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BOOKS Valentine Ackland: A Transgressive Life

Revelatory biography of poet and political activist

VALENTINE ACKLAND’S skills as a poet are relatively well known but what has always been missing until now is an understanding of the vast and important contribution she made to what she saw as the political state of the world and the plight and poverty of the forgotten individual.

As the author of this biography Frances Bingham comments: “Valentine’s work expands the history of a fascinating individual into that of a wider community.”

Ackland is best know for cross-dressing and being the lover of Sylvia Townsend Warner and all the many affairs are here, but so too are her wide-ranging passions as poet, activist, lesbian and peace campaigner.

Both she and Warner remained under long-term surveillance by MI5 for years and were blacklisted by them during the second word war.

There are clear links  between Ackland and Virginia Woolf’s eponymous protagonist Orlando in her novel. Both struggled with the pull between an inner life of writing and reflection and an outer life of action.

Yet Ackland’s drive to change the world for a communist ideal was often derailed by her desire to obtain that ideal purely for herself.

Her passion for everything was at times so extreme that it became almost overpowering and there were many suicide attempts because she thought her work and ideas would be forgotten. But her abiding frustration was in the feeling that she could not show how much she loved Warner.

Bingham cleverly steers her account of her later life away from a catalogue of physical and mental disasters into something that is at times refreshing in its comic absurdity.

Ackland was a powerhouse in facing up to what she saw as an unfair world for women and workers and with this new biography Bingham reminds us what an amazingly modern woman Ackland was.

Published by Handheld Press, £15.99.

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