Valentine Ackland

Valentine Ackland

Mary Valentine Ackland was born in 1906. Educated at a convent school she was briefly married to Richard Turpin. Nancy Cunard introduced Ackland to Sylvia Townsend Warner and the two women lived together for the rest of their lives. Ackland wrote poetry and in 1933 published Whether A Dove or Seagull with Warner.

Ackland, was a leading member of the Communist Party of Great Britain in Dorset. Ackland also worked as a journalist and contributed articles to Daily Chronicle, New Statesman, Time and Tide, Daily Worker and Left Review.

Ackland gave support to the Spanish Medical Aid Committee, an organization that had been set-up by the Socialist Medical Association and other progressive groups. Other members included Leah Manning, Isabel Brown, George Jeger, Lord Faringdon, Arthur Greenwood, Tom Mann, Ben Tillett, Harry Pollitt, Hugh O'Donnell, Mary Redfern Davies and Isobel Brown. Soon afterwards Kenneth Sinclair Loutit was appointed Administrator of the Field Unit that was to be sent to Spain.

In September 1936 Ackland and Sylvia Townsend Warner went to Spain and provided help to the British Medical Aid Committee supporting the Republican Army. They were inspired by the revolutionary atmosphere they found in Barcelona. Warner wrote: "I don't think I have ever met so many congenial people in the whole of my life." However, the two women wrote a letter of complaint to Harry Pollitt about the "failure to adopt a satisfactory social attitude" by some members of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

However, Ackland went along with the Communist Party (PCE) repression of Worker's Party (POUM) in Barcelona. In The Daily Worker she argued that the action had been justified because of "POUM's utopian non-authoritarian politics spelled certain death to the Republic pitched against the military strength of the Fascist powers."

On her return to Dorset Ackland wrote a poem Instructions from England, 1936, that dealt with the indifference of the British government and the media towards the suffering of the Spanish people in the war. "Note nothing of why or how, enquire no deeper than you need into what set these veins on fire, note simply that they bleed."

Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote an article for The Left Review about the way the Catholic Church oppressed the Spanish people. In a letter to her friend Elizabeth Wade she made the same point: "I have never seen churches so heavy and hulking and bullying, one can see at a glance that they have always been reactionary fortresses. I did not find a single person of any class who resented their being gutted, though we did find two domestic servants... who felt a certain uneasiness about it, as though God might pop out of those ruined choirs and grab them by the scruff. The not being able to read and write is the crux. A people naturally intellectual, and with a long standard of culture, have thrown off the taskmasters who enforced ignorance on them."

The following year the two women went to Madrid and Valencia as part of the British delegation to the Second Congress of the International Association of Writers for the Defence of Culture. Twenty-six countries participated in the conference. Warner wrote about it in an article published in Time and Tide in August 1937: "We learned to hear ourselves spoken of as los intelectuales without dreading words usually so dubious in good intent, without feeling the usual embarrassment and defiant shrinking."

As Angela Jackson pointed out in British Women and the Spanish Civil War (2002): "They (Ackland and Warner) were involved in the founding of the local Left Book Club and Sylvia was secretary of the Dorset Peace Council. They were ardently committed to the cause of the Spanish Republic, campaigning and fund-raising in a whirl of breathless non-stop activity."

Ackland also worked as a journalist and contributed articles to Daily Chronicle, New Statesman, Time and Tide, Daily Worker and Left Review.

During the Second World War Ackland worked as a civil defence clerk. In 1949 Ackland wrote about her relationship with Warner, For Sylvia, An Honest Account (published for the first time in 1985).

Mary Valentine Ackland died in November 1969.

Primary Sources

(1) Valentine Ackland, Daily Worker (21st July, 1937)

There has never been a Congress like this before. More than sixty delegates from all countries met together in the front line held by the fighters for freedom and intellectual liberty - Madrid. Gathered there as honoured guests of the Republican government of Spain, we discussed the present phase of the World War from our various national points of view and, as always, from the unanimously agreed decision to combat fascism as Intellectual Enemy No.l.

Going by car from Valencia to Madrid we stopped for lunch at a small village. During the fine meal spread for us we heard a crowd of children gathered outside the hall. They started to sing and sang us the war songs of Spain, 'Riego's Hymn' and the 'International'.

After exchanging shouted greetings with them, when we came to embark again for the journey, we found their mothers waiting to greet us with handshakes, embraces, tears. These women told us that they were refugees from Badajoz and Madrid, sacked villages and towns. ('My husband was shot in the massacre at Badajoz ... I am alone here, I and my child, we have no one left ...') They thanked us with tears for coming to Spain, telling what we must write when we returned - what we must say - and always ending up with, 'Viva La Republica!', 'Viva los Intelectuales!'

(2) James Hopkins, Into the Heart of the Fire: The British in the Spanish Civil War (1998)

The writers Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland, whom Spender mercilessly caricatured while he was travelling with them in Spain," are sometimes seen as just another example of left-wing "day trippers." Sylvia Townsend Warner had already demonstrated, however, a genuine degree of political seriousness by taking part in the East End demonstrations against Mosley and the Fascists. In addition, her novels showed increasing commitment to society's marginalized. In Lolly Willowes: or the Loving Huntsman, which was published in 1926, her heroine, a forty-year-old unmarried woman, abandons her upper-middle-class existence to live with the poor in a Chiltern village. Summer Will Show, a historical novel published on the eve of the Spanish War, offered hope that communism would prove to be the new form of economic and social organization that would eliminate classes and ensure a sufficiency for all." Her Spanish Civil War novel, After the Death of Don juan, has been rediscovered and much praised.," Moreover, both she and her partner wrote widely on antifascist issues, most significantly in the Left


What further separated Townsend Warner and Ackland from the run of dilettantes is that they were both dedicated communists who had been asked to come to Spain by Tom Wintringham, an old friend, to do administrative work for the medical units. When they arrived in Barcelona, they were both dismayed and uplifted by the dizzying whirl of events. They wrote a letter to Pollitt complaining that Wintringham was too preoccupied with his journalistic duties, and the party, consequently, was badly disorganized. The city itself, however, captivated Sylvia. "Barcelona, by the time we saw it, was I suppose the nearest thing I shall ever see to the early days of (the) USSR." Having made their report to Pollitt, they believed their duty done, and promptly returned to England. Valentine was offered an opportunity to drive an ambulance back to Spain, which she quickly accepted, but illness prevented her from doing it." The two, however, returned to Spain in July 1937 to attend the International Writers' Conference.