Discover the amazing story of Valentine Ackland – Dorset’s inspirational rule-breaking lesbian poet

“Valentine was a rule-breaker, she was a wonderful, inspirational queer women in Dorset who was always bravely herself – I’d have loved to learn about her at school.”

Valentine Ackland was born Mary Kathleen Macrory Ackland in 1906 in Mayfair, London. Her father taught her traditionally male pursuits like boxing and shooting. She changed her name at 19 to the androgynous Valentine. A novelist and poet, Valentine was often seen out and about in Dorset, shooting rabbits, dressed as a young man, with a short Eton Crop hairstyle.

Valentine’s story is just one of many fascinating Dorset stories untold until now. It will be part of the new British Museum touring exhibition ‘Desire, Love, Identity: exploring LGBTQ histories’, which will arrive at Shire Hall Historic Courthouse Museum in Dorchester on September 21st.

It will get visitors to question their assumptions about the past and looks at the LGBTQ+ voices which have too often not been heard. As part of this, the collection will look at the local Dorset voices and stories of the LGBTQ+ community.

Chloe Taylor, aged 25, from Portland, is a volunteer at Shire Hall and at the Dorset History Centre. She researched Valentine’s fascinating story, discovering more about a life lived ‘ahead of her time.’ Valentine was introduced to her long-term partner, the writer Sylvia Townsend Warner, by the novelist T. F. Powys, who lived in Chaldon Herring in the Purbecks. The pair lived in Chaldon Herring and later Maiden Newton, near Dorchester. The relationship went through its ups and down and Valentine also had a long-lasting affair, during her relationship with Sylvia, with the America heiress and writer Elizabeth Wade White.

Together Valentine and Sylvia published Weather a Dove or Seagull in 1934, a collection of love poems. Chloe said: “She hoped it would put her in the limelight, but she got a bit typecast as Sylvia’s partner and couldn’t get over that.”

A fascinating character, Valentine was a Catholic, before denouncing her faith and becoming a communist. She went back to Catholicism later in life and died a Quaker. Chloe said: “She was always revising her poems, which was unusual for the day. She was always evolving and changing herself.

“The pair worked in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War and, during World War Two, Valentine was a civil defence clerk. She was always trying to help and at one point was a journalist – she just wanted to make a change in the world; she was a trailblazer. Valentine was ahead of her time; people weren’t used to it. She wasn’t conforming; she was rebelling.”

In fact, it was only after her death that Valentine’s poetry was recognised. Chloe said that, as a member of the LGBTQ+ community herself, it was fantastic to discover this hidden story of a ‘wonderful lesbian women who lived in Dorset.’ She said: “It means so much. Valentine was always changing herself, it’s so powerful. She and Sylvia had this 39-year relationship, it wasn’t perfect, but she’s this wonderful queer woman who’s doing whatever she wants and being herself – you look up to her; I want to be that brave.”

Ranging from ancient history to the present day, #DesireLoveIdentity at Shire Hall will challenge visitors to question their assumptions about the past. The display looks at historical figures, as well as those people whose voices were lost, in what the novelist E. M. Forster memorably described as a ‘…great unrecorded history.’

Chloe added: “I would have loved to learn this local history in school. These people found Dorset as a place to be inspired to create these poems and stories. It would have been great to learn about them at school, people can hear Valentine’s story and see themselves in her.”

The exhibition will be open daily 10am – 5pm, September 21 – November 17, 2019. It is free with a Museum Annual Pass. For more more information about the exhibition and LGBTQ+ events at Shire Hall this autumn at www.shirehalldorset.org. Or for more information about getting your community group involved with the project or volunteering during the exhibition, contact Harriet Still (Events and Exhibitions Manager) harriet.still@shirehalldorset.org, alternatively to organise a school visit contact Anne Brown (Learning Manager).

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