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Vita (Victoria Mary) Sackville-West (1892-1962)


English poet and novelist, born into an old aristocratic family, proprietors of Knole House in Kent. Vita Sackville-West wrote about the Kentish countryside and she was the chief model for Orlando in Virginia Woolf's novel of that same title from 1928. Sackville-West's best known poem, The Land, was awarded the Hawthorne Prize in 1927.

The country habit has me by the heart,
For he's bewitched for ever who has seen,
Not with his eyes but with his vision,
Flow down the woods and stipple leaves
with sun.

('Winter', in The Land)

Victoria Mary Sackville-West was the only child of Lionel Edward, third Baron of Sackville, and Victoria Josepha Dolores Catalina Sackville-West, his first cousin and the illegitimate daughter of the diplomat Sir Lionel Sackville-West. She was educated privately. As a child became interested in poetry, and penned her first ballads at the age of 11. "I don't remember either my father or my mother very vividly at that time, except that Dada used to take me for terribly long walks and talk to me about science, principally Darwin, and I liked him a great deal better than mother, of whose quick temper I was frightened." (in Portrait of a Marriage by Nigel Nicolson, 1973) Vita's mother considered her ugly – she was bony, she had long legs, straight hair, and she wanted to be as boyish as possible. Her social life was active, she wore Cartier jewelry, danced at Buckingham Palace, and talked with the Prince of Wales.

Between 1906 and 1910 Sackville-West produced eight novels and five plays. Chatterton: A Drama in Three Acts (1909), was privately printed. In 1913 she married the diplomat and critic Harold Nicolson, with whom she lived a long time in Persia and then at the Sissinghurst Castle in Kent. At first she played her role as a dutiful wife, but then her husband admitted that he had a male lover. The marriage endured despite their homosexual affairs, Vita was responsible for breaking up several marriages and she took one lover after another with the tacit agreement of her husband, but Harold's affairs were less passionate than Vita's. They had two children, the art critic Benedict Nicholson and the publisher Nigel Nicolson.

In 1923 the art critic Clive Bell introduced Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf; the two became lovers. According to an anecdote, when Nigel was a child and an adult person told him, that "Virginia loves your mother," he had replied, "Yes, of course she does: we all do." Her intimate encounters with Virginia Woolf she marked as "X" or "!" in her diaries. In spite of their relationship Sackville-West never became a part of Bloomsbury group of artists and scholars. She had also affairs with Hilda Matheson, head of the BBC Talks Department, Mary Campbell, married to the poet Roy Campbell, but her life long companion was Violet (Keppel) Trefusis, the daughter of Alice Keppel and Ernest Beckett, who became the second Lord Grimthorpe. A few years after Violet's birth, Alice became mistress to the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII.

The greater cats with golden eyes
Stare out between the bars.
Deserts are there, and different skies,
And night with different stars.

(in The King's Daughter, 1930)

Vita fell in love with Rosamund Grosvenor, whom she first met at the age of six; Rosamund four years older. Violet ja Vita had also met as children. Violet, who was two years younger, gave Vita a ring in 1908 when they both were teen-agers – it was her first gesture of affection and tenderness. "She is mine," Sackville-West recalled in her diary, but they did not meet much before the late 1910s. The relationship continued until after their respective marriages. At one point they "eloped" to France but in 1921 Violet returned to her husband Denys Trefusis. In her letters to Vita, she called her by a man's name, varying from Julian and Dimitri to Mytia. Violet was "Lushka". Denys destroyed Vita's letters to his wife.

Trefusis's letters to Vita from 1910 to 1921 were published between 1989 and 1991. This long relationship was the subject of Sackville-West's secret diary and gave material for the novel Challenge (1924), which was not published in England until 1976. The original manuscript was dedicated to Violet, but for the publication she substituted it with a quotation from George Borrow's novel The Zimbali. Challenge depicted a Greek vineyard owner, Julian, Vita's alter ego, who is torn between his love for his cousin, the gentle Eve, and for his island home, Aphros. At the end he says to Eve, "You hated the things I loved. Now you've killed those things, and my love for you with them." Julian's revolution fails and Eve chooses her own fate. The plot was picked up again in The Dark Island (1934). Violet's reply was the novel Broderie Anglaise (1935), in which Vita was Lord Shorne, Virginia Woolf the acidic Alexa Harrowby Quince, and she herself was Anne Lindell. In Woolf's Orlando, which came out in 1928, Vita was featured as the androgynous title character and Violet was the chief model for a Russian princess called Sasha after a white Russian fox Orlando had had as a boy.

Sackville-West's father died in 1928 and his brother became the fourth Baron Sackville, inheriting Knole. Her husband decided in 1929 to resign from the foreign service and devote himself to literature. They purchased Sissinghurst Castle, a near-derelict house, and started to restore it. In the 1930s Sackville-West published The Edwardians (1930), All Passion Spent (1931), and Family History (1932) which were bestsellers and portrayed English upper-class manners and life. Pepita (1937) was the story of her grandmother, who was a Spanish dancer. Her passionate gardening was rewarded in 1955 by the Royal Horticultural Society. Sackville-West also published several books about gardening and kept a regular column at the Observer from 1946.

In 1946 Sackville-West was made a Companion of Honour for her services to literature. She died of cancer on June 2, 1962. Harold Nicolson died six years later. Sackville-West believed in equal rights for women. She is best remembered for her novels but her most enduring work was perhaps the garden at Sissinghurst Castle, evidently the joint creation of Harold and Vita, and as Nigel Nicolson suggested the true "portrait of their marriage." Nicolson published in 1973 a book, Portrait of a Marriage, which was based on her parents' journals and notes, and described their private life and marriage. Later it was made into a television mini-series in 1990, starring Cathryn Harrison, Janet McTeer and David Haigh.

For further reading: Vita Sackville-West by S.R. West (1972); Portrait of a Marriage by Nigel Nicolson (1973; Erään avioliiton muotokuva, suom. Riitta Kallas, 1975); Sackville-West: A Critical Biography by M.V. Stevens (1974); The Jessamy Brides by J. Trautman (1973); Vita's Other World: A Gardening Biography of Vita Sackville-West by J. Brown (1985); The Letters of Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf, ed. L.A. DeSalvo and M.A. Leaska (1985) Violet to Vita, ed. M.A. Leaska and J. Phillips (1989); Vita and Harold, ed. N. Nicholson (1992) Vita and Virginia by S. Raitt (1993) Vita by Victoria Glendinning (2005); A Book of Secrets: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers by Michael Holroyd (2011).  Note: The Hogarth Press (see Virginia Woolf) used to print books in Sissinghurst Castle's tower, including 13 titles by Sackville-West. The most important work was T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land.

Selected works:

  • Chatterton: A Drama in Three Acts, 1909
  • A Dancing Elf, 1912
  • Constantinople: Eight Poems, 1915
  • Poems of West and East, 1917
  • Heritage, 1918
  • Orchard and Vineyard, 1921
  • The Heir, 1922
  • The Dragon in Shallow Waters, 1922
  • Knole and the Sackvilles, 1922
  • The Diary of the Lady Anne Clifford, 1923 (ed.)
  • Grey Waters, 1923
  • Challenge, 1924 (publ. in UK, 1976)
    - Elämäni haaste (suom. Heidi Järvenpää, 1975)
  • Seducers in Ecuador, 1924
  • Passenger to Teheran, 1926
  • The Land, 1926 (winner of the Hawthordon Prize)
  • Aphra Behn, 1927
  • Twelve Days: An Account of a Journey Across the Bakhtiari Mountains of South-Western Persia, 1928
  • Andrew Marvel, 1929
  • King's Daughter, 1930
  • The Edwardians, 1930
    - Ylhäisiä ihmisiä (suom. Aarre Nenonen, 1949)
  • All Passion Spent, 1931
    - 3-part TV mini-series 1986, prod. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), teleplay Peter Buckman, dir. by Martyn Friend, starring Wendy Hiller, David Waller, Phyllis Calvert, Faith Brook
  • Sissinghurst, 1931
  • Invitation to Cast out Care, 1931
  •  Duineser Elegien: Elegies from the Castle of Duino / Rainer Maria Rilke, 1931 (translator; with Edward Sackville-West)
  • Family History, 1932
  • Thirty Clocks Strike the Hour, 1932
  • The Death of Noble Godavary and Gottfried Künstler, 1932
  • Andrew Marvell, 1933
  • Collected Poems, 1933 (vol. 1.)
  • The Dark Island, 1934
  • Saint Joan of Arc, 1936
  • Some Flowers, 1937
  • Pepita, 1937
  • Solitude, 1938
  • Country Notes, 1939
  • Country Notes in Wartime, 1940
  • English Country Houses, 1941
  • Grand Canyon, 1942
  • The Eagle and The Dove, 1943
  • The Women's Land Army, 1944
  • Another World Than This, 1945 (ed.)
  • The Garden, 1946
  • Devil at Westease, the Story Related by Roger Liddiard, 1947
  • Nursery Rhymes, 1947
  • Daughter of France, 1949
  • In Your Garden, 1951
  • The Easter Party, 1953
  • In Your Garden Again, 1953
  • More for Your Garden, 1955
  • Even More For Your Garden, 1958
  • A Joy of Gardening: A Selection for Americans, 1958 (ed. Hermine Popper)
  • No Signposts in the Sea, 1960
  • Faces: Profiles of Dogs, 1962 (with photographs by Laelia Goehr)
  • V. Sackville-West's Garden Book, 1968 (edited by Philippa Nicolson)
  • Dearest Andrew: Letters from V. Sackville-West to Andrew Reiber, 1951-1962, 1979 (edited by Nancy MacKnight)
  • The Letters of Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf, 1985 (ed. Louise De Salvo, Mitchell Leaska)
  • The Letters of Vita Sackville-West & Harold Nicolson 1910-1962, 1992 (ed. Nigel Nicolson)

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