Then, no more

Valentine Ackland (left) and Sylvia Townsend Warner

English poets Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland lived together for almost 40 years, their partnership both a romantic and literary alliance that formed in 1930. It was in the 1960s that Ackland’s health began to decline, and on 9th November 1969, at their home in Dorset, the fabric of their shared life was torn asunder as the love of Warner’s life died of cancer. Warner wrote the following entry in her diary that evening.

The Diary Entry

November 9th [1969]

When the first light sifted into the room I knew she was beginning to die. A gale raged round the house: a torn cloud let through the low sun. I saw a tall rainbow standing there. Hollins [the doctor] came. By now her breathing had changed—slow, harsh, like a tree creaking. His part was over, he went away. Sibyl [a friend to both] & I stayed by her, wiping her lips, I still holding her hand. The intervals between her creaking breaths grew longer, longer. Then, no more. The silence seemed to solidify, like hardening wax. We cleaned her face & Sibyl took away the soiled towels. Sibyl spoke of calling old Mrs Stewart to lay her out. I said at once that we would do that. So between us, we cut away her red silk pyjamas, & washed her beautiful beautiful long body, so smooth, so white, & re-dressed her. The pliability, the compliance of her dead limbs—the last token of her grace and obligingness. And we bound up her jaw. 

Soon after her death, I saw all her young beauty flooding back into her face. It was the Valentine of forty years [ago], the Valentine I first loved. Binding her jaw slightly changed this. She had the tragic calm beauty of the dead Christ we saw carried in the Good Friday procession at Orta.

I put her wooden cross & rosary in her stiffening hand, and some sprays of wet rosemary and the remaining white cyclamen from the garden.

Later that day I rang up [British artist] Joy Finzi & asked her to come & do a drawing of my dead beautiful love.

Further Reading

Sylvia Townsend Warner began to keep a diary in 1927, a couple of years after her first poetry collection was released. In 1994, those diaries were published by Chatto & Windus with the title, The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner, edited and introduced by Claire Harman. Her diaries are beautifully written, often poetic, and sometimes, as above, very moving.


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