Category: lgbtq

MARCH 18: A Queer Vision


Today, we’re placing the spotlight on a young French Congolese artist,
Pauline N’Gouala! One week ago, on March 10th, she premiered her
painting series “A Queer Vision” at the Berkeley Books of Paris bookstore, and
as she’s getting more and more visibility in the art world, we wanted to
showcase her work!


Portrait of Pauline N’Gouala by
Emilie Jouvet. Foreground portrait: Zozo Duduzile. Background portrait: Zanele Muholi. Photo credit: E. Jouvet

“A Queer Vision” is a series of portraits of – well, you
guessed it – queer people. The core idea
behind the

project was a familiar one for Pauline: a few years back, she collaborated with none other than Zanele Muholi on another series of
that paid tribute to the lesbians murdered in South Africa and
elsewhere. From there on, the seed for a series of queer portraits was planted
and developed into “A Queer Vision.”


Pauline’s portrait of James Baldwin is what got the series started.

The great thing about this series is that it puts side by
side iconic historical members of the LGBT+ community alongside contemporary
trailblazers and ordinary people. The paintings feature James Baldwin, Frida
Kahlo, Josephine Baker, Pedro Almodóvar, and Keith Haring, as well as Lady Phyll, the founder of
UK Black Pride, and a black transman
from the US named Antonio. And Pauline intends to expand the series further
along the way. What’s great about this is that it’s already capturing a broad
part of the spectrum of LGBT+ experiences – at the intersection of race,
gender, sexuality… – and showing us that not only LGBT+ people have always been around in history, but also
that they are everywhere in our
contemporary world. We’re both ordinary and extraordinary in so many ways, and
“A Queer Vision” really gets that.


A Queer Vision series, photo courtesy of the artist

As a black, biracial, gender non-conforming lesbian, Pauline
herself knows quite well what it means to exist while having intersecting
identities, and her work reflects this dynamic, of claiming and creating
visibility and representation, of seamlessly merging art and activism. Her work has already been exhibited on various occasions in France – notably during the first French Afropunk, as well as other militant festivals.

Check out the two profiles Afropunk wrote on Pauline, here
and here,
and if you speak French, here’s
a little interview
Pauline did last year for Radio Nova.

We hope you’ll support Pauline’s art! Check out her blog, her Instagram, and her Twitter feed. If you live in
France/near Paris, we highly recommend you check out her work directly when
it’s on exhibition.


MARCH 17: St. Patrick’s Day


Happy St.
Patrick’s Day!


Rose Uscianowski, of Staten Island, supports gay, lesbian and
transgender individuals’ ability to march in the New York City St.
Patrick’s Day Parade. Photo by Brad Horrigan, WNYC (source here)

Today is not only about people wearing green and drinking beer. Indeed St.
Patrick’s Day, of the Feast of Saint Patrick actually commemorates the arrival
of Christianity in Ireland, and is held on the official death date of Saint
Patrick, patron saint of Ireland – a Romano-British Christian missionary and
bishop who converted thousands of pagan Irish in the 5th century.

It is arguably a religious occasion, but more
generally, it is also a day to celebrate Irish culture and heritage. The
traditional celebrations have spread worldwide with the Irish diaspora, which
is why it is the most celebrated national day in the world!

So yes, it consists
of public parades and festivals, Céilithe (awesome traditional Gaelic gatherings
involving dancing and Gaelic folk music), people dressed in green clothes, or wearing
shamrocks – and as per tradition,
consuming alcohol.

So, why our
interest about this special day? Well, these days Ireland has a thriving LGBT
community. The literary world already counts in its midst many great Irish LGBT
writers, like Oscar Wilde, Eva Gore-Both, Elizabeth Bowen, the Ladies of
Llangollen… The last decades the Irish gay scene
nowadays has quite developed and Irish society has become rather open and
tolerant. The St. Patrick’s Day parade in the Rep. of Ireland is now one occasion amongst
others for LGBT people to celebrate.

As for LGBT
rights, the Republic of Ireland has decriminalised same-sex sexual activity in
1993 (though the campaigning which had started in the 1970s concerned male activity
only!), and recognised same-sex unions in 2015 (under the name of ‘marriage,’
hence its designation as the Marriage Act 2015) after having legalised civil
partnership in 2009. And since 2015, same-sex couples are allowed to jointly
adopt children and step-children.


from lgbt_history instagram feed, “KISS ME, I’M GAY-LIC” pinback, by Good Catch, c. 1995

The New
York City St. Patrick’s Day parade is part of the centuries-old tradition. But
it hasn’t been for the Irish LGBT community. Indeed it has been a yearly
struggle for them to gain the right to march under their own banner. It started
with the Irish Gay and Lesbian Organisation (ILGO) who has sought to march in
the parade since 1990.

details about the chronology here

request was denied that year, but they were allowed to participate the
following year, accompanied by Mayor David Dinkins, but only under the
condition that they not carry any signs that identified them as part of the
LGBT community. That, and the booing and beer showers they received, did not
deter them. When their request to march the year after was officially denied,
Mayor Dinkins refused to participate, breaking a tradition that hadn’t been
broken in 70 years. From then on it has been a constant battle against the
parade official organisers (the major point of contention being whether the
march is a secular or religious event, which would justify the presence or absence of a LGBT contingent according to some).


St. Patrick’s Day Parade – Numbers of ILGO wear black band mouth as Signed of Protest. MArch 17, 1992. Photo by David Rentas/ New York Post Archives/ © NYP Holdings, Inc. via Getty Images.

The queer community would thus gather before the official parade and protest against homophobia and for the right to march in the parade. In 1993 they staged a sit-in on Fifth Avenue and more than 200 LGBT people were arrested. 102 were arrested in 1994, and 88 in 1995. Over the years, several politicians refused to participate in the NYC parade and its exclusion of the LGBT community, like speaker of the NYC Council Christine Quinn, Irish President Mary McAleese, and Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny. In 2014 Bill de Blasio decided to boycott the parade (the first to do so since Dinkins in 1992) and Guiness withdrew its sponsorship (must have been fun that year!)

In 2015 OUT@NBCUniversal was invited to participate, which was a big step forward. However there was still no group to specifically represent Irish LGBT people – but it changed the following year as a second group, the Lavender & Green Alliance, was invited. The Irish LGBT community was finally represented and could proudly wear both the green and the rainbow! And now we’re waiting for this year’s proudly colourful photos…

– Lise

MARCH 16: Billie Holiday is released from pris…


On this day in 1948,
Lady Day herself was released early from Alderson Federal Prison in West
Virginia for good behavior. Billie Holiday, the legendary jazz and blues singer,
had been arrested for narcotic possession a year earlier on May 16, 1947.

One of Billie’s trademarks was the white gardenias she wore on the left side of her hair during performances. (x)

Eleanora Fagan was
born April 7, 1915 in Philadelphia. It wasn’t until the late 1920s as a young
singer in Harlem when she would take on the name Billie Holiday as her stage
name – a combination of her favorite actress Billie Dove and the man presumed
to be her biological father, Clarence Holiday. After several years of singing
in various New York nightclubs, Billie was signed to Brunswick Records in 1935.
She collaborated with various hotshot musicians and pianists at the time,
including Teddy Wilson and Artie Shaw. Billie enjoyed a whirlwind career
throughout the 1930s and 1940s, and with songs like “What a Little Moonlight Can
Do,” “Lady Sings the Blues,” “Strange Fruit,” and “I’ll Be Seeing You,” Billie
was not only one of the most influential musicians of her time but she was also
one of the most popular celebrities in America. Although people relied on
Billie’s music for crooning, soulful depictions of heterosexual relationships,
the woman behind the celebrity façade was known to have many relationships with
women. The most well-known of Billie’s same sex affairs were with heiress Louise
Crane and actress Tallulah Bankhead.

Billie Holiday is photographed at Club Ebony with jazz trombonist Dickie Wells (left) and actress Tallulah Bankhead (right), who Billie had a torrid love affair with in the late 1940s. Courtesy of Jet Magazine, 1951. 

Having been
introduced to opium early in her career, Billie would struggle with drug
addiction for the majority of her life. One night after a show in Philadelphia the police raided the hotel Billie and her band were staying in, later charging
Billie with possession of heroin. On the advice of her managers at Columbia Records,
Billie declined legal representation and was sentenced to serve a year and a
day in Alderson Federal Prison. After being released early for good behavior,
Billie joyously returned to her home in New York City. She later recalled being
greeted by her beloved dog Mister, him jumping on her and knocking her hat off,
and “lapping me and loving me like crazy!” Her manager Ed Fisher devised the
idea for Billie to perform a comeback show and on March 27, 1948, Billie sang
to a sold out crowd at Carnegie Hall. The American public loved Billie Holiday
with a voracity that was hard to conquer despite the hardships she faced in her career.

“Portrait of Billie Holiday” photographed by William P. Gottlieb at her famous comeback performance held in Carnegie Hall mere weeks after she was released from prison. (x)


MARCH 15: Kate Bornstein (1948-)


Happy birthday to Kate Bornstein, the bold author, artist,
and activist who has been a beacon of light for the LGBT community for decades!


Kate is known for hir eccentric personality and has affectionately been dubbed Auntie Kate by many in the trans community. (x)

Born on this day in 1948, Kate hails from Asbury Park, New
Jersey and was raised in a middle class Jewish family. Kate was the first
person to receive a Theater Arts degree from Brown University and, having
undergone gender confirmation surgery in 1986, utilizes hir theatrical expertise
to discuss the performativity of gender. After transitioning, Kate joined the San Francisco lesbian community, at the time identifying as a
woman who loved women. Kate worked for The
Bay Area Reporter
as an art critic for a while, but soon became
disenchanted with hir lesbian identity and the gender binary as a whole. Today,
Kate identifies as gender nonconforming and uses the gender-neutral pronouns


Kate Bornstein and hir partner Barbara Carrellas at the 2014 Lambda Literary Awards (x)

Kate is a literary superstar, having written several books
on hir own life and struggle with gender as well as books on gender theory as
a whole. Ze has also been awarded two citations of outstanding citizenship from the New York City Council for hir extensive work with suicide prevention of LGBTQ teens. In
2006, Kate wrote the novel Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to
Suicide for Teens, Freaks and Other Outlaws
where ze summarizes hir credo with, “Do whatever it takes to make your
life more worth living, just don’t be mean.” Kate currently lives with hir
partner Barbara Carrellas in New York and lectures and performs hir work around
the country. You can find out more about Kate in the 2014 documentary Kate Bornstein is a Queer and Pleasant
(titled after the book of the same name) or you can learn more about Kate’s gender theory in the novels Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us and My New Gender Workbook: A Step-by-Step Guide
to Achieving World Peace Through Gender Anarchy and Sex Positivity.


MARCH 14: Sylvia Beach (1887-1962)


Today we celebrate the 130th birthday of the
patron saint of independent bookstores, Sylvia Beach.


Sylvia’s bibliophile self poses with a book in her bookstore Shakespeare & Company. (x)

Sylvia was an integral figure in the Lost Generation literary
scene; she was a go-to translator, financier, and confidant for many of the
mythical literary names to come out of Paris in the 1920s. Her friends included
Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and many more.
Ernest Hemingway wrote about Sylvia in his infamous memoir A Moveable Feast,
where he says, “No one that I ever knew was nicer to me.” However, before she
was the charming book goddess that we know her as today, Sylvia Beach was Nancy
Woodridge Beach and she was a simple preacher’s daughter. Born in Baltimore on this day in 1887, Sylvia’s family built their whole life around the church.
Her father was a Presbyterian minister and his job took the family to Europe
and back again for many years. Throughout her youth, Sylvia lived in Paris for three
years, Spain for two, and then came back to the States to live in Brighton, New
Jersey. She eventually left home during World War I to join the Red Cross. Once
her service was up, she moved back to Paris and decided to pursue her true
passion and study French literature.


Sylvia photographed with her partner Adrienne Monnier. (x)

While studying in France, Sylvia met a young bookstore owner
named Adrienne Monnier. The two fell in love and the deal was sealed – Sylvia would
stay in Paris for good. In 1919, Adrienne helped Sylvia open her own bookstore,
the now famous Shakespeare & Company. The store quickly became a hub for Paris’s Bohemia community, in part due to Sylvia’s own quirky personality and passion for literature;
aware of the plight of the starving artist, Sylvia rented out just as many
books as she sold and she referred to her customers as her beloved “bunnies.” Shakespeare
& Company received its first bit of fame after Sylvia singlehandedly
published her friend James Joyce’s masterwork, Ulysses, but even the money that resulted in Ulysses’s success wasn’t
enough to save the store from the Great Depression. Sylvia once wrote to her
sister, “A bookshop is mostly tiresome details all day long and you have to
have a passion for it, to grub and grub in it. I have always
loved books and their authors, and for the sake of them swallowed the rest of
it, but you can’t expect everyone to do the same.”


Shakespeare & Company as it stands today in 5th arrondissement on the Left Bank river. (x)

After suffering years of financial troubles, Shakespeare and
Company was forced to close in 1941. Later on in life, Sylvia wrote a memoir of
her bookstore years, aptly titled Shakespeare
and Company
. Her life partner Adrienne Monnier tragically committed suicide
in 1956, but Sylvia would continue to live and work in the literary work until
her own death in 1962. In 1951, an American named George Whitman re-opened
Shakespeare & Company in a new location, where it still stands today!


MARCH 13: Janet Flanner (1892-1978)


Paris during the 1920s was notoriously a mecca for gay
artists – painters, writers, and partiers

whatever your art form, you were all going to the same cafes, the
same salons, and the same bookstores (hello, Sylvia Beach). This definitive chaos,
this wealth of cultural history, would have all been lost to time if it were
not for the work of journalist Janet Flanner.


Janet photographed by Berenice Abbott in 1927. (x)

Janet was born in 1892 in Indianapolis. Her father owned a
mortuary, her mother was a housewife, and life was as suburban as it could get
in the 19th century. She had a brief stint at the University of
Chicago, but left after two years and became a movie critic with the Indianapolis Star. At the age of 26,
Janet decided she needed to get out of the Midwest. Although she was enjoying a
successful journalism career with the Indianapolis
, Janet and her friend William Lane Rehm entered into a marriage of
convenience and set out for the Big Apple – New York City – together. Once in
the city, Janet quickly found her people (which is to say, gay people). She
threw herself into the Bohemia scene of Greenwich Village and eventually met one
of the loves of her life, Solita Solano.


Janet and her partner Solita Solano photographed while exploring Greece. (x)

Solita and Janet enjoyed several years in New York City,
both working steadily as journalists. It was there where Janet was scooped up
Harold Ross to work for The New Yorker,
a gig that would go on to change Janet’s life and define her legacy.
Eventually, Solita was offered a job with National Geographic that allowed the
couple to travel the world. The two eventually settled in Paris and, once
again, Janet found her people. Her column for The New Yorker became the iconic “Letters
from Paris” – all of America’s front row seat to the craziness and gaiety that
was Parisian Bohemia. Janet wrote “Letters from Paris” under the penname Genêt.
Legend has it that her editor accidentally bequeathed the name to her, mistaking
Genêt to be the French spelling of Janet. Nevertheless, Janet entertained
American audiences with the goings-on of celebrities and artists such as Pablo
Picasso, Josephine Baker, Jean Cocteau, and Henri Matisse for over 50 years.
Many credit Janet’s distinctive voice to be the creator of what is now simply
referred to as the voice of The New


“Letter from Paris” by Janet Flanner as it appeared in The New Yorker October 9, 1926 p. 79. (x)

World War II drastically changed Janet’s life and career.
She moved back to New York, fell into an affair with a woman named Natalia
Danesi Murray (while still maintaining a relationship with Solita), and started
to cover more harrowing war stories for The
New Yorker
. After the war, Janet returned to Europe and for decades covered such crucial stories as the Nazi trials, the Soviet invasion of
Hungary, and the Suez Crisis. Frequently travelling due to her line of work,
Janet simultaneously built a life with Solita, who was in New York, and a life
with Natalia, who was in Paris in what could now possibly be interpreted as a
long-distance polyamorous relationship. Janet died in 1978 at the age of 86.
Her last “Letter from Paris” had appeared in The New Yorker just three years
before in 1975.


MARCH 12: The Girl Scouts are formed (1912)


You know those Thin Mint, Samoa, and Tagalong cookies your whole
family becomes obsessed with for three weeks out of the year? Did you know that they are the product of one
of the largest and longest running girls’ organization in U.S. history? That’s
right – the Girls Scouts are radical as fuck.


Source: Girl Scouts of the United States of America (x).

Although the headlines read that the Girl Scouts were
created on this day in 1912, the road to their formation was a lifelong journey
for founder Juliette Gordon Low. Born in Savannah, Georgia in 1860, Juliette was
raised on southern belle values; however, she routinely defied them throughout
her life by being active in charity work, enjoying hobbies such as woodwork and
metalworking, and even divorcing her husband later on in life. In 1911, Juliette
met Sir Robert Baden-Powell at a society party and was impressed with his
organization known as the Boy Scouts. After becoming close friends with
Baden-Powell and learning more about the “scouting movement,” Juliette was
inspired to make her own offshoot. After returning home to Savannah on March
12, 1912, Juliette made a phone call to her cousin Nina and famously said, “I’ve
got something for the girls of Savannah, and all America, and all the world,
and we’re going to start it tonight.”


Juliette Gordon Low pictured with a Girl Scout troop in 1913 (x).

While the Girl Scouts are obviously not a lesbian
or LGBT specific organization, its progressive roots and long history of supporting
the LGBT community has often made it a safe haven for lesbian, bisexual, and transgender
girls alike. Rumors about Juliette Gordon Low’s own sexual orientation (she and Agnes Baden-Powell, the wife of Boy Scouts founder Robert Baden-Powell, might have had a thing) were also rife during her lifetime, and so it
shouldn’t come as a surprise that a certain sense of progression and compassion
has been baked into the Girl Scouts organization. When it became public that
the Girl Scouts allowed trans girls into their ranks, the head of Girl Scouts
USA said, “Our position is not new. It conforms with our continuous commitment
to inclusivity.“ To learn more about the Girls Scouts’ history with the
LGBT community, check out the following articles:

CNN covers the Girl Scouts welcoming transgender girls

Gay Issues enter the World of Philanthropy 

The Girls Scouts’ allegedly radical feminist lesbian agenda 


MARCH 11: The End of Eve by Ariel Gore


On this day in 2014, Ariel Gore’s memoir, The End of Eve, was published by Hawthorne Books


Picture Source (x)

Gore explores a time in her life when everything seems okay: she has a stable home, is in a relationship with a woman, her oldest is in college, and her young son is in preschool. But when her mother, Eve, comes back into her life before her final days, Gore’s okay life turns difficult and nearly unbearable at a dizzying speed. As she navigates the lingering effects of trauma and abuse as well as relationships with her lover, daughter, and young son, Gore takes us on a journey where we learn that the definition that we’ve given closure doesn’t fit, and closure as a whole just may not exist.

A synopsis in quotes that I’ve underlined in my copy in non-chronological order:

“I didn’t know if the cure for my life was to lie to everyone about everything or to become brutally honest.”

“and I wondered all the ways abuse invents us.”

[…] but I didn’t know what to pray for. maybe God had enough trouble without worrying about what happened to us.

“In the morning, three dead birds huddled frozen on the front step.

The cold season was coming.

And I worried I wouldn’t be able to keep up with all the birds that needed burying.”

“Don’t worry about me,” she finally said. “The devil takes care of his own.”

My old friend Teagan commented, Geeze, talk about out parents having no use for us the minute we’re not who they trained us to be.

All I had to do was keep my mouth shut for ten more minutes and I’d be free. Don’t say you’re sorry, Ariel.

“Don’t ever do that again. Thank me for doing something sweet for you.” She let go of me. “don’t ever thank anybody for acting right.”

She stared at me for a long time. “Promise.”

And I said, “All right. I promise.”

“Wouldn’t it be funny,” she laughed. “If I was that crazy?”

“Octavio, not every question cries out to be answered.”

“What am I doing here?” I opened to a random page, pointed to the middle and read, “What we are looking for is something small that we can use. This is all we need, a little bit, something that happened by chance, something common like a broken piece of glass, some string, a book of matches: just a small thing where there is nothing but what is here to find.”

He winked at me. “Just because you’re paranoid don’t mean they’re not comin’ after you.”
Yes. This was the place for us.

Had she died? Not exactly. Was she healing? Probably not.

“Waiting for love is not love, even if we always call it that.”

“Evil doesn’t just happen, Tiniest. People don’t just fall into the earth like that. Evil is what we do to each other.” She closed her eyes. “It’s what we do.”

“I only had the person who would throw me into the fire to cling to. I understood that.”

“Don’t let anyone ever tell you that death isn’t ugly.”

[…] “So we have to go back to it at some point –either literally or symbolically– to integrate whatever happened. We can do that consciously, in some safe way, or we’re destined to revisit the trauma over and over again as the violence of life.”

“Precisely how it ended is one of the things we don’t get to know.

“Abuse needs a witness […] if there’s to be any hope of healing.”

“you can’t ever know what happens between people”

I wasn’t sure we knew how to live, but maybe we were learning.

But that in the end, it isn’t so hard not to ruin everything we love.

Page numbers of quotes, respectively: 112, 103, 114, 107, 115.//119, 143.//128, 107, 229.//132, 131, 147, 174, 208, 207, 199.//210, 22, 210, 22, 227, 213.

You can find out more about Ariel Gore and her updates (or even take some classes with her!) at her website. You can buy The End of Eve on Amazon and as an audiobook on iTunes.

~lex lee.

MARCH 10: the FHAR interrupts a radio broadcas…


A bit of radical revolutionary history today! In the wake of the counterculture and liberation movements that emerged in the late 60s, and especially in the wake of May 1968, which was a turning point in French political and social history, gays and lesbians in France were looking for a way to obtain radical visibility. The student and proletarian uprisings that had agitated France throughout the year 1968 had generally given little room to talk about the liberation of women and the LGBT community; and older groups centered on homosexual identities tended to remain hidden.

By the end of the 60s and the early 70s, many among the younger generations were trying to build new, more radical movements. One of these was the Front Homosexuel d’Action Révolutionnaire (Homosexual Front for Revolutionary Action), or FHAR. Based in Paris, it stemmed from a mixed group of lesbian and gay activists who had no wish to assimilate into “normal” society and who pushed for more groundbreaking reforms and laws. At first, the group was primarily made up of lesbians who came from the MLF (the women’s lib group in France). Men were a minority in the group, though as time went by, their numbers grew, which led to a reversal of proportions, and a marginalization of lesbian, feminist, and women’s voices within the group – this eventually resulted in people breaking off to create their own groups, like the Gouines Rouges, to whom we’ll devote an article later on.

Ménie Grégoire was a famous French radio host in the early 70s, and her radio show was the kind where people called in to share their experiences and points of view on a given theme. Pretty classic. Except that on March 10, 1971, she decided to record a show with the theme: “Homosexuality, a painful problem.”

Yep. You can already see how this might indeed be a problem. She’d invited a psychoanalyst and a priest (both dudes, obviously). This was one of the shows that were recorded publicly – and as the show went on, more and more people in the audience started getting more and more restless, up to the point where a riot more or less broke out. The show had to be interrupted, and apparently Ménie Grégoire fled the scene while people were chanting “Down with heterocops!”

This was one of the events that gave visibility to the FHAR in its beginnings. The whole movement was kind of short-lived though, precisely because, as we mentioned earlier, of the growing marginalization of the founding voices and of feminist issues.

If you read/speak French, you can read the transcript of the radio show right up to the point when it was interrupted here, as well as testimonies by
Marie-Jo Bonnet et Françoise d’Eaubonne

about this whole period here, and you can listen to the whole thing here!


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