The Fabulous Forgotten Life of Vita Sackville-West


Arts & Culture

Vita Sackville-West

How preposterous is it that Vita Sackville-West, the best-selling bisexual baroness who wrote over thirty-five books that made an ingenious mockery of twenties societal norms, should be remembered today merely as a smoocher of Virginia Woolf? The reductive canonization of her affair with Woolf has elbowed out a more luxurious, strange story: Vita loved several women with exceptional ardor; simultaneously adored her also-bisexual husband, Harold; ultimately came to prefer the company of flora over fauna of any gender; and committed herself to a life of prolific creation (written and planted) that redefined passion itself.

Take as a representative starting point the comically deranged splendor of Vita’s ancestry. Her grandfather Lionel, the third Baron Sackville, fell in love with Pepita, the notorious Andalusian ballerina, and by her fathered five illegitimate children. When Lionel became the British minister in Buenos Aires, he sent those children to live in French convents. Upon transferring to the British Legation in Washington, DC, he summoned his nineteen-year-old eldest daughter to serve as his diplomatic hostess. Vita’s mother charmed Washington senseless with her bad English and so-called gypsy blood, receiving alleged marriage proposals from the widowed President of the United States Chester A. Arthur, Pierpont Morgan, Rudyard Kipling, Auguste Rodin, and Henry Ford. Somehow, from among these suitors, she chose to marry her first cousin, another Lionel. She returned to England and gave birth to their only child, Vita Sackville-West, on March 9, 1892.

By the age of eighteen, Vita had written eight full-length novels and five plays. She describes her childhood self in a diary as “rough, and secret,” frequently punished for “wrestling with the hall-boy,” fondest of her pocketknife, and inspired to start writing at age twelve by Cyrano de Bergerac. Still, when she formally entered society at age eighteen (“four balls a week and luncheons every day”), she was seen as a refined beauty, and took after her mother in attracting various glossy admirers. First among the failed wooers stood Lord Henry Lascelles, Sixth Earl of Harewood and first cousin of Tommy Lascelles, everybody’s favorite right-hand mustache in the Netflix series The Crown (when Vita rejected Lascelles, he married the Princess Mary, sister of King George VI).

But Vita wasn’t dazzled by men of great heritages or homes. She grew up at Knole, the Sackville estate, built in 1455 on a thousand acres and said to contain fifty-two staircases. More saliently, she was already smitten: with Rosamund Grosvenor, “the neat little girl who came to play with me when Dada went to South Africa.” Vita’s son Nigel (more on Nigel later—I have the utmost respect for Nigel) learned of this affair and many others when, after Vita’s death, he opened a locked gladstone bag in her sitting room and discovered her sensational written confessions.

Vita and Rosamund developed a quick intimacy, with ample time alone together granted by unsuspecting chaperones. Vita had no concept of homosexuality as such—her instincts toward Rosamund seemed as ordinary as her penchant for tromping through bogs: an after-school hobby. She compared Rosamund’s company to that of the society men she met at balls, as if—radical thought—all companions were equal and comparable, gender immaterial, apples to apples. “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.”

Harold Nicolson proposed to Vita at the Hatfield Ball in January of 1912, having never kissed her (“He was very shy, and pulled all the buttons one by one off his gloves”). He had recently become the youngest admitted officer in the diplomatic service, the start of a virtuosic foreign office career of global impact. Vita spends little diary space describing her wedding, “because it is the same for everybody,” but the event sounds far from typical: Vita decorated the Knole chapel to look like “a theatre,” her mother stayed in bed because she didn’t like “being émotionée,” and Vita’s two girlfriends, Rosamund and Violet, suffered immeasurably (Rosamund standing directly behind Vita as her bridesmaid) while matrimony reigned supreme.

I haven’t yet mentioned Violet Trefusis because their affair is an insane fable featuring “an acrobat with no arms or legs” that warrants its own encyclopedia, but here we approach their story’s climax and so the whole thing must be explained, if abbreviated. They met as children while visiting a friend with a broken leg. They discussed their “ancestors,” and before leaving, Violet kissed her. The proprietary rush that lanky, unpopular Vita felt in claiming “this extraordinary, this almost unearthly creature” as her friend would evolve, over the next fifteen years, into a mutual psychosexual obsession.

To Vita, Violet was unreliable, irritating, and perfect; but Harold was “unalterable, perennial, and best.” When Vita went ahead with her conventional marriage to Harold, Violet agreed to an unconventional marriage to Denys Trefusis, a man who’d promised to marry her on platonic terms. This created the first fundamental difference between the two lifelong friends: Vita loved her husband; Violet did not. Vita and Harold never expected exclusive heterosexual passion from each other, having admitted their similarly “dual” orientations, but championed their spiritual union absolutely. The greatest test of their marriage came in April of 1918, when Violet wrote to Vita to ask whether she could visit for a fortnight. “I was bored by the idea,” Vita writes, “as I wanted to work, and I did not know how to entertain her.” Yet Violet came, and a week into her stay, Vita tried on one of the estate’s farmhand outfits—breeches and gaiters. “I looked like a rather untidy young man, a sort of undergraduate,” she writes. This look unexpectedly activated some long dormant spell, and they were intoxicated.

The next two years played out an opera of the highest stakes. While Harold went to Paris to, you know, write and sign the Treaty of Versailles, Vita and Violet sprinted to Monte Carlo, where Vita cross-dressed exclusively as a wounded war soldier named Julian, and wrote the first draft of her great novel of independence, Challenge. For four months, the women were so violently happy together, they became furious at each other’s husbands (“I treated her savagely, I made love to her, I had her, I didn’t care, I only wanted to hurt Denys”) and decided to elope, society and obligations be damned. Vita drafted a sort of last will and testament—as if Vita Sackville-West were legally dying, to be survived by Julian—and crossed the Strait of Dover by ferry to join Violet in Calais, France.

By this point, everybody knew everything. In accordance with the mutually encouraging nature of their partnership, Vita had confided in Harold every step of the way (“I am trying to be good, Hadji, but I want so dreadfully to be with her”). On Valentine’s Day, 1920, the husbands flew by two-seater plane from island to continent to retrieve their wives at a hotel in Amiens. In his later account of his parents’ crisis, Nigel endearingly wonders, “How did Denys happen to have a two-seater aeroplane? When had he learned to fly?”

Violet starved herself; Denys cried; Harold had just drawn the new national boundaries of modern Europe only to find himself in a private circus of irreconcilable conflict; and the episode’s finale came when Violet admitted that she’d had sex with her own husband, Denys, the night before fleeing to France. Vita couldn’t abide this lapse, and called it betrayal (one of Vita’s lowest moments of hypocrisy, as she had already borne Harold two sons). The exchange was so profoundly and symmetrically embarrassing that the quartet reacted by reverting to “normal life,” which once again recommended itself as at least a source of sanity. By 1923, Harold and Vita had resumed their “firm, elastic formula,” Violet had returned to Denys, and a new affair stood on Vita’s horizon—this time with a man, the writer Geoffrey Scott.

Scott inscrutably “lived in the Villa Medici” overlooking Florence, (these were the days when one could casually live in what is now a UNESCO World Heritage site) and proved to be one of Vita’s sharpest readers and editors. Harold was “rather pleased” by this one, because he felt Scott “enriched Vita’s mind instead of confusing it.” It seems that within this highest tier of social rank and literary ambition, a feeling of intellectual kinship could translate without restraint into romantic action, openly and productively. Vita was working on her Hawthornden Prize–winning epic poem The Land. She’d also begun her extensive parallel career in garden design, and drew inspiration from Scott’s olive groves. She enjoyed his admiration, affection, and critique until his wits were outmatched by a more formidable mind: Virginia Woolf’s.

Here again Vita maintained her life philosophy of meritocracy in mating: she ignored the most pressing and oppressive cultural expectations in order to award her attention to the most currently excellent candidate. It didn’t matter who, where, what gender, or how married this person might be. The entire Sackville-West family embraced Virginia with warmth and appreciation. Nigel thought of her as “delicate, but in the cobweb sense, not the medical,” and Harold expected Virginia to open in Vita “a rich new vein of ore.” Vita lamented Virginia’s orange wool stockings (“she dresses quite atrociously”), and both she and Harold feared that Virginia didn’t possess the emotional resilience to bear Vita’s seduction without collapse. “I am scared to death of arousing physical feelings in her,” Vita wrote to Harold, “because of the madness … I have gone to bed with her (twice), but that’s all.”

Virginia saw in Vita a symbol of history and consequence. In an extraordinary diary entry, Woolf writes, “Stalking on legs like beech trees, pink glowing, grape clustered, pearl hung… There is her maturity and full breastedness … her capacity … to represent her country … to control silver, servants, chow dogs; her motherhood (but she is a little cold and off-hand with her boys) her being in short (what I have never been) a real woman.” The unmitigated brilliance Vita worshipped in Virginia, and the timeless sophistication Virginia in turned revered—I find this loop almost eerily moving, a moment in which grace best beheld itself.

Virginia documented the Sackville-West spectacle in her 1928 novel Orlando, which flings Vita from century to century and from sex to sex—now a young Elizabethan lad, now a lady ambassador to Constantinople—and concludes with an outright photograph of Vita at her house with her dogs. Woolf here invented a fiction-biography fusion that, in our discussions of contemporary autofiction, we tend to imagine is brand new. Virginia depicted Violet as a flighty Russian princess in Orlando, and Violet in turn wrote Broderie Anglaise, a cutting novel that belittled Virginia and Vita’s romance. In 1930, Vita published her own best-selling novel The Edwardians, a takedown of aristocratic society at large. It’s a masterpiece that nobody ever reads. The prose is cheeky, confident, formally irreverent, revelatory, and as evocative of time and mood as Woolf’s, but posterity saw fit to preserve only one midcentury woman writer whose name began with V.

Vita lived until 1962, Harold until 1968, married in the “sheer joy of companionship.” Harold slept with men while stationed abroad, and Vita did Vita; still, she crossed the Bakhtiari Mountains on foot through a hailstorm to reach his Persian post. Almost incomprehensibly prolific, they wrote a combined total of over seventy books. In her novel Heritage, Vita writes, “Serenity of spirit and turbulence of action should make up the sum of man’s life,” and alongside her literary labors she relied on the tranquility of botany, a study she found bottomless in its yield and mystery. The natural world staged its own wars of the sexes for her amusement: “You must insist upon getting a male plant, or there will not be any catkins. The female plant will give you only bunches of black fruits.” And a zinnia seedling could prove a model of self-sufficiency: “It will do all the better for being lonely.” Her gardening column for the Observer continued until a year before her death.

Which brings us to Nigel. Nigel opened that gladstone bag and spent ten years wondering what to do with his mother’s story.

“The psychology of people like myself will be a matter of interest,” Vita had written in the document, “and I believe it will be recognized that many more people of my type do exist than under the present-day system of hypocrisy is commonly admitted. I am not saying that such personalities, and the connections which result from them, will not be deplored as they are now; but I do believe that their greater prevalence, and the spirit of candour which one hopes will spread with the progress of the world, will lead to their recognition.”

Nigel found these remarks actualized already in seventies England. How far there still was, and is, to go. He added some of his own fine prose, excerpts from his father’s diaries, and select historical supplements, to produce his tour de force, Portrait of a Marriage, in 1973. I have even more admiration for his work as a feat of material organization, after writing this essay, which has been so overburdened by material that I couldn’t even return to the armless, legless acrobat.

What most inspires me about Vita’s mode and model of living is her capacity to participate in her own society at the highest level, capture and comprehend it, and then systematically correct the limitations and small-mindedness she perceived. A century later, I hope for a Sackville-West readership revival—her courage is powerfully instructive. Challenge was too provocative to be published in the UK during Vita or Violet’s lifetimes, but it appeared in the U.S. in 1923. I took its epigraph, three love lines to Violet veiled in Romany-Turkish, as the epigraph of my novel Hex, decoding the Turkish back to English: “This book is yours, my witch, read it and find your tormented soul, changed and free.” One witch need no longer hide her love for another witch under foreign tongues. I asked my Romanian mother to check the translation, but she patiently reminded me that Romany and Romanian belong to two totally unrelated language groups.

At home around the very old farmhouse where my husband and I live in New Hampshire (only one staircase, but to this Manhattanite unaccustomed to “houses” altogether, it feels like fifty-two of them), I plant next year’s flowerbeds according to Vita’s designs. I don’t know the first thing about gardening, but her columns are teaching me the first, second, and forty-fifth. “We now approach the time of year when the thoughts of Man turn towards the pruning of his roses,” she writes. “The only thing is to be bold; try the experiment; and find out.”


For more, read our Feminize Your Canon column about Violet Trefusis.

Rebecca Dinerstein Knight is the author, most recently, of Hex, out today from Viking.