The Letters of Vita Sackville West to Virginia Woolf | Vita: The Life of Vita Sackville West by Victoria Glendinning.

Vita Sackville-West by William Strang (1918).
There is a temptation, as a Virginia Woolf fan, to see Vita Sackville West only in terms of Virginia Woolf, as though she was invented in the 1920s, or that before 1922 she lived in a bubble. When I read The Letters of Virginia Woolf the edition only printed Woolf's letters (understandably, of course), and that didn't help matters, so I turned to two books: The Letters of Vita Sackville West to Virginia Woolf (edited by Louise DeSalvo and Mitchell A. Leaska, 1984) which includes both Virginia and Vita's letters, and Victoria Glendinning's 1980 biography The Life of Vita Sackville West.

Given that I've previously gone into the relationship of Virginia and Vita a number of times, and some fairly recently, I'll keep my thoughts on the Letters quite short. It was so good to read both sides of the correspondence, one can see a real conversation and a development of the two women's relationship. I felt at times Woof's letters were more cerebral; Vita's letters were more earthy, less abstract, and more conversational. For that they felt more authentic, though one cannot question Virginia Woolf's love of Vita. I enjoyed Vita's side a great deal more. Here's one of the most famous ones, written on Thursday, 21st January 1926, that sums up what I'm trying to say:
I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia. I composed a beautiful letter to you in the sleepless nightmare hours of the night and it has all gone: I just miss you, in a quite simple desperate human way. You, with all your un-dumb letters, would never write so elementary phrase as that; perhaps you wouldn't even feel it. And yet I believe you'll be sensible of a little gap. But you'd clothe it in so exquisite a phrase that it would lose a little of its reality. Whereas with me it is quite stark: I miss you even more than I could have believed; and I was prepared to miss you a good deal. So this letter is just really a squeal of pain...
It is, for the Woolf fan and the Vita fan, an essential and often a very beautiful read and I'm glad to have had the opportunity to read it, but I'm at pains to say I don't hold it against the editors of Virginia Woolf's Letters that they didn't include the letters of her correspondents: given the sheer amount of Woolf's letters and the fact that many of those letters to Woolf are lost, that surely would have been too great a task.

Now, on to the biography: Vita: The Life of Vita Sackville West. I have a confession: having read it, I don't think I like Vita. She was certainly troubled, which of course I don't hold against her, but she seemed to leave chaos and heartache in her wake. It's been said in a number of Virginia Woolf biographies that Vita perhaps could have stopped Virginia from killing herself. I think this is true, but I don't think that Vita chose not to, I think that she didn't realise, and that's my problem with her. What troubles me about Vita is she  seemed to have a great sense of entitlement coupled with an innate selfishness. In relationships she embarked on, she often went in on full steam taking some great risks along the way that could have caused some (her husband, for example, or her sons) great pain, and when she was done with the relationship she really was done. She may have regretted hurting those she was 'done with', but that didn't alter her future behaviour with other women. One can properly describe Vita as very passionate and very complex; the upshot, though, is that I felt she was short-sighted, or at least very selfish. You could say she was free-spirited or true to herself, but as I feel duty to others more keenly than at least her, I knew the more I read that if I knew Vita Sackville West personally, I would keep her at a great distance.

That aside, it was still all very interesting and pieced together from letters, diaries, and Vit's poems and novels. It's wrong to say that Vita felt no sense of duty: she did to her family and her husband, and as a consequence was often pushed into social situations in which she didn't want to be but she had to be, and so she was. Partly as a consequence of being married to a diplomat she was very well travelled, and she was a good writer so in reading the biography one sees the development not only of her but of her as a writer. Then of course there is the great garden at Sissinghurst where she lived as she could not inherit her childhood home of Knole. That was interesting, that development from someone ignorant in gardening to one who became so skilled. That I admired greatly. One other thing I must note: Orlando: that's one of my favourite books, and my absolute favourite book by Virginia Woolf, and I knew that Vita loved it and it was much-celebrated, but what was interesting was reading the reactions of people in Vita's life especially her mother who didn't hold back, sticking a picture of Virginia in her copy and writing "The awful face of a mad woman whose successful mad desire is to separate people who care for each other. I loathe this woman for having changed my Vita and taken away from me." Quite a reaction!

I'm glad I re-read The Life of Vita Sackville West, and whatever personal criticisms I might have, the biography was excellent and with Vita's numerous love affairs it was an absolutely gripping read, even if I did dislike her.

Comments

  1. Last year I read 'The Letters of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville West' which has both sets of letters in chronological order and I absolutely loved it. I think this must be a rare edition though because lots of people seem to just read the letters "to" one or the other.

    The one I read really provided a fantastic idea of the affection they had for each other (in spite of the personal troubles they had). That's what made me read Orlando this year and I'll definitely want to be checking out some of Vita's writing too.

    Did you know they have made a film about Vita and Virginia's relationship that has yet to be released?

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    1. Yes, I saw on Tumblr - I'm really looking forward to it! It's out later this year, I gather? :D

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