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About Violet Trefusis
Violet Trefusis née Keppel (6 June 1894 – 29 February 1972) was an English writer and socialite. She is chiefly remembered for her lesbian affair with the poet Vita Sackville-West. She also wrote novels and many non-fiction works, both in English and French.
The passionate and tempestuous affair was featured in novels by both parties, and also in Virginia Woolf's Orlando: A Biography, as well as in many letters and memoirs of the period, roughly 1912-1922. Many are preserved at Yale University Library.
Trefusis was an inspiration to many writers' fiction and was a pivotal character in their novels including Nancy Mitford's Love in a Cold Climate as "Lady Montdore" and in Harold Acton's The Soul's Gymnasium as "Muriel," a fictional portrait of her.
Born Violet Keppel, she was the daughter of Alice Keppel, later a royal mistress of King Edward VII of the United Kingdom, and her husband, The Hon. George Keppel, a son of the 7th Earl of Albemarle. Her biological father, however, was considered by members of the Keppel family to be William Beckett, subsequently 2nd Baron Grimthorpe, a banker and MP for Whitby.
Trefusis lived her early youth in London, where the Keppel family had a house in Portman Square. When Trefusis was four years old, Alice Keppel became the favourite mistress of Albert Edward (Bertie), the Prince of Wales, who became King Edward VII on 22 January 1901. He paid visits to the Keppel household in the afternoon around tea-time (while her husband, who was aware of the affair, was conveniently absent), on a regular basis till the end of his life in 1910.
In 1900 Trefusis only sibling, Sonia (grandmother of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall), was born. Which makes the Duchess of Cornwall her great-niece.
Her affair with Vita Sackville-West
Trefusis is best remembered today for her love affair with the wealthy Vita Sackville-West, which Virginia Woolf limned in her novel Orlando. In this romanticized biography of Vita, Trefusis appears as the Russian princess Sasha.
This was not the only account of this love affair, which appears in reality to have been very much more strenuous than Woolf's enchanting account: both in fiction (Challenge by Sackville-West and Broderie Anglaise a roman à clef in French by Trefusis) and in non-fiction (Portrait of a Marriage, which mingles Sackville-West's letters and extensive "clarifications" by her son Nigel Nicolson) further parts of the story appeared in print.
There are still the surviving letters and diaries written by the participants. Apart from those of the two central players, there are records from Alice Keppel, Victoria Sackville-West, Harold Nicolson, Denys Trefusis and Pat Dansey. The Yale University Library contains correspondence, writings and other materials by or related to Violet Trefusis. The correspondence consists of approximately 500 letters from Trefusis to John Phillips written in the 1960s. Also included are letters to Trefusis from her mother, Alice Keppel, her sister, Sonia Keppel, and several governmental departments in France and England concerning Trefusis's re-entry into France after World War II, and her nomination to the Légion d'honneur. Writings include holograph and typescript drafts of Trefusis' memoirs, novels, plays, etc. Other materials include a miniature case portrait of Trefusis as a child, and an album containing photographs of friends of the Keppels, taken by George Keppel between 1924-1939 at the family's Villa dell'Ombrellino in Florence, including many members of European nobility and royalty.
Probably the most conclusive overview of the whole story can be found in Diana Souhami's Mrs Keppel and her Daughter (1997). In headlines:
Timeline of events
When she was 10, Violet met Vita (who was two years older) for the first time. After that, they went to the same school for several years and soon recognised a bond between them. When Violet was 14, she confessed her love to Vita and gave her a ring.
In 1910, after the death of Edward VII, Mrs Keppel made her family observe a "discretion" leave of about two years before re-establishing themselves in British society: upon returning, the Keppels moved to another address (Grosvenor Street).
When Violet returned to London, Vita was soon to be engaged to Harold Nicolson and was continuing a love affair with Rosamund Grosvenor. Violet made it clear that she still loved Vita and became engaged herself to make Vita jealous. All that Violet wanted, however, was to get rid of hypocrisy, especially the hypocrisy of marriage (and all that went with it in those days). This didn't stop Vita from marrying Harold (in October 1913), who, in his turn, didn't stop his homosexual adventures after marriage.
In April 1918, Violet and Vita refreshed and intensified their bond. Vita had two sons by now, but they were left in the care of others while Vita and Violet left for a holiday in Cornwall. Meanwhile Mrs Keppel was busy arranging a marriage for Violet with Denys Trefusis. A few days after the armistice, Violet and Vita went away to France for several months. Because of Vita's exclusive claim, and her own loathing of marriage, Violet made Denys promise never to have sex with her as a condition for marriage. He apparently agreed as, in June 1919, they married. At the end of that year, Violet and Vita made a new two-month excursion to France: ordered to do so by his mother-in-law, Denys retrieved Violet from the south of France when new gossip about her and Sackville-West's loose behaviour began to reach London.
The next time they left, in February 1920, was to be the final elopement. Sackville-West might still have had some doubts and probably hoped that Harold would interfere. Harold did arrive with Denys in a two-seater airplane, which led to heated scenes in Amiens. The climax came when Harold told Vita that Violet had been unfaithful to her (with Denys). Violet tried to explain and assured Vita of her innocence (which was true in all likelihood). Vita was much too upset and in a rage to listen and fled, saying she couldn't bear to see Violet for at least for two months. It was six weeks later when Vita finally came back to France to meet Violet.
Mrs Keppel desperately tried to keep scandal away from London, where Violet's sister, Sonia, was about to be married (paving her way to become, together with Roland Cubitt, a grandparent to Camilla Parker Bowles). That meant that Violet spent much of 1920 abroad, clinging desperately to Vita via continuous letters.
In January 1921, Vita and Violet made a final journey to France, where they spent six weeks together. At this time, Harold threatened to break off the marriage if Vita continued her escapades. When Vita returned to England in March, it was practically the end of the affair. Violet was sent to Italy; and, from there. she wrote her last desperate letters to their mutual friend Pat Dansey, having been forbidden from writing directly to Vita. At the end of the year, Violet had to face the facts and start to build her life from scratch.
A few years, and some postludes, later it becomes increasingly clear that Trefusis's fantasy - of romantic love lived to the fullest in an accepting social context - was not to come true. The more traditional concept of an upfront marriage with hidden extramarital adventures on the side—marriage as it had been practiced by her mother Mrs Keppel, and would continue to be lived by Sackville-West and Harold—proved immensely stronger for many years to come.
An essential difference between Mrs Keppel and Sackville-West seems to be that Mrs Keppel took care never to distress her lovers (and their marriages), thus advancing her family socially and financially, while Sackville-West caused broken hearts more than once. For her, marriage was rather the refuge she could always come back to after periods of abandonment.
As a side-note it might appear not so surprising that, notwithstanding some general changes in social context by that time, the inherent unresolved tensions of all three models (of Trefusis, Mrs Keppel and Sackville-West) - including mothers taking sides in view of a socially acceptable solution—reappeared in the Diana–Camilla–Charles triangle.
The two former lovers met again in 1940 when the war had forced Trefusis to come back to England. They continued to keep in touch and send each other affectionate letters.
During the Second World War in London, Trefusis participated in the broadcasting of "La France Libre", which earned her a Legion d'Honneur after the war, and was also made a Commander of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic.
Trefusis received mixed reviews on her books. Some critics credited Trefusis with an "excellent gift of observation" and also a "talent for mimicry and flair for decor in most of her books." These qualities were evident in her novels written in English and in French. Other critics stated that her books were not great literature, however they sold well enough, and her readers enjoyed them.
She made many appearances as a pivotal character in other writers' fiction, Nancy Mitford based, "Lady Montdore", a character in her novel Love in a Cold Climate on her. She was also featured in Cyril Connolly's The Rock Pool, Harold Acton's The Soul's Gymnasium as "Muriel," in several novels by Vita Sackville-West and in the well-known Virginia Woolf's Orlando: A Biography as the ravishing "Princess Sasha".
Although her writings spanned much of the twentieth century, many were unpublished. Virago the Publishing house devoted to recovering the forgotten work of women writers, including Trefusis. They set about putting matters right, bringing out two of her novels with introductions by Lorna Sage and Lisa St Aubin de Teran, but publishers were eventually defeated by copyright difficulties, and Lorna Sage, Trefusis great champion among British critics, died before she could accomplish what she planned.
Later life in France
From 1923 on, Trefusis was one of the many lovers of the Singer sewing machine heiress Winnaretta Singer, daughter of Isaac Singer and wife of the homosexual Prince Edmond de Polignac, who introduced her to the artistic beau-monde in Paris. Trefusis conceded more and more to her mother's model of being "socially acceptable" but, at the same time, not wavering on her sexuality. Singer, as Sackville-West had, dominated the relationship, though apparently to mutual satisfaction. The two were together for many years and seem to have been content. Trefusis's mother, Alice Keppel, did not object to this affair, most likely because of the wealth and power of Singer and the fact that Singer carried on the affair in a much more disciplined way. Trefusis seemed to prefer the role of the submissive and therefore fit well with Singer, who, whip in hand, was typically dominant and in control in her relationships. Neither was completely faithful during their long affair, but, unlike Trefusis's affair with Sackville-West, this seems to have had no negative effect on their understanding.
In 1924, Mrs Keppel bought L'Ombrellino, a large villa overlooking Florence, where Galileo Galilei had once lived. After her parents' death in 1947, Trefusis would become the chatelaine of L'Ombrellino till the end of her life. In 1929, Denys Trefusis died, completely estranged from his seemingly unfeeling wife. After his death, Trefusis published several novels, some in English, some in French, that she had written in her medieval "Tour" in Saint-Loup-de-Naud, Seine-et-Marne, France - a gift from Winnaretta.
Nancy Mitford said that Trefusis autobiography should be titled Here Lies Violet Trefusis, and partly based the character of Lady Montdore in Love in a Cold Climate on her.
François Mitterrand, who later became President of the French Republic in 1981, in his chronicle "La Paille & le Grain" (Ed. Flammarion 1975 ISBN 2-08-060778-2 mentions his friendship with Violet Trefusis under the 2nd of March 1972, when he received "the telegram" informing of her death. He goes on discussing how before Christmas 1971, he went to Florence to visit her as he knew she was in her last months of life: he had dinner with Violet Trefusis and Lord Frank Ashton-Gwatkin, who was a member of the British Government at the beginning of the 2nd World War, at her house in Florence.
Trefusis died at L'Ombrellino on the Bellosguardo on 1 March 1972. She died of starvation, the effect of a malabsorption disease. Her ashes were placed both in Florence at the Cimitero degli Allori (The Evangelical Cemetery of Laurels) and in Saint-Loup-de-Naud in the monks' refectory near her tower.