I had done the right thing. Now I was not so sure. My first honest intention was accumulating a good many false pretences, including my own, as when I had to assure her mother that there was no call for anyone to be grateful, unless it were I. I wanted no gratitudes, no assumptions that Valentine might be under an obligation to me. She would not think it so; she had none of the shabbiness of mind which suspects patronage in a kindness; but she might well resent being tricked. I would have done better to offer her the cottage straight out, for as things were now she might come to dislike it, yet stay on out of politeness. (Here I misjudged her; if she had not wanted to stay, nothing would have kept her.)
But I did not think very long or intently about all this. I had a great many other things to think of: Miss Green's Cottage was an airy habitation still, in spite of all the hardware I was amassing. As it came nearer, I believed less and less in it. If in the end it all came to nothing, it would be a pity: but more was lost at Mohacs a proverb often on my lips at that date. This did not prevent me, when Valentine had gone back to Chaldon and was at work on the neglected garden, from writing to her with a variety of enquiries, recommendations and demands for measurements.
On September 23rd she drove me clown to Chaldon with a final assortment of incompatible objects creaking and rattling in the back of the car. Watching her hand on the wheel, abandoning myself to a suavity of driving which was like the bowing of a master-violinist, I felt that everything was bound to go right. And there, at the end of the journey, was the Late Miss Green: her windows open, her walls milk-white, the coral-pink paint on her woodwork and Mr Miller the carpenter at that moment putting up shelves. There was the garden, cleaned and dug and raked smooth, and looking twice as large for it. There was old Mrs Moxon with a bunch of flowers, waiting to tell me how well Valentine had dug and what a great heap of bindweed and couch-grass roots had been burned to wholesome ashes. And there was Valentine, to whom all this, so astonishing to me, was a familiar sight and already, I thought, looking ownerly. Later, when we were by ourselves, it would not be difficult to tell her of her ownership, and the reason for it. But the disclosure had to be postponed because she had promised to take the Beth Car party to Portland Fair.
Even with a move when the contents of a house are put in a van and decanted into another house, things go wrong. I had made a generous allowance for things going wrong over this move, which involved loads of furniture coming from three different places. What I had not allowed for was that a providential little dog should bite me in the wrist the day after our arrival. It was not a bad bite: Valentine's bandaging was far beyond its deserts; but it put the move under new management. I sat with my arm in a sling while she did everything from lighting my cigarettes to getting a chest of drawers upstairs when nobody else could, and all without the least parade of efficiency. From time to time she would say how well I had organised it all, till I began to think so myself. For a siesta (her management included siestas) we would dawdle up the Drove and sit on a Mary, listening to the wind in the grasses and admiring our small undesirable property from above. Covertly, I also admired her, her long limbs and small nut-brown, nut-smooth head with its golden forelock chiome d'oro, like Morgana's which the lifting wind blew forward to dangle over one eye. Then we would dawdle back to do some more unpacking and prepare for the influx of afternoon visitors, coming to see how we were getting on. A raree-show was their due, and Theodore and Violet were much the livelier for our bran-tub entertainment. But our dearest visitor was Grannie Moxon, that loving, giving and doing character, who lit the first fire on our new hearth and watched it take hold with passionate intensity, as if Valentine's fate depended on it. 'There, my sweetheart! He's going up nicely. You'll be all right.' I can see her now, with her burning, dark-rimmed eyes and her battered hat, and hear her laugh, sudden and screeching like the cry of a jay. That evening we walked to the cottage half expecting to find it burned down. There was a smell of woodsmoke from the warmed chimney, the embers were still drowsily alight. We stood looking in through the window as though there had never been a fire in an empty room before.
And still I had not told her about the ownership of the cottage. Haltingly, I explained that I had bought it, hoping that it would be good to write poetry in; but got no further. I had chosen a bad moment. She was barren of poetry, she said; for a long while she had written nothing and despaired of ever writing again. Too quick despairer... Only a little while before she had written in her notebook: 'Last afternoon I made a poem from a beginning which I had had in London. I am fairly well- pleased with the finished work. It is what I mean, anyhow!' But I didn't know of this; and even if I had, I already knew better than to encourage unasked.
Space is invisible waves. In leaves of trees
Space-water rustles, and the sway of these
Is only movement of sea-weed under tide
In restless sway and swing from side to side
While in the invisible air and in the sky
Spirits like deep-sea fishes are sweeping by
And I on a hill-top in summer, where grass is brown,
Lying beneath the sky, and likely to drown
In the vast ocean of space passing to and fro
Here, on the floor of the sea, starved thistles blow.
And the wind is no wind but a fast-flowing current of tide,
And the spirits are blown and are driven and cannot abide.
By the end of the month the last of the last-moment difficulties had been overcome, and she went back to London. On the fourth of October I moved in. I made up the two beds, proud of my linen sheets, pleased with the eiderdowns in their scarlet madapolan covers, like the eiderdown in the nursery. I hung the curtains, put out soap and candles, put away my clothes and went from one room to another (she had chosen the inner room) debating which of their identical views of High Chaldon was the better. I arranged the store-cupboard and washed the china and polished the glasses and whisked the dust off the scrollings of the oval mirror and fixed candles in its two sconces. I felt pleased with the house for being well-found and for looking carefree which was due to its contents being so fortuitous, as though Autolycus had furnished it. I hoped it would look as engaging that evening when Valentine would arrive, bringing herself, her mother and her mother's chauffeur: by which arrangement, she had explained, her mother would be repossessed of the car and immediately driven away for dinner at her hotel. (I had refrained from saying, 'And if you change your mind on the doorstep '.)
I had miscalculated how long it would take to roast a duck in a brand- new oven on an oil-cooker; everything was behind-hand when the car stopped outside. I hurried to the door. She stood in the porch, slightly a stranger in her London clothes. In a flurry of belatedness and apology, I kissed her. There was a momentary stiffening and I realised I had never done so before and would do better not to do it again. The car was greeted and farewelled and drove away. She had brought some wine and a bottle of brandy and after dinner we sat for a long while drinking coffee and conversing. Conversing, not talking. The formality of 'conversing' matched the tall candlesticks, her Regency coffee-spoons, my egg-shell porcelain coffee-cups, white outside, lined with sugar-almond pink. With these and the mirror we declared against the grated carrot, folk-pottery way of life. Outside the quiet room the wind from the sea blew in gusts. We sat in our cocoon of warmth and subdued light and it seemed odd that we had not been living there for years.
We continued to be formal. Living at such close quarters and dependent on each other's consideration for freedom of mind, a degree of formality was essential. So was the framework of routine. From the first morning when Valentine in silk dressing-gown and green slippers laid and lit the fire, our parts were established, and we never contested them. Our relationship was a sort of unintimate intimacy; a relationship between two people who like each other's company and leave it at that, fortunate castaways on a desert island. We read. We listened to music she had brought her Gramophone. Stone embellishes strings, and her record of Beethoven opus 132 (one in an assortment ranging from Handel to Noël Coward) sounded very well on our Portland flags.
We learned more about our likings and our opinions, but not much more about ourselves. She did not talk herself, I did not ask questions; it was the code of good middle-class manners we had been brought up to practise, and the fashion of the day reinforced it. Confidences were out. 'Let us be very strange and well-bred; let us be as strange as though we had been married a great while; and as well-bred as if we were not married at all.' We followed Millamant's prescription. Besides, why go deeper? In another ten days the conversation would close. I would go back to London for the Winter. Valentine would be left in possession of Miss Green. I would miss her company; miss the composed low voice and the sardonic turn of mind and the velvet good manners; miss, even, the impersonal surveying regard which had irked me when I was making a bad impression at Violet's tea party.
'Walking one day in the country,' she began
'Alone, and beside a wall, I saw a stoat which ran
Level with me, but on the other side of the wall. Jerkily it ran,
And often too,' she said
'Getting a little ahead
It stopped, front paws on the wall, and reared its head.'
For the story, that was all. But more truth grew
Out from it to my mind than ever before I knew,
So clearly I pictured myself there. Beyond all questions I knew
That so am I, beside you on your way,
And curious, intent, and not in play
Sheltered from you, and watching, and never in play.
If a village is sufficiently small and remote (and Chaldon was both) it always finds something to be excited about. After the incongruities of Miss Green's Cottage, plain white wash on the walls and pink paint sent from London, the grandeur of its saucepans and not a single upholstered chair, there was Harvest Festival and the rivalry of decorators. Then everything was swept aside by the girl who tried to run away from the Old Vicarage. Vicarage no longer, for Chaldon had been merged in the neighbouring parish of Winfrith, this gaunt dwelling was tenanted by a lady who received mental deficients for training as domestic servants. I suppose we were too gentry to be told about the escape and recapture (gentry are assumed to side with authority). We knew nothing till some days later, when we were at Beth Car and heard from Violet that the girl had made two more attempts to escape, that the policeman had found her hiding in a ditch, that the village was in an uproar of indignation and that really something ought to be done about it by somebody.
Valentine got up. Even if we could not help the girl, we could tackle the lady. But how to begin? It was her little dog who had bitten me, but this scarcely amounted to an introduction. Theodore said it would be best to make a pretext of neighbourly concern for her and then dwell on the savage nature of simple villagers, and how skilled they were at stone- throwing and fire-raising.
Uncertain what to do but agreed that we must do it, we walked to the Vicarage and rang the bell. An old woman opened the door wide enough to tell us the lady was not in. We said we would call again. When we called again, no one answered. We went back to the cottage, snatched a meal of undercooked chicken, still pink at the joints, collected a little public opinion (Violet had not exaggerated) and set out for a third try. This time it was the lady who let us in. We explained our errand; but her repartees about these hopeless creatures, you know, and how P.C. Wintle had actually addressed the girl as 'Miss' made it impossible to keep up a show of neighbourly concern. So we told her, plainly, that the village was suspicious and angry; that the girl's repeated attempts to get away appeared to justify such a reaction; that if the village temper went from words to deeds, no one would raise a hand to help her. She resorted to toadying, felt sure we would understand her difficulties, assured me I could have no idea how strong the hopeless creatures were it was impossible to tire them out. Valentine sat by, silent and implacable. I left it to her silence to conclude the interview. As we were walking away, speechless, she thrashed the air with her walking-stick. It was one of our formalities that we did not talk after the door between our bedrooms was closed. I had blown out my candle and was half-asleep when I heard a screech-owl hunting up the valley, and Valentine saying she hoped it would put the woman at the Vicarage in remembrance of a shroud though it was more likely to do that to her captive. Somehow I was still half-asleep we got on to the subject of human relationships. I said I found it easier to love people than to like them. There was a pause. A voice of convinced desolation said, 'Sometimes I think I am utterly unloved.' I jumped out of bed, in a flash. I was through the door and on my knees at her bedside, crying out that it was not true, not tree, that she must not say such a thing. She gathered me up in an embrace to lie beside her.
Love amazes, but it does not surprise. I woke to daylight and saw her standing by the bed, looking down at me. 'Well?' she asked, rather sternly. I could not conceive why there should be any question, or why her voice should be stern. I was at home in an unsurmised love, an irrefutable happiness. It was early morning, autumnally silent. Realising how mistaken we had been about each other and how in my precipitate ignorance I had thrown out all her experienced calculations, we laughed as people do who have escaped, by a miracle, from some deadly peril and find themselves safe and secure.
Chaldon, 13 October 1930
I meant to give you this today anyhow it is obviously yours because your hands are so beautiful. But a mourning ring is not suitable to our state. However, the design is delicate and charming, and the curve and texture of the setting is lovely enough to remind me of you, but nothing is adequate. There is not anything which could speak to you for me.
This is not a letter. I am awaiting your word. I shall tell you nothing, except that I have not yet started to tell you how I love you.
This rose came from the front garden. A month seems an intolerably long time, but I shall spend it in devising pleasures for you. And you will come to taste them? The sun is coming in through the sitting-room window and trying to put out the fire but that legend is not true. I am not put out. And there is a blinding sun shining upon me. You will enjoy it, and be happy, my dear and not forget me?
London, 14 October 1930
My dear love
The ring is on my finger. I look at it, and remember seeing it on yours. And the rose is beside me, sitting a little self-consciously in a liqueur glass. It must have been the warmth of our love flowing out of the window that bloomed it, for I saw the bud a week ago, a small cross thing, and thought: you will never open before the winter.
You spoke with such determination, and I believe all your words so implicitly that I did not expect anything, not even 'This is not a letter' this morning. So though I woke early I shut my eyes again, and imagined, rather successfully, that you had come in and were looking at me. Afterwards, I found the parcel, with your falcon sealing it, and you inside. My hands are not beautiful, my dear. They were once, but now they are spoiled, like most of the rest of me. I say most; for by some strange mercy my sensitiveness has remained unbattered. I can give you that without self- reproach or sighing. But I am not good enough for you, Valentine, and there are moments when I wonder if it would not be better that I should go away, like Mr Fortune, leaving you with love. But I can't. Even though the wonder were certainty, I don't think I could. I have so little strength left, except to love you. Instead, I have been walking about in Kensington Gardens, visiting the trees that have been kind to my old distress and bewilderment. I said nothing to them, just showed myself.., the abandoned avenue, and the plane-tree whose banana-coloured serpent branches were so stripped and voluptuous and defiant, swinging in last winter's gales (Cry down the winter skies) and the thorn-tree that always comes out so much too soon, and the frost has it with frozen thawings, and the other thorn-trees where the rushes grow among the grass. And William followed, keeping an eye on me, and saying: She's often mooned about like this. But today it seems rather different.
Last night I walked into the cottage, and saw you, sitting alone by the fire, and thinking about me. It will not be long before I come again, not all of a month. And it would take you much longer than a month, my darling, to finish devising pleasures for me. I know you, and how there is no end to your generosity and patient skill to please. I want no pleasure but to be with you, but I will take all you can give me and be grateful.
You can have no idea how many people there are in London. Yet so far I don't seem to have seen anyone. They are there, and I talk to them, and answer their questions about my cottage (the poor ignoramuses still suppose it to be mine, for I hide most jealously the so much richer possession that it is yours) and they seem to hear my answers. But it is hard to believe in them. They are like the bleached shadows one opens one's eyes to after looking at the sun with one's eyes shut. My eyes have been a good deal shut lately, my sun, as you know. No wonder my vision affected. However, the bores and nuisances have a certain lifelikeness.
I thought of a ring, too. But you will not put it on till tomorrow, for there was a little pearl to be replaced. Meanwhile, here is an ivory armoury for you to play with. I am sorry that it has no cross-hilt daggers; but it is pleasant to find the wise Chinese first discovering the croquet mallet, and instantly recognising it as a weapon of offence.
I will send you my hindward poems tomorrow. And when some claret comes from Harveys, you are to drink it everyday. It is an anonymous Margaux, a pleasant drink with no airs and pretentious. You might drink it for breakfast and no harm would come to you. My dearest, these words chill me. Take care of yourself, I love you so desperately.
Chaldon,15 October 1930
My most dear love,
How well you know me already. The armoury has occupied me for over an hour. I came downstairs in my pyjamas and my dressing-gown, duly lighted the fire, and sat at the table, selecting first one and then the next delight. The effect of that array was so entrancing, even by daylight, that tonight, I can tell, it will be completely bewitching. They are so slender, and so formidable. I have already selected the finest and sharpest as deadly weapons; to be used on your guests, with your consent, if they really outstay our tender patience. They will have the ineffable consolation of a delicious death. Your gloomy foresight is justified in me. I have had to spend many anxious and cross minutes in searching for the hiding holes which conceal various cereals and spices. I find that, during all your careful tour of the storeroom, I was noting down as carefully each movement and form and shape of you. I can walk from larder to cupboard and shelf to shelf with you, even now remembering accurately the shape of your hands and the feel of your lovely shoulder.
But find the pepper I cannot. Although now, by a stern effort of concentration, I can run most of the sardines to earth. I wonder, and I am afraid. What will happen when you realise how unlearned I am and how I know nothing of wit and wisdom. How undeveloped my mind is and how slow. And when you are forced by proof to believe all this lack of ability, cowardice, and all the rest. When you see, at this moment, how I shy away from a full list of my weakness and vice. While you, your fine, sharp handwriting, the sure rightness of your words, your wit and understanding, wisdom and courage and steadfastness. All this is an endless delight to me, and for the beauty of your body, which I worship, and the achievement and mastery for which I adore you Dear love. I love you. Let us not speak of unworthiness.
I have nothing to give you which is worthy of you, except that my love is great. You must desire the pleasures I am devising for you. I think you will. You would not receive love so beautifully unless you enjoyed and desired it. There can be no end to the delight of making love to you. It hurts me when I read your words. It scared me, too. If you leave me now I may well misunderstand and compel you to return. Because I would hope you were being Mr Fortune, while you would probably be simply tired of me. But really it went deeper than that and I can hardly bear to think of it now. My dear love why did you say that to me? I call your hands beautiful because it is the most adequate word I have they are really far lovelier than that. I tell you that you are lovely, that I love you, that I am still dazed and dreaming, and only half comprehending that you love me. I have always thought myself fastidious. It is my one means of grace and hope of glory. You deny it to me. You tell me that I am loving something which is spoilt. Such a cruel word that I am nearly weeping.
You must promise me, my darling, that you will never think such thoughts again. You must promise me that you will not talk of leaving me. If you will consider carefully the sin against the Holy Ghost you will realise how nearly you have committed it by those words and moods of yours. But, my sweet, you could not escape from my love now, unless you ceased to love me. Until then, my hands, even my finger-tips, could bring you back. And would would now if only they might, because my hands are idle without you, and quite as useless as you first thought of them.
Betty terrified me by saying you looked ill. I became panic-stricken last night. It was only by a really stern strength that I prevented myself from flying to you. And I never thought to bully a promise from you, about that. Now that you are out of reach must I descend to meanness from majesty? I hate to make pathos a weapon, and I will not. I did not see you clearly, as you went away. But these women know, I suppose, how you should look. My dearest love how can I make you promise to tell me? You must know how much worse it is to be anxious and disturbed all day than to know if anything is wrong when it is. Besides, we owe such a gift to each other. The weight of care and responsibility is a very precious one, in these circumstances.
I have to be angry with you again. I have to tell you not to do something. And by that I shall risk your hatred, I know but anyway My Dear, you are not to buy me wine. You are not to buy me anything like that. You are not to spend upon me anything more than three-halfpence a day, and a certain amount of time. As much of that as you will; when it is not being put to its right use, which is the writing of poetry.
But about this I am really serious. I am so deeply earnest about it that I feel like a stony rock. I know the dreadful accusations which can be flung at me ingratitude lack of sensibility lack of imagination but spray never yet hurt a great rock.
My most loved one. I long for you so much that the weight on my heart is intolerable. Everything which gives me happiness here (and in this house each thing does delight me) and everything I see: small things to please me when I am walking, or shapely things, or rude and angry and strong things. Clouds especially, and trees. They all bring you to me literally, as if you were led by the hand and my heart cries out because each time you go away unkissed.
When we meet. What will happen probably no more than a kiss. But let it be soon.
The Brahms sonata is another reason for your return. We shall often feel like that.
London, 16 October 1930
My lovely, my dearest, my long lass, tomorrow is the next best day to today. I went to Whiteleys if I am one of those unfortunate quick (and another specimen of early theology: for I took the quick to be those who dodged round the corner) on the last day I shall probably be seen hurrying to that beastly shop for a pair of reach-me-down gloves to look up your trains. There are two earliest trains, Mrs Hall's 11. something, and an earlier than early, which reaches London about 10.40. I shall expect you by both. There will be elevenses for you by the earliest, lunch by the second. And Friday is a heavenly blank brought me by the Dove, who has fluttered me away from any engagement except a very short tea with Oliver's aunt Elinor a nice old lady who can do my joy no harm. I cannot believe that I shall see you so soon, that you will lighten upon me. My darling, is it possible that we can be happier than ever? I have two clean breasts to make. Yesterday I went out to dinner and ate, I hang my head to confess it, boiled cod followed by roast mutton. I also O Valentine, this is worse and worse drank an African wine. And I sinned against your shade which said to me, Ask for bread and water. But I had not the courage, ate the accursed things, politely agreeing how serious it was about the Empire. And I was paid out, as I deserved to be. For it was not till three hours later, when Oliver had driven me round Hyde Park, smelling of rusty grass, that I recovered the airy joy I had worn all day. How can you love a woman who has eaten boiled cod?
The other breast is that I had already ordered the offending Margaux when I wrote about it. I would of course have counter-ordered it, but this morning the note that it had been sent off arrived by the same post as your letter. I can't do anything now, can I? Except I make amends it is very cheap Margaux, being a farmhouse vineyard and not chateau by working it out in penny halfpennies, and saving them by being with you instead of writing letters to you? Would that do? I could not answer your yesterday letter properly owing to the world being so much with me (the tea-party was a great success, all the cakes eaten but two) and so I had not time to enquire into why you were abashed by Francis's remarks about the publication of worse poetry than his or yours. Why were you abashed? For his bad manners, I hope, not for your good poems. Do you really think that I don't know good from bad? Of course, one might believe anything of a woman who had rioted in Empire wine, but am I to be punished for this by the loss of all your confidence? I shall not be perfectly easy till I see you knowing the respective positions of yourself and that little whippersnapping Snodgrass, and keeping yourself in your proper place. Your poetry, I say it again, is true and good, and beautifully and cleanly made. It has really got your quality, it is proud and violent and controlled. I was haunted by it long before I had opened my dull ungrateful senses to you, and I feel exactly about it now as I did then. I read it through again the other day, to see if love made any difference. It made none. And I cannot conceive a sharper test than that. With every achieved line I love you better, but the poems still kept me at my distance; and it is the prerogative of good art to do that to the reader to be haughty and arbitrary. How did you make those snail-shells smell of you so unmistakeably and excitingly? If you had sent me two of your shirts they could not have plagued me into trembling more. They lie on the table, and I eye them, every now and then, their defiant smooth colours, their polished slopes; and I shy away, and hear my heart hurry, and know that presently they will have their way with me, and I must pick them up and smell them again. And then what will the Bettys say of my complexion? 'These women know, I suppose, how you should look.' Oh, what scorn, fury, jealousy, in those words! You suppose, do you, my tyrant? And haven't you some rather definite views as to how I should look, too? No, my lover, I must put those shells away presently. They are more ruthless than you, for I can do nothing to them in return. And if I feel like this now, how shall I live out the muffle of time still between us? Oh, strip off these hours, one by one, till I feel your flesh against mine again ... Hemlock, Henbane, Agnus Castus, waterlily ... which of these am I to feed on for the next twenty-four hours? And I don't really trust waterlily, it is much too like you to be a reliable counteraphrodisiac. 'It helpeth much to procure rest, and so settle the brain of frantic persons.' Credo. No, I cannot write any more. I have a great deal to say about globe artichokes, but I cannot say it now. I can only express a vindictive wish that when we meet I may get a little of my own back for this rape and outrage. I looked at your window today. I could just see the top of your door which will let me in. Then I walked on and had an entirely new view of Inverness Terrace A Valentine's-eye view.
My love, my tremblings, my hurrying heart's blood.
How comparatively calmly I began this letter.
It was a five minutes' walk from my door to hers. When she came to London I reversed the sun. My day began when I went to spend the night with her, lying in a narrow bed under a lofty ceiling. Into the four days between my departure from Chaldon and her arrival in London we had packed a month's impatience and curiosity. We had liked, now we loved; we had to learn each other all over again.
'O my America! my new-found-land.' My America was a continent of many climates: reckless, serious, fastidious, melancholy, sophisticated, compassionate, self-willed, self-tormenting, shy, sly, proud, suspicious: a continent of all climates of love, from vehemence to delighted amusement, from possession to cajolery. I had not believed it possible to give such pleasure, to satisfy such a variety of moods, to feel so demanded and so secure, to be loved by anyone so beautiful and to see that beauty enhanced by loving me. The nights were so ample that there was even time to fall briefly asleep in them, to waken and eat chicken sandwiches ('tonight I thought we would be vulgar and have champagne'), to admire her by candlelight, to stroll across to the large bare window and look at the northern sky, to be swept into more lovemaking, to fall asleep in her arms, to wake and admire her by light of day as she lay asleep. Waking or sleeping, it was the stillest face I have ever known, her lips betrayed nothing unless amusement slightly sharpened them into a fox's smile; to learn what she felt, I watched the pupils of her eyes.
And for the remainder of the twenty-four hours I went about my obligations with an affable pretence of being aware of them.
Towards the end of the month I was taken to Winterton in Norfolk, where The Hill House, the holiday house her father had bought when she was a small child, was still kept up, though not often lived in. This day, too, began after sundown. We dined late. When we set out, it was raining. After we were away from London the curtaining rain and the speed seemed to make our road, calling it up and dismissing it. We went by Six Mile Bottom, where Byron stayed with Augusta, through Newmarket and on to Barton Mills. There we stopped for petrol. I sat in the car with the window down, listening to the splash of weir-water and the tap of her decisive highheeled shoes. The sky was clearing. As we drove on I lost the sense of being pursued which the rain and speed had given me. Nothing, I thought, could be more assuring than to be driven through unknown country to an unknown destination. Thetford, with the tall memorial column starting up from the heath; Wymondham, where everybody had long been asleep; Norwich; Acle, with the car going faster; a pale tower suddenly looming over us and Valentine saying that Winterton Church tower was boasted to overtop Yarmouth's St Nicholas by the length of a herring; then a steep narrow drive and a low house on a plateau.
The sky was clear, there was a light on-shore wind; I heard the noise of the sea. Speed was over and done with, there was time to walk from room to room, and through the run of narrow greenhouses smelling of heliotrope, with a naked Eros sitting marble-cold and solitary in the last of them, grieving over his broken arrow.
It was the severe presence of the sea which made the rather ugly house romantic. Below the plateau the dunes stretched far as the eye could travel, harshly mossed to the landward (it was impossible to think of them as land), prickled with marram grass as they rose into sandhills and subsided into the beach: a grey pebble beach till the tide went out and left a belt of sand streaked with watery light where the sea lay caught in pits and furrows.
It was the severe presence of the sea which provoked us to be childish, to run, leap, snatch mouthfuls of foam, write our initials on the sand with a heart round them and an arrow through the heart. The sand showed me the secret of her lovely gait: the footprints were exactly aligned in a narrow track, regular as machine-stitching the gait of a superlative riding-horse. All that morning on the beach we saw no one till a small boy appeared and hung about at a distance, waiting to catch her eye. This was Roger, a village boy, she had taught him to box. He addressed her as 'Miss Maaalie', dragging out her discarded Molly as if the vowel were rattled from a capstan.
He told us the herring-fleet was in. That afternoon she took me to Yarmouth to see the boats packed cheek by jowl along the quay, the nets hanging in the drying-ground, looped like vines from port to port to gut the catch for the packers. Standing at stone troughs they slit and gutted, flick-flick, the herring running like a silver chain through their red hands. They wore black sea-boots and black oilskin aprons with bibs, uniform as a flock of sea-birds except for their bright-coloured mufflers.
There was a visit to Caterina her broad face and pug nose transfigured as she showed me photographs of Valentine as a young lady of fashion, as a bride; visits to several windmills; to the chapel at Somerton, roofless, sunk in a wood, with a sycamore grown tall where the priest had stood before the altar; to inns, churches, other beaches. On the third day, after a turn-off to see Hickling Broad where a ghost skates across the water, we went back to London.
* * *
London, Sunday 2 November 1930
This day has passed so slowly and I have been waiting so long. But there was a sharp thunderstorm, which pleased me, and reminded me of you.
Just now I was made very angry indeed because I was called 'soutenu' by you. This is a grave charge. It has, a little, shattered me. Now you know me as your lover you will not suspect me of cowardice when you see I write to you and do not wait to speak it. Here there is no question of fear, but I am more able to write than to speak.
Please will you bend your thoughts to this French word, and will you, when we meet tomorrow, have prepared for me an explanation, but not an excuse?
At present my two minds are at war, and I know nothing certain from either front. My handwriting is bad worse than usual because I write this on my knee. I had not allowed for that word and that rudery, and so I was surprised. Please, my dear love, do not feel chivvied by annoyances when you read this. Please forgive me for telling you, selfishly, as it seems, but this is a very solid shadow, and, unless you wish it, I would rather nothing of its kind should be between us.
I love you with all my strength. I love you so utterly that I am unshaken, even by this sort of word. I love you passionately and very truly. For as long as you will you can rest on my love, and find shelter there and find strength, too. Sometimes I am afraid in case all my store of love will give you what you most desire. If that is so, you must leave me. I will not allow your desire to be lessened to fit my power. But while I can hold you, I shall.
It is just possible that this vile word will sicken you, and that you will think it makes clear something you had not seen before. If things happen so you must let me know and I will not see you tomorrow. But whatever happens to or between us, now or in the furore, we must have perfect good faith and truth always.
I shall be in at about four-thirty tomorrow, and I will telephone you then.
N.B. This early morning the silence broke and I made a complete, and not too bad poem. But this may be only a god's wink, and not to be taken too seriously.
The part of me which writes poems is considerably slowed down. It is a separate engine and set to a more deliberate speed. This refers back, as far as I know, to the evening I walked up and down the room, and finally stood behind your back, and from there questioned you. So it is not valid now. But for all that, it uncorks me, I hope.
You with your despair
Have plaited my desire
Entwining dark and fair
With art I bitterly admire.
You have made my pain
Meet your different woe
And burnished it again
Until the strands too fiercely glow.
You have dared to use
My single talent thus
Making by this abuse
A shroud foredoomed to cover us.
If it is as bad as I now think it, I am indeed doomed. Especially as I have altered the other one.
London, 3 November 1930
My love, my liking
It is a really good poem, to the last verse. There it wants tightening. A short bitter lyric like this must turn back its tail and sting itself in the head, like the scorpion in the ring of fire. Shroud won't do too peaceful a way out of the implied tangle; and the statement of the first two verses, ought, I think, to sharpen to a threat. 'Since you dare to use' you should threaten you shall damn well be caught in this net as well as me.
And, my fierce one, that ending will be a very much closer rendering of the mood you were in when you stood behind me, threatening me with joy and trousers.
But the wording, and above all the fingering, of the first two verses delights me. You can do it, and I thank God.
This letter is wild as me in a bramble-bush. I am not only writing on my knee, I am talking to Mrs Keates about her husband and my stockings. And I shall forget half I want to say, I might almost forget to say that I have asked Master Francis to tea so as to be sure he won't drop in for dinner, am I not a politician and that I ask you to dinner and to my most, most loving breast.
I bend my thoughts to that French word; but the one response my mind can give to anything so unmeaning is to think you should spell it with a final e, shouldn't you?
I am not even annoyed that it should be said. It is too insignificant, I hope, to have worried you. We are both of us tethered to savage senses of honour, no arrangement to which we could have consented would have cast on either a slight.
Chaldon, 5 November 1930
My dearest love,
There has been no letter from you this morning, but as I am not permitted to be possessive I pretended not to be angry, and as I love you I did not reproach you in that telegram. This last forbearance used a good deal of fortitude. No doubt, what with one threat and another with which you have assailed my ears, I shall need a vast amount of Edith Cavell's virtue. I will do my best.
An excited Violet visited me last night. She chattered and jumped about like a child. This plan of going to London has caused her to forget that Francis is her son who is about to be sacrificed. Theo, too, is happy and well, so they say. You have done a good thing here, by your skill and diplomacy. I tremble in case you do not come early on Friday. How hard, if you do not, when everything is so shining and spotless and warm and excited.
I have to take the two of them to Dorchester now, and Ruth. I bought a lanthorn.
There has been little time, but I have changed the last verse of that poem. It is not to my liking yet, but it is only eluding me, as you do, with a kind promise of capture.
Please, will you bring those poems down when you come? I would be very much helped if you would pull out the dead ones for me. I need to learn, if you will teach me although, my dear love, it is a sorry prospect for you, though not a thankless one.
Your telegram put health into me, I charge you to be firm, sweetheart, and not beguiled by Violet to remain even for one train. I dread that some misfortune has touched you. The lack of evidence that you are well is worrying me. If no letter comes this afternoon I shall be distraught. But do not be moved by this, and do not be put out. Do not think of me as a nuisance, yet at any rate. My darling. This letter is full of instructions and requests. Reading it, one would almost forget that I love you. But I do most passionately. The gale which is gathering outside makes me want you desperately. The might of my love is more fierce and powerful, but you can shelter from it in my arms.
Remember your promise, freely given, and therefore binding, that you would tell me immediately if you were ill or unhappy or anxious or alarmed. In thee have I trusted, let me never be confounded. You did promise constancy too.
London, 5 November 1930, 11.30 p.m.
For a moment I have the house to myself, and have read your letter. I needed a little comfort. At 7.5. Francis rang up from your studio, asking could he bring Violet round. I said, come both to dinner, but come soon as I have other people dining, and a dinner that will spoil. At 8.5 I rang you again, and at 8.30 we sat down to cold hard-baked eggs and a stew like the marrow of Sodom and Gomorrah. During dinner Francis sat like a fossil while every one else tried to carry plates. I thrust a bottle of claret at him, with a curt word, and he bested me by driving in the cork and spilling half of it. Now, thank God, they are pulling me to pieces at 2, whither they went to retrieve luggage. How I dislike the thought of Francis there. Dearest, why did you let him? 'Tis profanation, Nay, 'tis sin.
He leaves (D.V.) tomorrow by the 8.20 p.m. This lands him at the Nord at 5 a.m. with six hours to wait. If only a taxi would get him. I am feeling a little more real. Your letter and a book which we shall read together have just come. The book is by Bill Empson Seven Types of Ambiguity in English Verse. It looks entertaining. That smell which gave me to you is the apples in the cupboard. Going bad, my dearest! Schiller liked them, but I don't think Schiller would have liked me. But to know that the real me is safe in your arms appeases the savage ghost who sits here. I did not think I was capable of such frantic impatience Damn, they are back again!
2 a.m. Now I am consuming cake and sherry, and trying to sleepify myself. But how can I sleep, apart from the rigours of the occasional bed, to which I condemn Master Francis so blithely? The wind rises, it tosses the dead leaves against the door, and Violet has given me your letter, and I think of that other gale ... and am shelterless. Well (I must write small, this is all my paper down here) I have heard from Violet, calling you Sylvia and me Valentine which pleased me. And I have put her to bed, and kissed her goodnight. I knocked, there was no answer so I looked in, and there she was in a long white nightgown, starting guiltily up from her knees, like a pigeon rising from a forbidden cornfield. I have washed up the dinner, and prepared my bed in the dining-room. And if you were here you could certainly tell me I am tired I am and send me to bed. But I defy you, I will write as small as I can and write to the end of the paper. Then, with all this practice for I am improving I will engrave the Lord's Prayer on invisibility. How cross I was with Francis three hours ago! The gunpowder has all run out of the heels of my boots now, I am sorry I was cross. Still, you had better know it. You had better see that I, who can with tolerable equanimity, endure outrages upon the spirit, fly into the devil's wrath if my flesh-pots are kept too long in the oven and spoilt.
And you got no letter this morning, and you worried about me. Darling, I am penitent. I should have been rounder with those persons from Porlock; but yesterday I had not a kick in me. But I am perfectly well, do not imagine me otherwise. But till I see you I am a vain show. How lovely to have a lanthorn! I shall see your long legs by it and your slender hand. I have ordered Mrs Hall to meet the 1.43 and I have bought my ticket. You do not really doubt my coming, or my constancy. There is triumph in your insistence that you do. This night is whittled so about, for I must rise early, that I can almost say, Only one more night. And you in your now can say it without a proviso. My love.
The Gill photographs came this morning, and I have been arranging secret assignations with them ever since. But they are not as beautiful as you, my dear.
I had Violet and Francis to breakfast, every one in the highest spirits, and Violet at Woolworths revelling in artificial red-hot pokers, and cutglass bowls because they were like hedgehogs. I bought some practical night-lights, and a bread platter, and a memorandum book. I was in the most tearing gaiety all the morning until I saw a little dog run over. It was a baby Pekinese, it rushed into the traffic like a dead leaf blown by the wind. I went to the vets with its mother, but it died on the way there. I had to tell her. She held it in her arms but dared not look at it, and the slow blood dripped from its nose on the sleeve of her slaughtered fur coat. If I had not vowed truth to you, I would not tell you such things.
I began to tremble, and to think that joy was as rash and as easily made away with. But I have been extremely sensible. I have had lunch and reasoned with myself. I was thinking of you at the very moment I saw it happen before my eyes. That was partly what made it so terrible. It was as though it were you. By this time tomorrow we shall be together. My dear, dear love, I love you.
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I knew nothing of these people when I began to read their correspondence. After awhile, however, I began to be caught up in their relationship as though I was a silent third party. Each aspect of their lives both together and apart was so generously shared in their intimate letters to each other and their correspondence so voluminous that it came as a surprise to learn of the prolific published career that Ms. Warner, at least, was able to maintain. This is one of the very few books I have ever finished, only to go to the beginning and read again.