All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West.

Harold Nicholson and Vita Sackville-West
in Sissinghurst, 1960
In 1929 Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own was published in which Woolf wrote of the need of independence for women to aid creativity. This long essay is captured by a single sentence: "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction". Two years later in 1931 A Room of One's Own's fictional 'companion' was published: Vita Sackville-West's All Passion Spent.

In this Vita applies Woolf's philosophy to the main character, Lady Slane, an elderly woman who, at the start of the novel is newly widowed. In the first part of the book we learn of Lady Slane's life: what it was, and, I thought quite brilliantly, how it was. At the age of seventeen (in 1860) Lady Slane married Lord Slane, who was by all accounts a great man. He was a member of the House of Lords, a Viceroy of India, and very much a public figure. Lady Slane lived her life exactly as she ought to have done: she was the dutiful wife, a mother of six children, and supported her husband as a beautiful shadow when needed, making small talk with various dignitaries, and going and living where Lord Slane wished or needed to be right up until his death.

What now? her children ask, as they attempt to organise her life, decide for her where she is to go, who she will live with, and who will care for her in her old age. The shock is, however, Lady Slane has organised her own life. She arranges to move to Hampstead with her maid Genoux and, most importantly, live her life on her own terms.

As we read on we see her life of great wealth and privilege has not added up to fulfilment. Until the death of her husband she lived on the periphery: not only of her husband's life or in life in general, but even on the edge of her own life. She kept going because it was the correct thing to do but her independence, her 'room of her own' didn't come until a late age and she finally had the space and ability to reflect and find some happiness and, most importantly, contentment.

All Passion Spent is an excellent novel and stands very well with Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own. There are traces of the modernist 'stream of consciousness' but it is wholly accessible and not in the least bit mystifying. The prose is simple and elegant, and has within it a strong message that can't quite be described as political: Vita denied being a feminist, and, writing in the novel, said of her character,
"She was too wise a woman to indulge in such luxuries as an imagined martyrdom. The rift between herself and life was not the rift between man and woman, but the rift between the worker and the dreamer. That she was a woman, and Henry a man, was really a matter of chance. She would go no further than to acknowledge that the fact of her being a woman made the situation a degree more difficult."
Of course one can't help but notice the feminist undertones, but primarily Vita address an age old problem of how to be happy and how important it is to be true to oneself, which is, as she said, made all the trickier by being female.

I'm glad I've finally read All Passion Spent. I had wondered how long it's been on my TBR pile and I discovered, about 30 pages in, a lottery ticket (not a winner) from 2002, so I think that answers my question. I wanted to read it not just for the Woolf connection but also, still to this day, I remember observing a discussion on Woolf and "middle class problems" and this novel was brought in: the idea of wealth and privilege not bringing happiness was debated. I find a tendency from a small part of the left-wing to express some frustration at this: God knows, it is harder to be poor than it is rich, and the wealthy and privileged are shown a great deal more respect and are seen as valuable in all definitions of the word because of their wealth. However, as someone who identifies as left or moderate left wing myself, I do think being frustrated with All Passion Spent as being "upper class problems" feeds into the idea that money is everything one needs. Vita shows very clearly this is not the case and I do trust this novel. Independence, room to think, a room perhaps, is more important to one's self than a healthy bank account or a rich and influential husband. Eighty-six years on this book still has a message for today.


  1. i liked this book very much; i read it when i was retiring and i feel i learned some things from it... V S-W is an excelllent writer with a sane comprehension of how to live in the world at any age...

    1. Well put. I'm looking forward to more by her - got quite a few as it happens (I knew there'd be a day when I was ready to read her!) :)


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Getting up on Cold Mornings by James Henry Leigh Hunt.

The Prevention of Literature by George Orwell.

Moments of Being: Slater's Pins Have No Points by Virginia Woolf.