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October 22, 2017

The Lives of Vita Sackville-West

On this day in 1962 Vita Sackville-West died, at the age of seventy. Easy to lose in the glare of one so filmed, written and gossiped about is the fact that Sackville-West was a prolific, prize-winning and commercially successful author. She won the 1927 Hawthornden Prize for poetry with "The Land," rose to best-seller status in the 1930s for novels such as The Edwardians and All Passion Spent, and wrote some fifty books in all -- not just novels and poetry but travel books, biography (fittingly, on Aphra Benn and Joan of Arc), and eight books on gardening. Nonetheless, it is Sackville-West's personal life which continues to claim attention -- the jodhpurs-and-pearls Vita, the bedmate of Virginia Woolf and others, the cross-dressing master gardener of Sissinghurst Castle.

Now run by the National Trust, the Sissinghurst Castle Gardens were begun in the '30s by Sackville-West and husband Harold Nicolson. The Gardens are said to be the most viewed in England, and the gardeners' unconventional marriage cannot be far behind, given son Nigel Nicolson's Portrait of a Marriage, the recent Masterpiece Theatre mini-series based thereon, the editions of husband-wife and lover-lover correspondence, and Woolf's Orlando. Nigel Nicolson describes the novel as "the longest and most charming love letter in literature," in which Woolf weaves Vita "in and out of the centuries, tosses her from one sex to the other, plays with her, dresses her in furs, lace and emeralds, teases her, flirts with her, drops a veil of mist around her, and ends by photographing her in the mud at Long Barn, with dogs, awaiting Virginia's arrival next day." Such a visit prompted this Woolf diary entry:
    I like her and being with her and the splendour - she shines in the grocer's shop in Sevenoaks with a candle lit radiance, stalking on legs like beech trees, pink glowing, grape clustered, pearl hung.... What is the effect of all this on me? Very mixed. There is her maturity and full breastedness; her being so much in full sail on the high tides, where I am coasting down back-waters. . . .
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The sex was minimal, and clearly not a priority with Woolf, whether in relations with Vita or anyone else. The fundamental need, she said of her relationship to Vita, was for "the maternal protection which, for some reason, is what I have always most wished from everyone."

Those who tour the Sissinghurst Gardens today can include the view from the Tower, the room in which Sackville-West did her writing, left as it was when she died (and which she had not redecorated in the thirty years that she was there). From behind a wrought iron gate, visitors peer at faded Edwardian velvets, a bookcase of sex books by Havelock Ellis and others, the first Hogarth handpress (the one used to print The Waste Land, given by Woolf as a castle-warming present), the black Gladstone bag in which Nigel found his mother's 1920 manuscript of her deepest and longest lesbian relationship - the bag sliced open, Nigel unable to find the key. In his preface to Portrait of a Marriage, Nigel says that he believes his mother wished to have the frank and compelling story of her bisexuality told eventually, in the context of her husband's love and of "a marriage that succeeded beyond their dreams." Reading the journals and letters it is hard to disagree with him, or to argue with his mother:
    I suppose that ninety-nine people out of a hundred, if they knew all about us, would call us wicked and degenerate. And yet I know with absolute certainty that there are not ninety-nine people out of a hundred less wicked and degenerate than we are. I don't want to boast, but we are alive, aren't we? And our two lives, outside and inside, are rich lives - not little meagre repetitions of meagre cerebral habits. . . .

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