Vita: The Life of Vita Sackville-West

Vita: The Life of Vita Sackville-West

by Victoria Glendinning

She won the Hawthornden Prize in 1927 and 1933.

She was known for her exuberant aristocratic life, her passionate affair with the novelist Virginia Woolf, and Sissinghurst Castle Garden, which she and her husband, Sir Harold Nicolson, created at their estate.

  • Language: English
  • Category: Biography
  • Rating: 4.15
  • Publish Date: October 25th 1984 by Penguin Books Ltd.
  • Isbn10: 014007161X
  • Isbn13: 9780140071610

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Vita was all and none of these things at various points in her life, which was fascinating from beginning to the end. True, she did have certain advantages in her story that gave her more of a start than some others: Vita was born at Knole, an enormous old castle that looks like a whole village in one building, to the son and heir of the house, Lionel Sackville and his wife Victoria Sackville-West. Her father was a handsome young romantic blade, her mother was an enthralling termagant, conducting all her relationships like love affairs (something Vita would pick up from her)- she was also her husbands first cousin- the illegitimate daughter of Lord Sackvilles diplomat brother and his Spanish flamenco dancer mistress, Pepita. But what really struck me was how often she seemed to just fall into these fantasies, seduced by seeing herself in an image or a story without really thinking very much about how it suited her (her husband Harold often accused her of drifting into things without thinking about the consequences- he was very often right). These fantasies allowed Vita a crucial link between the romanticized worlds she had created for herself at Knole to get through her childhood and the Real Life she was about to enter. For instance, Rosamund Grosvenor, a proper and clean young lady, cast Vita in the mold of her Spanish grandmother and addressed her as Carmen or Princess, writing to her that: it is a good thing you are living in a civilized time because there is no knowing what you might not do if anything aroused your Spanish blood, or Mary Campbell, one of her later lovers, escaping from an abusive, alcoholic husband, who appealed to Vita as her St. Anne, her Demeter, lover, mother, everything in women that I most need and love, People gave Vita incredibly tall orders to live up to. Vita still didnt believe in halfsies- they had a violent, raging, crazy, out of control love affair that went on for four years- during this time Vita went entirely the other way, wrapping herself up entirely in her fantasies, showing them off in the real world: she walked around in public and attended dances as a man, Julian, which is how Violet addressed her. It was only very gradually and painfully that Vita realized that she could not live entirely inside her fantasy, that there were in fact other sides to her than the rackety bit that enjoyed thumbing his (always his) nose at convention and spitting upon responsibility- something Violet never accepted. I adore this woman for both her passion and for the balance that she found- managing to ultimately live her life in a way that honored all parts of her in turn, and doing her very best to maintain her self in the face of everyone and everything that wanted to categorize her and make her stay as the one part of her that they wanted- only she chose who she wanted to be that day. Some wonderful examples: She and Harold spoke of each other as, the Mars all through their lives, (Sackville family word for children) she called him Hadji, during their years as lovers, she called Virginia Woolf Potto (a man) and spoke of herself as Orlando or Towser (a dog image-usually used when she was apologizing to Virginia for something), Violet was Lushka she was Julian or Mitya. Vita called them, after Violet, her beguins, brief interludes that she needed, but which she would soon end and then return to Harold. She and Harold bought Sissinghurst, a run down old castle complex and grounds, in 1930- they spent the rest of their lives turning it into one of the most famous gardens in England- Vita had a long running column on gardening, frequently gave talks on the BBC about it (these soon outstripped those on literature). I identify with her for so many reasons: she was never quite smart enough for her smart friends (Virginia called her dumb or too traditional on several occasions), her family found her slow or illogical a lot of the time, she was a lonely girl who grew up into a longing for loneliness woman, she very inconveniently found a man she couldnt live without even while she had so many other things she couldnt live without doing, managed to be both a mother and have a career, she did not follow Harolds drum to his various diplomatic postings- only visiting him and making what she could of it, using it for her own ends, even, her motherly side and her rackety side, her insecurity and her distant side, her intense need for solitude, and her lifelong, dogged pursuit of finding herself. My reasons: Glendinning has very definite opinions about Vita's actions and those of the people around her-she dismisses Violet as a "damaging and damaged young woman" for instance-, and she allows her prose to be infected by the archaic style of her subjects.

A great biography of a fascinating, complex, and contradictory person. I think this may actually be the first proper biography that I've read. Indeed, reading about Sackville-West's pretty much constant affairs with women were fascinating, particularly her relationships with Virginia Woolf and Violet Trefusis.

Competent and interesting biography of Vita Sackville-West. They had what would now be termed an open marraige; they both had lovers (Harold male and Vita female). A good biography of a complex and contradictory figure who never quite found peace; but Sissinghurst is a treasure.

Glendinning's biography of Vita Sackville West is a stunning achievement.

And it is the best literary biography I've ever read. She worked closely with Vita's son Nigel Nicolson, who had strong views about the legacy left by both his parents, and yet the author stayed objective enough to give an accurate, clear and thoughtful accounting of a very complicated life.

Sticking with my resolve to read as many biographies about Edwardian and early 20th Century upper class women as I can this year, I was not disappointed with Victoria Glendinning's biography of Vita Sackville-West from the point of view of exhaustive research and detail. Her love affair with Virginia Woolf is interesting because it inspired her to write Orlando based on Sackville-West.

At most, as in Sackville-West's fascinating relationship with her own mother, Glendinning suggests questions rather than making statements.

She was such a mess of contradictions, so dismissive of lower and middle classes, obsessed with being loved by everyone, gave so much of her time and energy to ex-lovers, was so unable to make deep connections to anyone, supported her son Ben when he also came out as gay, etc.

"And to think how the ceilings of Long Barn once swayed above us!" So wrote Vita titillatingly to Virginia Woolf, reminiscing later in life of their love affair. Right under the nose of aristocratic Edwardian society, husband and wife carried on their homosexual affairs while maintaining appearances and nurturing a very real life-long love for one another. I found though that the author never placed Vita in the context of her era. Vita the author and gardener (a big deal in English society) shouldn't be overshadowed by her various proclivities. While the loss of her childhood home Knole hurt her deeply, it wasn't made clear by the author how Vita was any more a victim of inheritance laws than other women.