MARCH 9: Vita Sackville-West, Lady Nicolson (1…


Sackville-West was an English poet and novelist, a keen traveller (especially as
she was married to a diplomat) and great gardener – her legacy not only
includes her poems and novels (for which she was awarded twice the Hawthornden Prize for Imaginative Literature!) but also an extensive correspondence, as well as
Sissinghurst Castle and its famous gardens, owned by the National Trust. She was also made a Companion of Honour for her services to literature in 1947…


 Photograph: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis, c. 1940

Vita was
born Victoria Mary Sackville-West at Knole House, on March 9, 1992. She was the
only child of Lionel Edward Sackville-West, 3rd Baron Sackville, and
Victoria Sackville-West (no mistake in their names here, they were actually
first cousins – though it was the only way to keep the estate in the family). And
indeed this country estate was where Vita grew up – Knole House, located near
Sevenoaks in Kent, one of the five largest houses in England with its six
acres of roof, seven courtyards, more than fifty staircases and reputedly a room
for every day of the year. It was surrounded by a deer park where Vita could roam free and
concoct cheesy, passionate, rambling historical novels…

Growing up,
Vita had a difficult relationship with a vain, temperamental mother, whom she
loved, but who belittled her and called her ugly, and missed most of the
important moments in her life.  If
she was raised with the customs and etiquette of the Edwardian aristocracy, she
was also often left to her own devices, making the most of the estate.

She was
extremely attached to it, and perhaps all the more so as she knew that, as a
female descendant, she could not inherit it. She described with nostalgia the
huge mansion in her novel The Edwardians as “a
medieval village with its square turrets and its grey walls, its hundred
chimneys sending blue threads up into the air,” and Virginia Woolf mostly set Orlando, whose eponymous character is
inspired by Vita, in Knole House, knowing how the estate had meant for her dear

and affairs:

At 21, Vita
married politician and writer Harold George Nicholson, 27. They had two
children together, Nigel (who became an editor, politician and writer), and
Benedict (an art historian). She refused many suitors before meeting Harold,
and they fell in love with each other; they shared a deep level of intimacy and
mutual understanding, and usually presented a united front to the public eye. She had with her husband what we would call nowadays an
‘open marriage’. Both were bisexual, and like so many members of the Bloomsbury
Group – with whom they had connections, though they were never really part of
the group – they had same-sex relationships before and during their marriage. Vita
had several relationships with women, like Rosamund Grosvenor, Alvilde Lees-Milne, the wife of the diarist James Lees-Milne,
Hilda Matheson, a director of talks at the BBC, Gwen St Aubyn,
Vita’s sister-in-law, Olive Grinder… But two were more serious – and famous – than the others:

Her passionate affair with Violet Trefusis, the daughter of Edward VIII’s mistress and a childhood friend who had
long been in love with her, is the most important in Vita’s life, and inspired her novel Challenge. It started in
1918, triggered by the discovery of Harold’s homosexuality, and they eloped
several times – once to Amiens in France, where Vita used to dress as a man, before their husbands flew out and
brought them home.


on the left, Violet Trefusis, and Vita Sackville-West on the right. Montage from this article about their relationship

And then,
there was Virginia Woolf, to whom she “quite lost (her) heart”, despite her
being “plain”, dressing “quite atrociously”, being “quite old (forty)” – as
Vita described her to her husband after their second encounter. Their relationship had a cahotic start, climaxed in a short affair, and blossomed into a deep friendship which lasted till Woolf’s death. Vita was the inspiration for Woolf’s Orlando, which her son Nigel described as “the longest and most charming love-letter in literature.”


Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf with their dogs, 1932. From the Bloomsbury album photo.

explained her sexuality in her memoir Portrait
of a Marriage
, about her relationships. She felt she has two sides to her
personality. One side was more feminine, soft, submissive, and attracted to
men, and the other rather masculine, hard, aggressive, and attracted to women.

She also described
her attraction to women – and especially to Trefusis – as both ‘deviant’ and
‘natural’, though critics point out that she ultimately wanted her book to be
published, and that she was actually not that ‘confused’ about her
sexuality and its duality.


Harold’s job
as a diplomat led the couple to travel, and live abroad. However, Vita was a
rebellious diplomat’s wife, who enjoyed the journeys but abhorred the
diplomatic life. They lived near Constantinople in 1914, and returned in
England to have their children, but when Harold was posted in Tehran from 1925
to 1927, she stayed behind and only visited him – though they both attended
Reza Shah’s coronation. As Katie Hickman puts it in Daughters of Britannia, “she didn’t want to be ‘The Hon. Mrs Harold
Nicolson’ when she could be V. Sackville-West, living at Long Barn, with her
writing, her garden and Virginia.” Vita wrote
to her husband, “I am not a good person for you to be married to. You love
foreign politics; and I love literature, and peace, and a secluded life.”


Vita and husband Harold at home in Sissinghurst in 1960


Harold and
Vita bought Sissinghurst Castle in 1931, an estate Vita fell in love with – and
a substitute for Knole. Sissinghurst, and especially its gardens, is the
ultimate creation of the couple, a mix of their tastes. Vita became a gardening
correspondent for the Observer, for which she wrote a weekly column, and to
which she owed her greatest popularity later in life. Today,
Sissinghurst, with its White Garden and Rose Garden, has become a site of
pilgrimage in England for travelling gardeners.

To go further, I would suggest reading her poem The Land, (or even better, listening to her reading it here) and her novels, for example All Passion Spent (1931) or The Edwardians (1930) And then, if you are interested, her correspondence with Virginia Woolf is an amazing read too, as well as Vita and Virginia, the work and friendship of Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf by Suzanne Raitt…

Almost forgot to mention: she will soon be on the big screen, as her relationship with Woolf will be portrayed by Gemma Arterton (as Vita) and Eva Green (as Virginia) in a film directed by Chanya Button and adapted from Eileen Atkins’s play. Let’s keep our hopes up that they don’t botch it up!

– Lise