Portrait of a Miniseries


Our Daily Correspondent

You’d be forgiven for thinking I’ve lately fallen down some peculiar Bloomsbury Group rabbit hole. And you wouldn’t be wrong. While I was in London last month—and, incidentally, beginning my own marriage—I reread Nigel Nicolson’s classic Portrait of a MarriageHis parents, Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, had an enduring relationship and a successful experiment in unconventional coupling: both were more or less openly gay, they lived often parallel lives, and they remained deeply committed to each other. 

It is with unreserved enthusiasm that I recommend you listen to this record of Vita Sackville-West reading aloud her poetry. She wrote “The Land” at the height of her affair with Virginia Woolf. Her voice is mellifluous and deep and of another era. It’s time travel. 

It is with rather more reservations that I recommend you watch this 1990 BBC miniseries based on Portrait of a Marriage. First, because it’s extremely long. And second, because it’s shocking in all the wrong ways. It takes the sensitive passion of the book and turns it into cheap melodrama; translates the memoir’s essential reserve into the currency of modern sentimentality. People who were complex in life—sometimes grandiose and deluded, at other moments truly courageous and always brilliant—become dull and two-dimensional as characters, even if they’re occasionally psychotic. Part of what renders the book so remarkable is the grace with which a son approaches a fraught and personal subject, giving the story to the world in a spirit of real generosity. There’s none of that here. There is a made-up rape scene. And there is plenty of unconvincing aging makeup, so.

But I won’t lie: I watched it in a mad storm of incredulity and delight and wonder that it even existed, and it was altogether one of the best afternoons of my life.

As Vita’s mother declares with a Gallic shrug, “C’est la vie!”

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.