Vita Sackville-West, page 1
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Foreword by Nigel Nicolson
Part I: Diaries
Selections from Victoria Sackville-West Diaries, 1902–1905 and 1922
Selections from Vita Sackville-West Diaries, 1907–1929
Part II: Memoirs and Dreams
Thirty Clocks Strike the Hour
Vita’s Dream Book
Part III: Letters (1920–1927)
Family Letters: From Their Sons
Vita and Harold
Vita and Virginia
Part IV: Travel Writing
Italian Journey with Dorothy Wellesley (1921)
Selections from Passenger to Teheran (1926)
Selections from Twelve Days (1928)
Journal of Travel to France with Virginia Woolf (1928)
Lecture Travel Diary (January to March 1933)
Part V: Critical Writing
Lecture on Modern English Poetry (1928)
From Andrew Marvell (1929)
A Note on Thieves’ Cant (1947)
Part VI: House, Gardening, and Nature
From Knole and the Sackvilles (1922, 1947)
From Country Notes (1939–40)
From A Joy of Gardening (1958)
Part VII: Stories
“The Engagement” (1930)
“The Poet” (1930)
“The Poetry Reading”
Part VIII: Novels
From Challenge (1924)
Seducers in Ecuador (1924)
From All Passion Spent (1931)
Part IX: Poems
“The Muezzin” (Constantinople, 1913)
“A Bowl of Blue Beads” (1928)
“Storm in the Mountains” (Savoy, 1929)
“Middleton Place, South Carolina” (1933)
“The Intellectual to His Puppy”
“The Puppy to His New Owner”
“In Memoriam: Virginia Woolf”
Poems of House, Land, and Seasons
“Autumn” from The Garden (1946)
Poems of Provence
“The Quarryman: Les Baux” (1931)
“The Temple of Love: Les Baux” (1931)
“Dawn: Les Baux” (1931)
Part X: Animal Reflections
From Faces (1961)
Part XI: Summary of Works Not Excerpted
St. Joan of Arc
The Easter Party
Daughter of France
No Signposts in the Sea
Works by Vita Sackville-West
A few years ago, when I first had the idea of assembling a selection of Vita Sackville-West’s writings, some previously published and others not, her son Nigel Nicolson, with his customary generosity and elegance, gave me just the encouragement I needed. That encouragement has continued and I can only express my warmest gratitude. Without his gracious permissions, none of these unpublished writings would appear. My thanks to Michael Flamini and my editor Kristi Long at Palgrave, to the unfailing assistance of the librarians at the Lilly Library in Bloomington, Indiana, and at the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library, to my cousin Deborah Gage, and to my friends Carolyn Heilbrun, Rosemary Lloyd, Carolyn Gill, and Sarah Bird Wright, with whom I had the joy of writing Bloomsbury and France: Art and Friends (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), in which some of this material was first discussed.
A good part of the information here comes from the superb biography by Victoria Glendinning: Vita: The Life of V. Sackville-West (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson; 1983). Other invaluable works include Nigel Nicolson’s Long Life (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1987); Suzanne Raitt’s Vita and Virginia: The Work and Friendship of V. Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf (London: Clarendon Press, 1993); Louise DeSalvo and Mitchell A. Leaska’s edition of The Letters of Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf (London: Virago Press, 1992); and Robert Cross and Ann Ravenscroft-Hulme’s Vita Sackville-West: A Bibliography (Winchester: St. Paul’s Bibliographies; New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press, 1999).
This work was supported by a faculty research award from the City University of New York, and a visiting fellowship at the Lilly Library at Indiana University.
BY NIGEL NICOLSON
This is an anthology, but an unusual one, because it is selected from the writings of one person only, my mother, Vita Sackville-West. Most of her books have long been out of print, and some of her early poems and novels have become so rare, even in secondhand copies, that she ceased to mention them in her entry in Who’s Who, but her name is still familiar as the author of The Edwardians, All Passion Spent, and “The Land,” as the creator of the famous garden at Sissinghurst, and as the subject of Victoria Glendinning’s remarkable biography. Here Mary Ann Caws has contrived a highly original method of reintroducing Vita to a new generation, not only as a prolific author but as a woman whose experiences and ideas are still influential today.
Vita lends herself particularly well to this treatment since her range was so wide and her life so extraordinary. She was a poet, novelist, travel writer, biographer, journalist, and historian. She kept a diary, but only intermittently, and wrote innumerable letters, never leaving one unanswered whether it be a love letter from Virginia Woolf or an enquiry—and she received dozens every week—from a reader of her garden articles.
She wrote with equal ease an intimate letter or a key passage in her latest book. Her manuscripts, apart from her poems, for which she wrote many drafts, reveal a fluency that was lacking in her conversation, for she remained shy and hesitant in company. I have at Sissinghurst a dozen unpublished plays and novels that she wrote at Knole during her childhood, and page after page is as free from correction as one of Anthony Trollope’s manuscripts. Some of them are in French, others in Italian, for she had a great gift for languages, and all are suffused with a romanticism that never entirely left her.
Not many of her books are autobiographical. She wrote only one memoir, recording a torrid episode in her youth when she eloped to France with another woman, Violet Trefusis, which I published after her death in Portrait of a Marriage. From time to time she recorded in diary form specific journeys, like her holiday in France with Virginia Woolf in 1928 and her lecture tour of North America in 1933, and her two travel books, Passenger to Teheran and Twelve Days, are accounts of personal experiences. Characters like Lady Slane in All Passion Spent and Sebastian in The Edwardians are vaguely reminiscent of my grandmother and brother, and Vita herself figures marginally in the final pages of Pepita and in the history of her family, Knole and the Sackvilles. But about her personal life she was reticent, never writing for publication about lesbian love or the happiness of her marriage. It is therefore an added bonus that Mary Ann Caws h
Vita, for all her mixed ancestry—her maternal grandmother was a Spanish dancer—was English to the core. Intensely patriotic, romantically attached to the countryside both wild and tamed, and to the traditions of England as reflected in its literature and ancient buildings, she was nonetheless emotionally aroused by other cultures, particularly those of France, Italy, Greece, and Persia. Her only journey to the United States was less of a success because it was conducted in the least attractive circumstances—in midwinter, at the depth of a financial crisis, and in pursuance of an exhausting lecture tour that obliged her to hurry by train from city to city, constantly meeting people whom she would never see again and enduring a degree of entertainment and adulation which she felt wholly undeserved. But turning the troubled pages of her diary, one comes across sudden gleams of delight in an unusual person or a place like Niagara Falls or an Arizona ranch.
She was conservative, for instance, in her politics, but at the same time adventurous as a traveler, a writer, a gardener, and in her enduring regret that she was not born a boy who could have inherited Knole and who could have done the things that girls were not allowed or expected to do. But for all that she was a woman too, showing great tenderness toward people who were lonely or in trouble, and as a mother she revealed an understanding of schoolboy traumas well beyond her own experience.
So here you have a portrait of a remarkable person. It not only salvages an important part of her published work—from which I would specially commend her short story Seducers in Ecuador and her long poem “The Garden”—but reveals the private person behind the very public one, a woman of passion and determination beneath her outward gentleness and calm.
Vita Sackville-West, an aristocrat from a long and distinguished British lineage, delighted in the colorful mingling of Spanish and gypsy blood, with which she was endowed through the unusual circumstances of her maternal ancestors. She often portrayed herself as a hot-blooded irrational being, a fantasy played out in her acting the part of Julian or Mitya for her various lovers—in particular Violet Keppel Trefusis, who represents Eve to Vita’s dark, romantic, masculine gypsy side.
Raised in privilege and speaking several languages, she was herself a surprising mixture, at once imperious and bashful, a public personality but essentially reclusive. Mostly schooled at home and with governesses, she was always conscious of not having had a lengthy formal education and this contributed to her shyness in the witty society of Bloomsbury, in relation to which she felt herself to be slow. “Donkey West,” as Virginia Woolf called her affectionately, was a friend of the group, and in particular of Virginia and Leonard Woolf, but not at its intellectual center as were the Woolfs.
Bisexual, with an androgynous mingling of male and female traits, Vita was the wife of Harold Nicolson, a diplomat who was similarly androgynous. Vita, with her many lovers, mostly female, was a gender rebel of the first order. Virginia Woolf modeled the title character of Orlando (termed “the longest love letter in history” by Nigel Nicolson) on her and greatly admired the aristocratic lineage she represented. Writing in many genres, Vita epitomized the all-around creative personality in an eccentric and distinguished mode.
Life and Loves
Vita was brought up speaking upperclass French as well as English, as was her mother. The Sackville-Wests were a long line of aristocrats, notable in their being and their actions. Their family home, Knole, which had been given to Thomas Sackville in the sixteenth century by Queen Elizabeth, remained Vita’s lifelong place of choice, even when she could not inherit it. In contrast to this aristocratic bloodline, Vita took a particular interest in her grandmother Pepita Duran, a dancer, who, despite being married already, had an affair with her grandfather, Lord Sackville-West. Pepita had inherited gypsy blood from her own mother, a Spanish ex-acrobat married to a barber, and that heritage appealed greatly to Vita’s romantic fantasy, which would encourage and enhance own her various love affairs. The beautiful Pepita—about whom Vita wrote one of her most popular books, called simply Pepita—was known as “the Belle of Andalusia,” and had many lovers in addition to her Spanish dancer husband, from whom she was never really divorced. Lionel Sackville-West named her as his wife on his deathbed in Arcachon, France. He confessed to his son Henry, however, “I never married your mother.…” Despite this, they produced three daughters and two sons.
One of these daughters, Vita’s own extraordinarily beautiful mother, Victoria Josefa Dolores Catalina Sackville-West, was raised in the convent of St. Joseph in Paris. She was called to Washington to be her father’s young and brilliant hostess at the British Legation, where Lionel was the minister, and then went with him to Knole, which he had inherited. Vita was always to call her mother “B.M.,” for Bonne Maman, a title bestowed with a certain irony given their often surpassingly difficult relations. Victoria also had an array of celebrated lovers, including J. Pierpont Morgan. William Waldorf Astor and Auguste Rodin were also in love with her. She married her first cousin, also called Lionel. Their only child was Vita, born on March 9, 1892.
Victoria’s companion from 1897 to 1912, Sir John Murray Scott, whom Vita and her mother called Seery, was an immense man, standing six feet four and quite round, something like five feet around his middle, and was as generous in his being as in his girth. He had two gloriously appointed Paris apartments, one on the rue Lafitte, and it was there that Vita spent much of her time when she was young, contributing to her already fluent knowledge of French. Between 1906 and 1910, she wrote eight full-length novels, one in French, and several plays, some of which are also in that language.
Vita met the young diplomat Harold Nicolson in 1910 and married him in 1913. They would have a long and happy marriage in spite of—or, as some would have it, in part because of—their each being involved with members of their own sex. They had two sons, Benedict—an art historian and editor of the Burlington magazine—and Nigel—a writer, publisher, and biographer, who wrote Portrait of a Marriage about his mother and father, and edited their selected letters (Vita and Harold: The Letters of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson). Nigel’s own memoir, Long Life, honest and witty, offers a self-portrait of the kind Vita might well have written, had she chosen to do so. Some of her writings, published and unpublished, included here, give enough of her story to create her own portrait.
Vita lived an extraordinary life, both in her extensive and wide-ranging work and in her emotional attachments—those passing and those more lasting, those she envisaged as belonging to “Julian,” the masculine side of herself, and the one in which she dwelled every day by presence and by correspondence as Harold’s lifelong partner. Vita was as lively as her name indicates, although additionally in Harold’s letters to her she is “Mar,” her mother’s name for her, and he is “Hadji” or pilgrim, his father’s name for him. So they represent, in that fashion as in others, something handed down and symbolic, a tradition, even as their own marriage was, strictly speaking, highly nonconformist. The marriage worked, both surprisingly and well. The contradictions in their lives made them all the more interesting as persons, private and public, and as writers.
In general, it was quietly that Vita arranged and carried on a great many love affairs, a number of appearances and radio broadcasts as author and expert on gardens, and a massive amount of work, which she never discussed with her family. She lived precisely as she wanted to, traveling extensively with and occasionally without Harold, and finally spending more time in her garden and her writing tower than in society. Harold’s love affairs were less public than Vita’s and appeared to mean less to him. Hers, as her son Nigel put it, endured longer and were more significant: She was never without a love. As a young debutante she had been courted by an Italian, Orazio Pucci, and later, in 1914, had an affair, on her part as literary as it was passionate, with Geoffrey Scott, author of The Architecture of Hum
Notoriously, the person Vita most loved, aside from Harold, was the woman with whom she was intimate from April 1918 to 1921, Violet Keppel, the daughter of George and Alice Keppel; Alice Keppel was King Edward VIII’s mistress. Violet represented the greatest threat to the marriage of Vita and Harold. Vita and Violet had known each other at school, had exchanged an impetuous embrace, and had shared a precocious European childhood: “I had learnt Italian with her in London, and we had been together in Paris, and had acted part of a play I wrote in French in five Alexandrine acts, about the Man in the Iron Mask, and in those days we rather ostentatiously talked to one another in French in order to tutoyer one another [to use the informally intimate form of the verb] and so show what great friends we were.”1 This, I think, already indicates Vita’s relating of language to life, using speech to display intimacy.
Violet Keppel Trefusis, beauteous and seductive, sketched in words the best portrait anyone has made of Vita, describing the two halves of her face with the upper half pure and grave, the lower half domineering and sensual. Vita herself continually experienced this profound division, this actual split in her personality and in her many loves. She had had a close childhood friend, Rosamund Grosvenor, with whom she became intimate and then tossed aside, as she was to do with her many other female lovers in ensuing years. Only her love for her husband remained in its inviolate state: “Harold, who is unalterable, perennial, and best; there has never been anything but absolute purity in my love for Harold, just as there has never been anything but absolute bright purity in his nature. And on the other hand stands my perverted nature, which loved and tyrannized over Rosamund and ended by deserting her without one heart-pang, and which now is linked irremediably with Violet.”2
For a while, the male part of her personality, suddenly liberated in 1918 by a change in costume and her encounter with Violet, became dominant. She exhibited this in her newly donned breeches and gaiters: “I went into wild spirits; I ran, I shouted, I jumped, I climbed, I vaulted over gates, I felt like a schoolboy let out on a holiday.… that wild irresponsible day. It was one of the most vibrant days of my life.”3 So, for a number of years, until 1921, the tug of war between the two parts of her persona was unresolved, for “Violet had struck the secret of my duality.… I had been vouchsafed insight, as one sometimes is … all the gentleness and femininity of me was called out by Harold alone.… I might have been a boy of eighteen, and she a woman of thirty-five.”4
Other author's books:
- A Note of ExplanationSissinghurstVita Sackville-WestSaint Joan of ArcThe EdwardiansFamily History
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