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:
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 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.