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Vita Sackville-West

Vita Sackville-West


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Vita Sackville-West, the only daughter of Lionel Edward Sackville-West (1867–1928), and his wife and first cousin, Victoria Josefa Dolores Catalina Sackville-West (1862–1936), was born in Knole House, near Sevenoaks on 9th March 1892.

Vita was educated at home by a governess until she was thirteen when she went to Helen Wolff's school for girls, in Park Lane. Other pupils at the school were Violet Keppel and Rosamund Grosvenor. Vita began to write at an early age and completed eight historical novels, five plays, and a number of poems before she was eighteen.

While at school she began an affair with Rosamund, who was four years her senior. Vita recorded in her diary after Rosamund went on holiday: "After Roddie (Rosamund) had gone I cried because I missed her. What a funny thing it is to love a person as I love Roddie". Vita also became very close to Violet Keppel, the daughter of Alice Keppel and the mistress of King Edward VII. Violet described Vita as "tall for her age, gawky, dressed in what appeared to be her mother's old clothes." Violet spent a great deal of time at Vita's house. In May 1908 Vita, Rosamund and Violet went on holiday to Pisa, Milan, and Florence together.

Her father, Lionel Edward Sackville-West, succeeded her grandfather, Lionel Sackville-West (1827-1908), as third Baron Sackville in September 1908. Vita's biographer, T. J. Hochstrasser, has argued: "Her upbringing, both privileged and solitary, was shaped above all by the romantic atmosphere and associations of Knole, the sprawling Tudor palace set in a spacious park in Kent, where she spent her childhood. Her literary taste and temperament were created substantially by this aristocratic and historical backcloth and intensified both by the colourful and eccentric personality of her mother and by the gradual realization, with which she never entirely came to terms, that as a woman she could never inherit the Knole estate."

Vita lost contact with Violet Keppel but when they were reunited a few years later, the relationship became even more intense. Violet wrote in her autobiography, Don't Look Round: "No one had told me that Vita had turned into a beauty. The knobs and knuckles had all disappeared. She was tall and graceful. The profound, hereditary Sackville eyes were as pools from which the morning mists had lifted. A peach might have envied her complexion. Round her revolved several enamored young men."

In 1910 Victoria Sackville-West invited Rosamund Grosvenor to stay with them in Monte Carlo. Vita later recalled that "Rosamund was... invited by mother, not by me; I would never have dreamt of asking anyone to stay with me; I would never have dreamt of asking anyone to stay with me; even Violet had never spent more than a week at Knole: I resented invasion. Still, as Rosamund came, once she was there, I naturally spent most of the day with her, and after I had got back to England, I suppose it was resumed. I don't remember very clearly, but the fact remains that by the middle of that summer we were inseparable, and moreover were living on terms of the greatest possible intimacy.... Oh, I dare say I realized vaguely that I had no business to sleep with Rosamund, and I should certainly never have allowed anyone to find it out, but my sense of guilt went no further than that."

In June 1910 Vita met Harold Nicholson for the first time. Harold visited Vita in Monte Carlo in January 1911: "He was as gay and clever as ever, and I loved his brain and his youth, and was flattered at his liking for me. He came to Knole a good deal that autumn and winter, and people began to tell me he was in love with me, which I didn't believe was true, but wished that I could believe it. I wasn't in love with him then - there was Rosamund - but I did like him better than anyone, as a companion and playfellow, and for his brain and his delicious disposition. I hoped that he would propose to me before he went away to Constantinople, but felt diffident and sceptical about it."

In January 1912 Nicolson proposed to Vita. She refused him but under pressure from her mother, Victoria Sackville-West, Vita agreed to become engaged. As a result of the engagement, her mother gave her an allowance of £2,500 a year, of which the capital was to become hers on her mother's death.

Harold Nicholson became concerned about her relationship with Rosamund Grosvenor. He was puzzled by Rosamund's subservient attitude to Vita. He mentioned this in a letter to Vita, who replied: "It is a pity and rather tiresome. But doesn't everyone want one subservient person in your life? I've got mine in her. Who is yours? Certainly not me!" Vita later wrote in her autobiography: "It did not seem wrong to be... engaged to Harold, and at the same time so much in love with Rosamund... Our relationship (with Harold Nicholson) was so fresh, so intellectual, so unphysical, that I never thought of him in that aspect at all.... Some were born to be lovers, others to be husbands, he belongs to the latter category."

Vita Sackville-West also began a relationship with Muriel Clark-Kerr, the sister of Archibald Clark-Kerr. Muriel stayed with Vita at Knole House. Soon afterwards she wrote to Vita: "I shall not be frigid in London - why should I be, for I, too, care very much. I hated saying goodbye and did not half tell you enough how I loved being in Palais Malet, or how glad I am we both embarked on the risk. Those two days in the hills! How happy we were." Violet Keppel was also passionately involved with Vita. Violet told her: "The upper half of your face is so pure and grave - almost childlike. And the lower half is so domineering, sensual, almost brutal - it is the most absurd contrast, and extraordinarily symbolical of your Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde personality."

Rosamund Grosvenor became jealous of Vita's relationships with Harold Nicholson, Violet Keppel and Muriel Clark-Kerr. Rosamund wrote to Vita: "Oh my sweet you do know don't you. Nothing can ever make me love you less whatever happens, and I really think you have taken all my love already as there seems very little left." After one love-making session she wrote: "My sweet darling... I do miss you darling one and I want to feel your soft cool face coming out of that mass of pussy fur like I did last night."

Despite having several affairs with women, in October 1913 she married Harold Nicholson. He was based in Constantinople but the following year they returned to England and their first son, Lionel Benedict Nicolson, was born in August that year. They lived both in London and at Long Barn, a house near Sevenoaks. A second son was stillborn in 1915, and their last child, Nigel Nicolson, was born in London in 1917.

Vita Sackville-West published her first book Poems of East and West in 1917. She followed this with a novel, Heritage, in 1919. A second novel, The Heir (1922), dealt with her feelings about her family. Her next book, Knole and the Sackvilles (1922), covered her family history.

In April 1918 she resumed her affair with Violet Keppel. Vita later wrote: "She lay on the sofa, I sat plunged in the armchair; she took my hands, and parted my fingers to count the points as she told me why she loved me... She pulled me down until I kissed her - I had not done so for many years." The lovers travelled around Europe and collaborated on a novel, Challenge (1923), that was published in America but banned in Britain.

In March 1919 Violet Keppel wrote to Vita to explain that she was being forced to marry Denys Robert Trefusis, an officer in the Royal Horse Guards: "It is really wicked and horrible. I am losing every atom of self-respect I ever possessed. I hate myself.... I want you every second and every hour of the day, yet I am being slowly and inexorably tied to somebody else... Sometimes I am flooded by an agony of physical longing for you... a craving for your nearness and your touch. At other times I feel I should be quite content if I could only hear the sound of your voice. I try so hard to imagine your lips on mine. Never was there such a pitiful imagining.... Darling, whatever it may cost us, my mother won't be cross with you any more. I suppose this ridiculous engagement will set her mind at rest."

Violet gave in to pressure from her mother, Alice Keppel and agreed to marry Trefusis on 16th June 1919. She did so on the understanding that the marriage would remain unconsummated, and she was still resolved to live with Vita. They resumed their affair just a few days after the wedding. The women moved to France in February 1920. However, Harold Nicholson followed them and eventually persuaded his wife to return to the family home.

T. Hochstrasser points out: "However, this crisis in fact proved eventually to be the catalyst for Nicolson and Sackville-West to restructure their marriage satisfactorily so that they could both pursue a series of relationships through which they could fulfil their essentially homosexual identity while retaining a secure basis of companionship and affection." Sackville-West's other lovers included the journalist Evelyn Irons and Hilda Matheson, head of the BBC talks department.

Sackville-West's 2,500 line poem The Land (1926), was dedicated to her lover, the poet Dorothy Wellesley. According to Victoria Glendinning, the author of Vita: The Life of Vita Sackville-West (1983): "What Vita set out to do was to document the age-old Kentish skills and processes and the Kentish landscape, which even in the 1920s were being modified by mechanization. Her sources were not only her own daily observations but encyclopaedias of agriculture and old poems and farming treatises."

Sackville-West also became romantically involved with Virginia Woolf. Vita's nephew, Quentin Bell, later recalled: "There may have been - on balance I think that there probably was - some caressing, some bedding together. But whatever may have occurred between them of this nature, I doubt very much whether it was of a kind to excite Virginia or to satisfy Vita. As far as Virginia's life is concerned the point is of no great importance; what was, to her, important was the extent to which she was emotionally involved, the degree to which she was in love. One cannot give a straight answer to such questions but, if the test of passions be blindness, then her affections were not very deeply engaged."

Mary Garman and Roy Campbell, met Vita Sackville-West in the village post office in May 1927. She invited them to dinner with her husband, Harold Nicolson. Other guests included Leonard Woolf, Virginia Woolf and Richard Aldington. Mary wrote to William Plomer about the dinner party: "Vita Nicolson appeared, and in her wake, Virginia Woolf, Richard Aldington and Leonard Woolf. They looked to me rather like intellectual wolves in sheep's clothing. Virginia's hand felt like the claw of a hawk. She has black eyes, light hair and a very pale face. He is weary and slightly distinguished. They are not very human." In September 1927 Vita began an affair with Mary Garman. Mary wrote: "You are sometimes like a mother to me. No one can imagine the tenderness of a lover suddenly descending to being maternal. It is a lovely moment when the mother's voice and hands turn into the lover's."

Later that month, Vita Sackville-West offered the Campbells the opportunity to live in a cottage in the grounds of Sissinghurst Castle. They accepted but later Roy Campbell objected when he discovered that his wife was having an affair with Vita: "It was then that we entered the most comically sordid and silly period of our lives. We were very stupid to relinquish our precarious independence in the tiny cottage for the professed hospitality of one of the Stately Homes of England, which proved to be something between a psychiatry clinic and a posh brothel."

When Campbell was in London he told C.S. Lewis of the affair he replied: "Fancy being cuckolded by a woman!" According to Cressida Connolly: "Roy was a proud man, and this remark so punctured his pride that he returned to Kent in a towering rage. A terrified Mary took refuge at Long Barn, where Dorothy Wellesley sat up all night with a shotgun across her knees." Campbell had a meeting with Vita Sackville-West about the affair. Afterwards he wrote: "I am tired of trying to hate you and I realize that there is no way in which I could harm you (as I would have liked to) without equally harming us all. I do not dislike any of your personal characteristics and I liked you very much before I knew anything. All this acrimony on my part is due rather to our respective positions in this tangle."

It was agreed that the affair would come to an end. However, Mary Garman found the situation very difficult and wrote to Vita: "Is the night never coming again when I can spend hours in your arms, when I can realise your big sort of protectiveness all round me, and be quite naked except for a covering of your rose leaf kisses?" When Roy Campbell went into hospital to have his appendix out, the relationship resumed.

Virginia Woolf was very jealous of the affair. She wrote to Vita: "I rang you up just now to find you were gone nutting in the woods with Mary Campbell... but not me - damn you." It is believed that Woolf's novel Orlando was influenced by the affair. In October 1927 Virginia wrote to Vita: "Suppose Orlando turns out to be about Vita; and its all about you and the lusts of your flesh and the lure of your mind (heart you have none, who go gallivanting down the lanes with Campbell) - suppose there's the kind of shimmer of reality which sometimes attaches to my people... Shall you mind?"

Vita Sackville-West replied that she thrilled and terrified "at the prospect of being projected into the shape of Orlando". She added: "What fun for you; what fun for me. You see, any vengeance that you want to take will be ready in your hand... You have my full permission." Orlando, was published in October 1928, with three pictures of Vita among its eight photographic illustrations. Dedicated to Vita, the novel, published in 1928, traces the history of the youthful, beautiful, and aristocratic Orlando, and explores the themes of sexual ambiguity.

After reading the book, Mary Garman wrote to Vita: "I hate the idea that you who are so hidden and secret and proud even with people you know best, should be suddenly presented so nakedly for anyone to read about... Vita darling you have been so much Orlando to me that how can I help absolutely understanding and loving the book... Through all the slight mockery which is always in the tone of Virginia's voice, and the analysis etc., Orlando is written by someone who loves you so obviously."

Vita also wrote several sonnets about Mary. These appeared in King's Daughter (1929). After the book was published she wrote to her husband, Harold Nicolson: "It has occurred to me that people will think them Lesbian... I should not like this, either for my own sake or yours."Roy Campbell responded to the affair by writing the long satirical poem, The Georgiad. The poem caused a furore in the literary world as Campbell castigated the Bloomsbury Group. This included Vita who he described as the "frowsy poetess" in the poem:

Too gaunt and bony to attract a man

But proud in love to scavenge what she can,

Among her peers will set some cult in fashion

Where pedantry may masquerade as passion.

Campbell wrote to his friend Percy Wyndham Lewis: "Since The Georgiad (I hear) the Nicolson menage has become very Strindbergian. Each accusing the other for it and smashing the furniture about: but they are rotten to the core and I don't care about any personal harm I have done them - I take their internal disturbances as a justification of The Georgiad."

In 1930, Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson left Long Barn and purchased Sissinghurst Castle, which they set about restoring and developing into the setting for a large-scale garden. As T. Hochstrasser has pointed out: "Sissinghurst... the sketchy remains of a Kentish Elizabethan mansion, which they set about restoring and developing into the setting for a large-scale garden: this was a joint project where the principles of design were contributed by Nicolson and the planting schemes and maintenance by Sackville-West."

Sackville-West continued to write and published two novels, All Passion Spent (1931) and Family History (1932), and two biographical studies, St Joan of Arc (1936) and Pepita (1937). This was followed by another novel, Grand Canyon (1942), which imagined a German victory, and another long poem, The Garden (1946), won the Heinemann award for literature in 1946.

In 1948 she was appointed a Companion of Honour for her services to literature. She continued to develop her garden at Sissinghurst Castle and for many years wrote a weekly gardening column for The Observer. In 1955 she was awarded the gold Veitch medal of the Royal Horticultural Society. In her last decade she published a further biography, Daughter of France (1959) and a final novel, No Signposts in the Sea (1961).

Vita Sackville-West died of stomach cancer on 2nd June 1962. She was cremated and was buried in the Sackville family vault at Withyham, East Sussex.

No one had told me that Vita had turned into a beauty. Round her revolved several enamored young men.

It did not seem wrong to be... engaged to Harold, and at the same time so much in love with Rosamund Grosvenor... Some were born to be lovers, others to be husbands, he belongs to the latter category.... It was passion that used to make my head swim sometimes, even in the daytime, but we never made love.

Harold came back from Madrid at the end of that summer (1911). He had been very ill out there, and I remember him as rather a pathetic figure wrapped up in an Ulster on a warm summer day, who was able to walk slowly round the garden with me. All that time while I was "out" is extremely dim to me, very largely I think, owing to the fact that I was living a kind of false life that left no impression upon me. Even my liaison with Rosamund was, in a sense, superficial. I mean that it was almost exclusively physical, as, to be frank, she always bored me as a companion. I was very fond of her, however; she had a sweet nature. But she was quite stupid.

Harold wasn't. He was as gay and clever as ever, and I loved his brain and his youth, and was flattered at his liking for me. I hoped that he would propose to me before he went away to Constantinople, but felt diffident and sceptical about it.

I hate writing this, but I must, I must. When I began this I swore I would shirk nothing, and no more I will. So here is the truth: I was never so much in love with Rosamund as during those weeks in Italy and the months that followed. It may seem that I should have missed Harold more. I admit everything, to my shame, but I have never pretended to have anything other than a base and despicable character. I seem to be incapable of fidelity, as much then as now. But, as a sole justification, I separate my loves into two halves: 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 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. I have here a scrap of paper on which Violet, intuitive psychologist, has scribbled, "The upper half of your face is so pure and grave - almost childlike. And the lower half is so domineering, sensual, almost brutal - it is the most absurd contrast, and extraordinarily symbolical of your Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde personality." That is the whole crux of the matter, and I see now that my whole curse has been a duality with which I was too weak and too self-indulgent to struggle.

I really worshipped Rosamund then. We motored all over Italy, and I think it was our happiest time... I didn't go to Italy that spring, I went instead to Spain, which I looked on as partially my own country, and where in three weeks I picked up Spanish with comparative fluency. I loved Spain. I would give my soul to go there with Violet - Violet! Violet! How bloodless the Rosamund affair appears now under the glare of my affinity with Violet; how seraphic and childlike my years of marriage with Harold, when that side of me was completely submerged! I am so frightened of that side sometimes - it's so brutal and hard and savage, and Harold knows nothing of it; it would drive over his soul like an armoured chariot. He has blundered upon it once or twice, but he doesn't understand - he could no more understand it than Ben could understand algebra.

Things began to rush, after I came back from Spain. The delay over my engagement began to irritate me, and one day I wrote to Harold saying we had perhaps better give up the idea. He sent me a despairing telegram in reply, and then I scarcely know what happened inside my heart: something snapped, and I loved Harold from that day on; I think his energy in sending me a telegram impressed me, just as I was impressed when he came after me in an aeroplane when I ran away. Anyway, I wired back that everything was as before, and the letter which followed the telegram touched me greatly, for I saw by it how much he truly cared. But I continued my liaison with Rosamund. I say this with deep shame.

Rosamond knows about you and me. She is very dear and sympathetic person, though she may not be particularly clever, and I am very fond of her. And she is a perfect tomb of discretion.

Her mother's fastidiousness and her father's reluctance to discuss any intimate subject with her deepened her sexual isolation. With Rosamund she tumbled into love, and bed, with a sort of innocence. At first it meant little more to her than cuddling a favourite dog or rabbit, and later she regarded the affair as more naughty than perverted, and took great pains to conceal it from her parents and Harold, fearing that exposure would mean the banishment of Rosamund. It was little more than that. She had no concept of any moral distinction between homosexual and heterosexual love, thinking of them both as "love" without qualification. When she married Harold, she assumed that marriage was love by other means, and for a time it worked.

The very existence of myself and my brother is proof of it, and there is ample evidence in the letters and diaries that for the first few years of their marriage they were sexually compatible. After 1917 it gradually became clear that their mutual enjoyment was on the wane. Lady Sackville refers in her diaries to frank conversations with Vita on the subject ("She remarks about Harold being so physically cold"). When I myself married, my father solemnly cautioned me that the physical side of marriage could not be expected to last more than a year or two, and once, in a broadcast, he said, "Being in love lasts but a short time - from three weeks to three years. It has little or nothing to do with the felicity of marriage."

Simultaneously, therefore, and without placing any great strain upon their love for each other, they began to seek pleasure with people of their own sex, and to Vita at least it seemed quite natural, for she was simply reverting to her other form of "love". Marriage and sex could be quite separate things....

She (Vita) didn't know how strong and dangerous such passion could be, until Violet replaced Rosamund. Of course she knew that "such a thing existed", but she did not give it a name, and felt no guilt about it. At the time of her marriage she may have been ignorant that men could feel for other men as she had felt for Rosamund, but when she had made this discovery in Harold himself, it did not come as a great shock to her, for she had the romantic notion that it was natural and salutary for "people" to love each other, and the desire to kiss and touch was simply the physical expression of affection, and it made no difference whether it was affection between people of the same sex or the opposite.

It was fortunate that both were made that way. If only one of them had been, their marriage would probably have collapsed. Violet did not destroy their physical union; she simply provided the alternative for which Vita was unconsciously seeking at the moment when her physical passion for Harold, and his for her, had begun to cool. In Harold's life at that time there was no male Violet, luckily for him, since his love for Vita might not have survived two rivals simultaneously. Before he met Vita he had been half-engaged to another girl, Eileen Wellesley. He was not driven to homosexuality by Vita's temporary desertion of him, because it had always been latent, but his loneliness may have encouraged this tendency to develop, since with his strong sense of duty (much stronger than Vita's) he felt it to be less treacherous to sleep with men in her absence than with other women. When he was left stranded in Paris, he once confessed to Vita that he was "spending his time with rather low people, the demi-monde", and this could have meant young men. When she returned to him, it certainly did. Lady Sackville noted in her diary, "Vita intends to be very platonic with Harold, who accepts it like a lamb.' They never shared a bedroom after that.

Harold had a series of relationships with men who were his intellectual equals, but the physical element in them was very secondary. He was never a passionate lover. To him sex was as incidental, and about as pleasurable, as a quick visit to a picture-gallery between trains. His a-sexual love for Vita in later life was balanced by affection for his men friends, by some of whom he was temporarily, but never helplessly, attracted. There was no moment in his life when love for a young man became such an obsession to him that it interfered with his work, and he had no affairs faintly comparable to Vita's. Their behaviour in this respect was a reflection of their very different personalities. His life was too well regulated to be affected by affairs of the heart, while she always allowed herself to be swept away.

In 1910... Rosamund had come out to stay at Monte Carlo - invited by mother, not by me; I would never have dreamt of asking anyone to stay with me; I would never have dreamt of asking anyone to stay with me; even Violet had never spent more than a week at Knole: I resented invasion. Oh, I dare say I realized vaguely that I had no business to sleep with Rosamund, and I should certainly never have allowed anyone to find it out, but my sense of guilt went no further than that. Anyway I was very much in love with Rosamund.

My own sweet love, I am writing this at 2 o'clock in the morning at the conclusion of the most cruelly ironical clay I have spent in my life.

This evening I was taken to a ball of some good people. Chinday had previously told all her friends I was engaged so I was congratulated by everyone I knew there. I could have screamed aloud. Mitya, I can't face this existence. I shall see you once again on Monday and it depends on you whether we shall ever see each other again.

It is really wicked and horrible. I hate myself. 0 Mitya, what have you done to me? 0 my darling, precious love, what is going to become of use

I want you every second and every hour of the day, yet I am being slowly and inexorably tied to somebody else... I suppose this ridiculous engagement will set her mind at rest....

Nothing and no one in the world could kill the love I have for you. I have surrendered my whole individuality, the very essence of my being to you. I have given you my body time after time to treat as you pleased, to tear to pieces if such had been your will. All the hoardings of my imagination I have laid bare to you. There isn't a recess in my brain into which you haven't penetrated. I have clung to you and caressed you and slept with you and I would like to tell the whole world I clamour for you.... You are my lover and I am your mistress, and kingdoms and empires and governments have tottered and succumbed before now to that mighty combination - the most powerful in the world.

Should you say, if I rang you up to ask, that you were fond of me: If I saw you would you kiss me? If I were in bed would you - I'm rather excited about Orlando tonight: have been lying by the fire and making up the last chapter.

But I do adore you - every part of you from heel to hair. Never will you shake me off, try as you may... But if being loved by Virginia is any good, she does do that; and always will, and please believe it.

When we married, you were older than I was, and far better informed. I was very young, and very innocent, I knew nothing about homosexuality. I didn't even know that such a thing existed, either between men or between women. You should have told me. You should have warned me. You should have told me about yourself, and warned me that the same sort of thing was likely to happen to myself. It would have saved us a lot of trouble and misunderstanding. But I simply didn't know.


Vita Sackville-West and Knole

Victoria (Vita) Mary Sackville-West, Lady Nicolson (1892-1962) by Philip Alexius de László de Lombos National Trust Images / John Hammond

Victoria Mary Sackville-West, known as Vita, was born at Knole in 1892 and grew up there, an only child of Victoria and Lionel. She loved Knole but was unable to inherit when her father, the 3rd Lord Sackville died, due to the laws of primogeniture dictating that only men could inherit property.

Vita's uncle Charles inherited the title and Knole, and it was during his term that the house was handed to the National Trust with an endowment. The Sackville family retained a 200-year lease on private apartments at Knole and still live here today.

Vita's literary legacy

Vita was a poet, gardener, novelist, biographer and journalist. Her love for Knole led her to write a history of the house and her family, Knole and the Sackvilles, and one of her best-known novels, The Edwardians, uses Knole as inspiration for the grand house Chevron.

Her long narrative poem, The Land, won the Hawthornden Prize in 1927, the oldest British literary prize, then in 1933 she became the only writer to win it a second time with her Collected Poems.

In 1947, Vita was made a Companion of Honour for her services to literature. Her weekly column in The Observer called 'In Your Garden', became a garden writing classic, and she was also a founding member of Knole's garden committee.

An eventful life

Vita was married in 1913 at the private chapel in Knole. Her husband, Harold Nicolson, was a diplomat, politician, critic and biographer. After a brief overseas posting, they returned to England and went on to buy Sissinghurst Castle in a practically derelict state. Together, they re-built the house and designed the now world-famous garden, visited by keen gardeners from all over the world.

Vita and Harold remained close throughout a relatively unorthodox marriage. Both had affairs with members of the same sex, and Vita's relationship with Virginia Woolf is celebrated in Woolf's novel, Orlando, inspired by Knole and Vita's inability to inherit her beloved family home.

The original manuscript for Orlando is inscribed 'Vita from Virginia' and remains at Knole today. Vita's son, Nigel Nicolson, has described it as 'the longest and most charming love-letter in literature.'

Pause a while.

If you pause at the foot of the Great Staircase as you leave the Great Hall, you will be rewarded with the sight of a large carved oak door stop in the form of William Shakespeare, which is from Vita's bedroom at Knole. Her mother's passion for fresh air meant that all the doors in the house were kept open.

Vita loved the harmony of Knole with its picturesque setting, describing it as 'not an incongruity like Blenheim or Chatsworth, foreign to the spirit of England . the great Palladian houses of the 18th century are in England, they are not of England'.

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Well known writings

The Edwardians (1930) and All Passion Spent (1931) are perhaps her best known novels today. In the latter, the elderly Lady Slane courageously embraces a long suppressed sense of freedom and whimsy after a lifetime of convention. This novel was faithfully dramatized by the BBC in 1986 starring Dame Wendy Hiller.

Sackville-West's science-fantasy Grand Canyon (1942) is a "cautionary tale" (as she termed it) about a Nazi invasion of an unprepared United States. The book takes an unsuspected twist, however, that makes it something more than a typical invasion yarn.

In 1946 Sackville-West was made a Companion of Honour for her services to literature. The following year she began a weekly column in the Observer called In your Garden. In 1948 she became a founder member of the National Trust's garden committee.

Sissinghurst Castle is now owned by the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty. Sissinghurst Castle Garden is the most visited garden in England.


Sissinghurst in the 19th century

In 1796 the Cranbrook 'Councillors' took out a lease on Sissinghurst from the owners at the time, the Mann-Cornwallis family, this was to be used as a poor house for the able bodied. Around 100 men were offered housing, employment and food. The owners repaired many of the buildings, their legacy is apparent even today, on the weather vanes you can see the markings MC 1839. The inmates worked the farm which became profitable for the local parish. When the estate reverted back to the Cornwallis family in 1855 it was the beginning of a great period of Victorian 'high farming,' the Sissinghurst farm was deemed to be the best on the whole of the substantial Cornwallis estate.


10 Very Gay Excerpts from Vita and Virginia’s Love Letters

Virginia Woolf, who wrote some of the most crucial works of the 20th century, met poet Vita Sackville-West in 1922. Shortly after meeting, they began an intense love affair that would last nearly a decade and is preserved in a number of love letters. (And is due to be adapted to film later this year.)

During the affair, Virginia was married to Leonard Woolf. In an excerpt from her diary, she details a visit Vita paid her while Leonard was home in 1927:

“She was sitting on the floor in her red velvet jacket & red striped silk shirt, I knotting her pearls into heaps of great clustered eggs. She had come up to see me — so we go on — a spirited, creditable affair, I think, innocent (spiritually) & all gain, I think, rather a bore for Leonard, but not enough to worry him. The truth is one has room for a good many relationships.”

The affair lasted until 1928 or 1929, and the two remained friends for the rest of their lives. Woolf’s Orlando, in which a gender-rebelling aristocrat travels the world having sex with both men and women, is considered a love letter to Vita, in addition to all her actual love letters to Vita.

And these letters are gaaaaaaaaay. In a letter to Ethel Smyth, dated August 1930, Virginia wrote: “It is true that I only want to show off to women. Women alone stir my imagination.”

Here are the best, by which I mean gayest, excepts from the letters between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West.

1. In one of the earliest letter correspondences between the two, dated March 1923, Vita sends Virginia a letter address to “Mrs. Woolf,” to which Virginia replies:

“Dear Mrs. Nicholson,

(But I wish you could be induced to call me Virginia).”

“My dear Virginia,

(You see I don’t take much inducing. Could you be induced likewise, do you think?)”

Is this exchange unbearably erotic to anyone else? Just me?

2. In 1925, Virginia and Leonard were staying at Rodmell, their holiday home. Vita wrote to her there:

“If you ever feel inclined, let me come and carry you off from Rodmell… I can devise many places to take you to!”

This exchange of letters (over the course of two weeks in 1925) ends with Vita visiting Virginia, and although she does not carry her off, she does bring her flowers. Virginia’s reply:

3. Then, in December of 1925, Vita and Virginia’s sexual love affair began. Virginia came to stay with Vita at Long Barn, Vita and her husband Harold’s estate. Vita writes:

“My dear Virginia,

I have been doing something so odd, so queer — or rather, something which though perhaps neither odd nor queer in itself, has filled me with such odd and queer sensations, — that I must write to you (The thing, by the way, was entirely connected with you, and wild horses won’t drag from me what is was.)

She signs it, for the first time, “Yours, Vita.”

4. In 1926, a year after the start of their affair, Vita left the country to travel — a trip neither of the two were happy about. In January, Vita writes:

“I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia. I composed a beautiful letter to you in the sleepless nightmare hours of the night, and it has all gone: I just miss you, in a quite simple desperate human way. You, with all your un-dumb letters, would never write so elementary a phrase as that perhaps you wouldn’t even feel it. And yet I believe you’ll be sensible of a little gap. But you’d clothe it in so exquisite a phrase that it would lose a little of its reality. Whereas with me it is quite stark: I miss you even more than I could have believed and I was prepared to miss you a good deal. So this letter is just really a squeal of pain. It is incredible how essential to me you have become. I suppose you are accustomed to people saying these things. Damn you, spoilt creature I shan’t make you love me any the more by giving myself away like this — but oh my dear, I can’t be clever and stand-offish with you: I love you too much for that. Too truly. You have no idea how stand-offish I can be with people I don’t love. I have brought it to a fine art. But you have broken down my defences. And I don’t really resent it.”

5. In reply to that, Virginia writes:

“Your letter came this morning — But why do you think I don’t feel, or that I make phrases? “Lovely phrases” you say which rob things of reality. Just the opposite. Always, always, always I try to say what I feel. Will you then believe that after you went last Tuesday — exactly a week ago — out I went into the slums of Bloomsbury, to find a barrel organ. But it did not make me cheerful … And ever since, nothing important has happened — Somehow it’s dull and damp. I have been dull I have missed you. I do miss you. I shall miss you. And if you don’t believe it, you’re a longeared owl and ass.”

6. A week later, Vita is in Cairo. She writes Virginia a letter that begins with an alphabetical list of things she saw in Egypt that I won’t recreate here because it’s very long (“Obsidian, Osiris, obelisks,” etc). Following the list, she writes:

“What else? I miss you horribly…

…The wish to steal Virginia overcomes me, — steal her, take her away, and put her in the sun among the objects mentioned alphabetically above. If I can get myself to Asia and Africa, why can’t you? (But with me, please.)”

“You are a crafty fox to write an alphabet letter.”

7. When Vita returns from her globe-hopping, the letters between her and Virginia are sparse. They were seeing each other in person quite often, but Vita also had started to see another woman, Dorothy Wellesley. Her affair with Dorothy didn’t last long and didn’t slow down the one between her and Virginia, though writing in June 1926 Virginia seems frustrated at the lack of letters:

“Not much news. Rather cross — Would like a letter. Would like a garden. Would like Vita.”

8. In 1927, Vita and Virginia’s romantic affair was coming to an end. Though the two still wrote about their love for each other (which they both describe as “unalterable, permanent”), Virginia discovered that Vita had been having an affair with another woman. Their letters from 1927 to 1929 are strained, sad, and even desperate. They also contain this iconic opening, from a letter Virginia sent in 1927:

“Look here Vita — throw over your man, and we’ll go to Hampton Court and dine on the river together and walk in the garden in the moonlight and come home late and have a bottle of wine and get tipsy, and I’ll tell you all the things I have in my head, millions, myriads — They won’t stir by day, only by dark on the river. Think of that. Throw over your man, I say, and come.”

9. The following letter is from August 1933, five or six years after their relationship ended, and it is salty. Vita uses “(That appears to be the suitable formula)”, referencing Virginia’s married name as well as mocking formal letter writing:

“Dear Mrs Woolf ,

(That appears to be the suitable formula.)
I regret that you have been in bed, though not with me — (a less suitable formula.)”

10. Their correspondence continues on, with letters surviving from as late as 1941. The last letter in the collection is from Virginia, dated March 22, six days before she committed suicide. Reading them now, those letters tinge the deep and complex relationship between these two women with the knowledge and sadness of what is to come.

But another exchange of letters, from late 1940 during the Blitz, better shows their sweetness and love and joy in each other. The Woolfs had lived in London, but their homes were destroyed, so their country house in Sussex became their permanent residence. Vita visited Virginia there three times from 1940 to 1941, and her visit in February would be the last time they saw one another. Vita had her own room at the Woolf house, which Virginia would keep and fill with flowers, anticipating Vita’s visit. In September 1940, Virginia writes:

“I’ve just stop talking to you. It seems so strange. Its perfectly peaceful here — they’re playing bowls — I’d just put flowers in your room. And there you sit with the bombs falling around you.

What can one say — except that I love you and I’ve got to live through this strange quiet evening thinking of you sitting alone.

Dearest — let me have a line…

You have given me such happiness…”

“Oh dear, how your letter touched me this morning. I nearly dropped a tear into my poached egg. Your rare expressions of affection have always had the power to move me greatly, and I suppose one is a bit strung-up (mostly sub-consciously) they now come ping against my heart like a bullet dropping on the roof. I love you too you know that.”

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The Disinherited review – a fascinating history of the illegitimate children of an aristocratic family

W hen Pepita, Vita Sackville-West's book about her Spanish dancer grandmother, was published in 1937, the tangled circumstances of Pepita's muddled legacy were still fresh in the public memory. Pepita's daughter Victoria, Lady Sackville, Vita's mother, had died only the year before, the most prominent of five sad siblings whose pathetic attempts to secure their inheritance, indeed their very identity, are the subject of this book.

Born Josefa Duran in 1830 in the slums of Málaga, Pepita was famous for her waist-length black hair and tiny feet. She became the mistress of Lionel Sackville-West, later the second Lord Sackville, and bore him five children. The family was established in a comfortable house, the Villa Pepa, in the new spa town of Arcachon in south-west France. There, Lionel and Pepita went by the names of Count and Countess West. This apparently cosy set-up was beset from the first by complications. Illegitimacy was a stain: neighbours gossiped and tradesmen snooped local children were forbidden to play with the Wests lest they be tainted by association. Vita had painted a picture of an extravagant passion between an English peer and a hot-headed Spanish Gypsy. The reality, as Robert Sackville-West's immaculately written account makes clear, was altogether more dismally prosaic, the story of "the crotchety courtesan and the perjurious peer". His vivid account of life at Arcachon, a watering hole inhabited by a temporary population of stateless in-betweeners, makes an airless backdrop to the events that unravelled after Pepita's death in childbirth in 1871.

Lionel Sackville-West emerges badly from this book. A family photograph of him lounging against a pillar in mutton-chop whiskers and bowler hat shows him droopy-eyed and long-faced. Lazy and self-indulgent, his job in the diplomatic service gave him long stretches of time off – excuses both to spend time with Pepita and the children and to escape them. He was always complaining about debts, his sister remarking: "How wonderful is Lionel's inaccuracy and forgetfulness about money!" When Pepita died, he left his children in the care of guardians in Paris and legged it to Argentina, where a fellow diplomat's wife described him as deadly dull, a "nullity". Cultivating a useful vagueness about the position and security of his five children (which was later to prompt the lengthy court cases that beleaguered them), the only one of them he showed any real affection for was Victoria, on whom he became unhealthily dependent. He himself seems to have attracted very little censure over his messy and selfish domestic set-up, but his children lived with it all their lives.

Victoria turned out a beauty in the straight-nosed, lantern-jawed Edwardian manner. Her father summoned her to Washington when he was posted there and she was a soaring social success. Returning with him to England, she eventually married in 1890 her first cousin Lionel, her father's heir, becoming Lady Sackville and chatelaine of Knole, the Sackville-West's vast house in Kent. Charming but manipulative and "greedy for gold", Victoria queened it over her siblings. Illegitimacy did not impede her social triumph but the awful shadow left her constantly fearful of poverty and exclusion.

This is a chronicle of lives wasted, squandered on grievance, vindictiveness, squabbles over money, lengthy and pointless litigation and, above all, dreams of acceptance that were dashed with very public humiliation. Lionel's legacy to his illegitimate children was ambivalence and half-truths – they were never quite sure of exactly who they were. Max, the eldest, even believed himself for a time to be the son of Pepita's long discarded husband, a stout dancer called Juan Antonio de Oliva – and expressed some relief that this would free him from the burden of unrealisable expectations. Surrounded by partisan hangers-on, the siblings ended up fighting each other Victoria at one point, with terrible irony, was even forced to prove in court her own illegitimacy in order to stop her brother Henry's attempt to claim the Sackville title.

The lives of Pepita's children were spent in the sad shadowlands of the in-betweeners: not quite socially acceptable not quite English not quite equipped to look after themselves not quite anything. Max was shipped off to South Africa where he spent the rest of his life working on farms that never made money – and died in poverty. Flora married a gold-digger, then in her 40s became an oriental dancer billed as "the honourable Flora Sackville-West". Amalia, Vita's "vinegary spinster aunt", was tied like a tin can to Victoria's coat-tails, living with her at Knole in mutual loathing at 51, she suddenly married a French diplomat and Victoria was furious when Amalia died in 1945, she was living in a cottage in Hythe, still ranting against her sister and making wild claims to her parenthood. Saddest of all was Henry – his halting letters in awkward English make pathetic reading – who spent fruitless years trying to claim his legitimacy as the rightful heir of Knole and ended up committing suicide in a Paris lodging house.

Robert Sackville-West, the current Lord Sackville, is descended from a more sober strain of the family. He has written this book with both objectivity and empathy. But though it is a fascinating picture of a forgotten underside of English aristocratic and public life, it is hard not to find it ultimately a thoroughly melancholy tale. As Max, writing to his estranged sister from South Africa, put it: "It was indeed a load of sorrow and shame that Father left us. How it has eaten into the heart of us all."


LGBT History Month: Vita Sackville West

This February, we celebrate LGBT+ identities and how they have helped shape our world. Throughout the month we will be posting histories of LGBT+ people who have made contributions to the field of botany, horticulture, garden design and botanical art. If you would like to see the original posts about the individuals below, please check out @BotanicsPride on Twitter. If you’re interested in helping out as we start to plan for Pride 2021, we would be delighted to hear from you! Please contact the Botanics RBGE Pride group for more info. Happy #LGBTHistoryMonth

Vita Sackville West…

lived from 1892–1962. An accomplished writer, Vita is also best remembered for her beautiful garden design at Sissinghurst Castle Gardens. Vita’s planting work and romantic vision helped create what is now regarded as a masterpiece of modern, British garden design. Vita also wrote a weekly gardening column for The Observer and helped found the National Trust’s garden committee. Vita wrote about her life as a bisexual woman attempting to run away with the woman she loved multiple times.

She went against the traditional conventions of the time. Speaking of her relationships with women and men in her memoir, she wrote that in the future she believed ‘it will be recognised that many more people of my type do exist than under than the present-day system of hypocrisy is commonly admitted’. The single-toned ‘White Garden’ in Sissinghurst best demonstrates Vita’s understanding of texture, shape and form with the use of plants like Stachys lanata, white pansies, peonies and irises.

Image Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ggbain-14916


Today in Literary History – June 2, 1962 – Novelist Vita Sackville-West dies

Vita Sackville-West, the Bloomsbury era novelist, poet and memoirist died on June 2, 1962 at the age of 70 at her home in Sissinghurst Castle in Kent, England. She wrote 13 novels during her life and the was the inspiration for the title character of the novel Orlando by Virginia Wolff, one of her many lovers.

Sackville-West, also known as Lady Nicolson, was the daughter of married cousins, Baron Lionel Sackville West and Victoria Sackville-West, the illegitimate daughter of a Baron and his mistress, a Spanish dancer. Sackville West herself liked to believe that she had inherited “gypsy blood” from her grandmother, accounting for her own flamboyant lifestyle.

Sackville-West had numerous love affairs with women, but in 1913, at the age of 21, she married the diplomat Sir Harold Nicolson, who was also bisexual but primarily gay. Nicolson went on to be a historian, biographer and Member of Parliament. He has become famous for his series of published diaries, describing the behind the scenes intrigues of political life and his many friends in government, academia and the arts.

From left to right, Sir Harold, Vita, her lover Rosamund Grosvenor and her father Lionel.

In 1930 the couple bought Sissinghurst Castle. The creation of its famous and elaborate gardens became one of Sackville-West’s lasting contributions and it is now owned by Britain’s National Trust. Harold and Vita also had two sons. One of them, Nigel Nicolson, was also a historian and Member of Parliament and cofounder and director of the prestigious publishing house Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

In 1973 Nigel Nicholson took the decision to publish Portrait of a Marriage, compiled from his mother’s journals and letters and the memoirs that she couldn’t publish during her lifetime, as well as his own recollections. In it Vita describes her and Harold’s gay love affairs and unconventional open marriage. Nigel comments on how his parent’s liberal sexual views contrasted with their snobbish aristocratic lifestyle and his father’s brief flirtation with fascism.

Vita and Harold in the garden at Sissinghurst

Vita and Harold were participants in the world of the Bloomsbury Group, especially Vita during her long and intense affair with Virginia Wolff. Sackville-West was the more commercially successful writer at the time and chose to be published by Wolff’s independent Hogarth Press.


In 1920 Vita Sackville-West wrote Portrait of a Marriage. In particular, the memoir was as a result of her hard relationship with Nicolson and Violet Keppel. She, after all, wanted to explain her sexuality which was her life. Additionally, Sackville-West and Keppel published the novel Challenge (1928). The novel explained her love with Keppel.

Woolf, her longtime friend, wrote her most successful novel, Orlando (1928). In essence, the book considers Sackville-West as a person who changed gender at will. Sackville-West published the novel Family History in 1932. The characters in the novel seemed to reflect those of Virginia and Woolf. Other known successful works include All Passion (1931), and Seducer in Ecuador (1924) novels.

Sackville-West poems though less known were long. For instance, The Lands (1956) and The Gardens (1946) showed the relationship between the earth and family traditions. Sackville-West poem Solitude (1938) used bible references which were acceptable at the start of the 20th century. Additionally, she worked on many biographies including Saint Joan of Arc, Saint Teresa of Avila and Therese of Lisieux.


Watch the video: Kemény ütközeteket hozott a miniszterelnök-jelöltek második vitája (May 2022).