Our monthly column Feminize Your Canon explores the lives of underrated and underread female authors.
“O darling, aren’t you glad you aren’t me?” wrote Violet Trefusis to her pined-for lover, Vita Sackville-West, in the summer of 1921. “It really is something to be thankful for.” On the face of it, Trefusis—née Keppel—didn’t deserve anyone’s pity. At twenty-seven, she was brilliant, beautiful, and privileged beyond compare. Both her grandfathers had titles: an earl on one side and a baronet on the other. She had grown up in various grand homes with frequent foreign trips, spoke French and Italian fluently, and planned to be a novelist. Influenced by Oscar Wilde and Christina Rossetti, she was an aesthete whose god was Beauty. “If ever I could make others feel the universe of blinding beauty that I almost see at times,” she wrote, “I should not have lived in vain.”
The only black mark on Trefusis’s illustrious background was the question mark over her father’s identity. As was then customary among the upper classes, her parents had an open relationship. All through Trefusis’s childhood her mother, Alice Keppel, was the mistress of Edward VII, whom the young Violet knew as Kingy. But he wasn’t her father: her birth predated the relationship, a fact that didn’t stop Trefusis dropping hints about her royal lineage. Nor was Alice’s complaisant husband, the Honorable George Keppel, the father. The likeliest contender was William Beckett, a banker and Conservative MP whose nose Trefusis apparently had. “Who was my father? A faun undoubtedly!” she joked to Sackville-West. “A faun who contracted a mésalliance with a witch.”
Though monogamy wasn’t prized by the Edwardian nobility, marriage was obligatory. Shortly after her twenty-fifth birthday, in June 1919, Violet was all but frog-marched down the aisle. The groom, Denys Trefusis, was a tall, blue-eyed war hero who, at least in the eyes of society, was a peerlessly desirable match. Violet liked him well enough. But wifedom held little allure, especially since she had no sexual interest in men. She had two heartfelt wishes: to be with Sackville-West (for whom, she declared, “I would commit any crime … sacrifice any other love”) and to earn the world’s respect as a woman of letters. Life would provide only a tantalizing and inadequate taste of both. The young women’s affair, which began in 1918, was a histrionic saga featuring thwarted elopements, sojourns in multiple European cities, and floods of delirious love letters. After a few years, the determined intervention of their embarrassed husbands and redoubtable mothers prevailed. Yet the scandal overshadowed Trefusis’s entire life and fixed her in the public imagination, to quote the author Lorna Sage, “largely as a picturesque figure of scandal and camp tragicomedy.”
While the Vita-and-Violet soap opera is firmly part of gay history, Trefusis’s highly accomplished books, which include seven short novels and two memoirs, are forgotten and out of print. In an irony she wouldn’t have appreciated, her literary immortality derives not from her own oeuvre but from her roles in other people’s fiction. In Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928) Trefusis is the devilish Russian princess Sasha; in Sackville-West’s Challenge (1923) she is the coquettish jilter Eve. Later, as an eccentric society hostess, she inspired Lady Montdore in Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate (1949), a monstrous snob who, among other vanities, takes credit for putting India on the map: “Hardly any of one’s friends in England had ever heard of India before we went there, you know.”
Trefusis’s fictionalized self-portrait in her razor-sharp 1935 novel, Broderie Anglaise, weaves a dizzying pattern of intertextual connections with Orlando and Challenge. When Sackville-West began writing Challenge, her affair with Trefusis was at its height, and they joyfully collaborated on the Greek isle–set story. Showing a modicum of discretion, Sackville-West cast herself as the male hero. Still, her mother blocked publication for fear of the gossip it would spark. The publisher, Collins, was paid by Lady Sackville-West to pulp the book, whose dedication was to be “with gratitude for much excellent copy to the original of Eve.” Trefusis was incensed by the suppression, which she called “absurd, disloyal to me, and useless.” Some solace came four years later, when Challenge was published in the U.S., with a dedication in a Romany dialect that, translated, said: “This book is yours, my witch. Read it and you will find your tormented soul, changed and free.” A UK edition didn’t appear until 1973, after both women were dead.
When Trefusis dreamed up Broderie Anglaise (her fourth book, and written in French), she had read Orlando and knew that Sackville-West, Woolf’s then lover, had inspired its gender-shifting, centuries-spanning hero/ine. And it would have been obvious that Woolf had mined their conversations about Trefusis to draw Sasha. In Trefusis’s witty response of a novel, an esteemed novelist named Alexa Quince (a thinly veiled Woolf) is embroiled in a tortured dalliance with a handsome young aristocrat, John Shorne (Sackville-West in male guise), who longs for his former fiancée, Anne (Trefusis). John has “a hereditary face which had come, eternally bored, through five centuries,” as well as Sackville-West’s Mediterranean ancestry and a tyrannical, overbearing mother. Lady Shorne, who emerges as the tale’s true villain, is characterized with words identical to those applied, in Trefusis’s memoir Don’t Look Round, to Lady Sackville-West: a woman of “about fifty,” with a plump face and an “admirable mouth” that is also “cruel.”
The engine of Broderie Anglaise is John’s unhealthy obsession with Anne. Her sexual magnetism and physical charms, including hair that “resists repose,” take on mythic proportions. Alexa’s own “straight, unenterprising hair,” meanwhile, is so unresistant to repose that the ivory hairbrushes on her dressing table “had acquired the sulky expression of objects kept for ornament rather than use.” More cerebral than corporeal, Alexa has nevertheless been corrupted by the sybaritic environment of John’s ancestral home, where she discovers
that sensual pleasures did not reside, as she had supposed, in just one time-honoured act. It could exist in everything—in the way someone lit a cigarette or peeled an apple. Sensual pleasure is an atmosphere, not an incident; a diffused, continuous state; a lens which is added to your vision at birth and which never leaves you until you die.
Alexa’s best-selling novel, Conquest, features a character based on Anne—or rather, as with Orlando, based on her ex’s slanted portrayals of her. The tense denouement of Broderie Anglaise occurs when, at last, the two women come face to face. In an exhilarating plot somersault, Conquest’s secondhand depiction is exposed as inaccurate, all three main characters are cast in a surprising new light, and the apparent target of Trefusis’s score-settling shifts. The legendary Anne, it turns out, is all too human and certainly no great beauty. Alexa feels “as if her artistic imagination had been insulted, and she naturally blamed John, the source of her delusion. She felt intuitively that he would have given Anne an equally flattering portrait of her, out of conceit and vainglory.” We are all, in Trefusis’s cynical perspective, mere accessories to one another’s self-protective fabrications—one of which, of course, is Broderie Anglaise itself.
Alexa and Anne’s psychologically charged encounter was modeled on a visit Trefusis paid to Woolf in 1932. She wished to submit a novel, Tandem, to Woolf’s Hogarth Press, and to see in the flesh the woman who had captured her Vita’s heart. “Lord what fun!” Woolf wrote to Sackville-West. “I quite see now why you were so enamoured—then; she’s a little too full, now; overblown rather; but what seduction!” Tandem, however, came out the following year from William Heinemann: Woolf wasn’t as seduced as all that.
Inevitably, knowing the background of Broderie Anglaise adds a layer of intrigue. But in its charm and originality the book stands on its own. Indeed, it was required to do so upon its original publication in France, where readers were innocent of the simmering subtext. As far as anyone can tell, neither Woolf nor Sackville-West read the novel. It goes unmentioned in their letters and diaries, and the English translation by Barbara Bray did not appear until fifty years later, in 1985. By then read as a frank riposte to Orlando, it was admired for its literary qualities regardless. The novel “comes to life not because Trefusis is dealing with a real-life affair,” adjudged Nicholas Shakespeare in the Times of London, “but because she succeeds in showing how passion totters on some very flimsy pedestals.” The Guardian’s critic compared Trefusis to the nineteenth-century sensationalist Ouida, which he considered “no mean praise.”
Trefusis’s next book is another mordantly funny take on a doomed romance, this time written in English. Hunt the Slipper (1937) follows the adventures of forty-nine-year-old Nigel Benson, an idle upper-class bachelor and ladies’ man. His finely honed seduction techniques are “both Latin and pre-war (compliments, flowers, letters)” and generally successful, despite his being neither tall, nor slim, nor handsome in the English fashion. “Seemliness demanded,” muses the narrator, “that he should inherit either his father’s aquiline nose or his mother’s corn-colored hair.” But seemliness was outdone by a Bordelaise grandmother’s powerful genes, and Nigel has black curls and a snub nose. A collector of pictures, he is “feminine” and fluent in French, even though “it looks fishy to speak French too well—for a man at least.”
Nigel’s sister and regular companion, Molly, doesn’t share his “Frenchness” and is “perpetually amused” by it. In France, she notices, he naturally blends in, and even his clothes, which in England always look wrong—“either too smart or not smart enough”—seem just right. In this Nigel reflects the author: Trefusis wanted to be French from the age of ten, when she got a French governess and visited her beloved Paris for the first time. “Most girls of my generation were ‘finished’ in Paris,” she writes in Don’t Look Round. “I was begun there.” The artist Jacques-Émile Blanche recalled that, as a child, Trefusis talked “in Paris slang like the urchins of Montmartre.”
Nigel’s serene voluptuary existence is disturbed when he falls in love with a friend’s young wife, Caroline. His interest is piqued not at their first meeting, in an English drawing room, but at a Paris nightclub, where he spies her dancing with Melo Gabilla, a “beautifully made” Chilean playboy:
She looked dangerous and vigilant, as though she were pursuing some secret plan, as though she were bent over some chained missal in forbidden archives. Then suddenly she laughed up at her partner and her laugh triumphantly routed the purpose of her face, setting it at naught, putting you and it in the wrong. One saw then that she was in love with him.
Trefusis’s merciless descriptions of Melo are among the wryest lines in this novel brimming with Wildean aphorisms. “Snobbishness, in one of its most primitive forms—the form that most readily attacks the ingenuous—thrived on him like a fungus … He was as careful as a film star about his circumference and only drank in public … He had misgivings about his chin, which was apt to become too emphatically blue from two o’clock onwards.”
Though it is “chic in his circle” to have an English mistress, Melo is put off by Caroline’s lack of guile. She is too sincere, and too English, to affect the pose of heartlessness he deems essential to flirtation. Thus commences Nigel’s multiphase ordeal. He agonizes until he gets what he wants: an affair with Caroline. Then he suffers from the “strain of always appearing youthful and full of ‘go.’ ” More torture comes when Caroline wants to divorce her husband and marry Nigel, who can’t face upending his well-ordered life. In the twisty climax to this ruthless comedy of manners and errors, everyone is robbed of happiness. As in Broderie Anglaise, and in Trefusis’s own life, romantic love is both perilous and chimerical.
When Hunt the Slipper was published, Trefusis had been living in France for nearly two decades, in exile from polite British society. Her marriage to Denys, which was sometimes civil, sometimes contentious, but generally empty, had ended with his death in 1929. At only thirty-nine, he had succumbed to chronic tuberculosis. During his final months he and Trefusis saw little of each other, and as a widow her life didn’t much change. As well as a flat in Paris, she had a country house—a medieval tower in the village of Saint-Loup, about fifty miles outside the city—where she entertained friends such as Jean Cocteau, Francis Poulenc, and Colette. She also spent time at her parents’ vast house in Florence, the Villa dell’Ombrellino, which she would inherit (and where she would die, at age seventy-seven). From L’Ombrellino, writes Trefusis’s biographer Henrietta Sharpe, there are “endless photographs in Edwardian house party style, of glamourous and long-forgotten socialites, deposed royals about whom now few know, and fewer care, visiting Infantas and flowerlike debutantes with housemaid names, ‘Cora,’ ‘Peggy.’ ”
Behind all the cosmopolitan hedonism, contentment proved elusive for Trefusis. Her status was always murky, her identity uncertain. She was a member of the English aristocracy who didn’t know who her real father was; she was a widow whose scandal-tainted mariage was probably blanc—unconsummated; she was a lesbian obliged to conduct only discreet liaisons. Her most notable affair, after Sackville-West, was with Winnaretta Singer, the American sewing-machine heiress and French princess via marriage who had, quipped Woolf, “ravished half the virgins in Paris.”
The one identity Trefusis was determined to embrace was writer. “I had been put into the world to write novels,” she once said. But her vocation brought her scant acclaim. The closest she came to glory was in 1931, when her second French novel, Echo, sold well and was nominated for the prestigious Prix Femina. The elliptical and gemlike tale of a young Parisian woman’s visit to her relatives’ Scottish castle, it lost by one vote to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Vol de nuit. The appeal of Trefusis’s fiction was limited, perhaps, by its unusual blend of frivolity and darkness (she wasn’t fond of happy endings) and its satirizing of a milieu—the British aristocracy with their country estates, ossified social attitudes, and oblivious entitlement—that was more commonly romanticized and revered. Her mischievous caricaturing of heterosexual courtship and undercurrents of androgyny may not, in the early twentieth century, have been as appreciated as they would be today. “Her readers did not know,” writes her biographer Diana Souhami, “that she coded into her work her experience of lesbian passion, emotional betrayal, self-division, riches as rivals and the leitmotiv of lost love.”
In the opinion of Trefusis’s friend and executor, John Phillips, her writing has never been taken as seriously as it deserves because of inverse snobbery: “If she had been a coal miner’s daughter, people would have said she was magnificent.” This may be partly true, although Nancy Mitford, the daughter of a baron, is widely regarded as one of the greatest comic novelists of the twentieth century. Trefusis, who was jealous of Mitford’s success, is not quite on her level. But in the market cornered by Mitford—subversive tragicomedies on romance’s wretchedness, against which privilege is no buffer—Trefusis merits an enduring share. Instead she has fallen into the oblivion she feared when, struggling to finish her first novel, she wrote, “Across my life only one word will be written: ‘waste.’ Waste of love, waste of talent, waste of enterprise.”
Emma Garman has written about books and culture for Lapham’s Quarterly Roundtable, Longreads, Newsweek, The Daily Beast, Salon, The Awl, Words Without Borders, and other publications. Read her previous Feminize Your Canon columns, about Violette Leduc, Dorothy West, Rosario Castellanos, and Olivia Manning.