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About Vita Sackville-West
Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962)
(Victoria Mary Sackville-West)
Garden designer/creater, Gardener, a garden writer
The Hon Lady Nicolson, CH (9 March 1892 – 2 June 1962), best known as Vita Sackville-West, was an English author and poet. She won the Hawthornden Prize in 1927 and 1933. She was famous for her exuberant aristocratic life, her strong marriage, and her passionate affair with novelist Virginia Woolf.
Vita became a gardener, a garden writer, a poet, a creator of the most visited garden in England, a married woman, a mother, and a lady with the most talked about reputation in Europe. She was born at the end of the 19th century. The family home, "Knole", an enormous house which had belonged to the family for three hundred years, still shows slightly decaying grand splendour and was loved very dearly by Vita. Her father was descended from a long line of Lords and Earls. Her mother was descended from Spanish gypsies. Vita's grandmother was a famous Spanish dancer and her illicit romance with the second Lord Sackville was as prolific as Vita's flowers. Five children were born from this union, Vita's mother being the youngest "love child". She married her first cousin and the one child born from this marriage was Vita.
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The Hon Victoria Mary Sackville-West, Lady Nicolson, CH (9 March 1892 – 2 June 1962), best known as Vita Sackville-West, was an English author, poet and gardener. She won the Hawthornden Prize in 1927 and 1933. She was famous for her exuberant aristocratic life, her strong marriage (although she and her husband Harold Nicolson were both bisexual), her passionate affair with novelist Virginia Woolf, and Sissinghurst Castle Garden, which she and Nicolson created at Sissinghurst.
Vita Sackville-West was born at Knole House near Sevenoaks Kent, the only child of Lionel Edward Sackville-West, 3rd Baron Sackville and his wife Victoria Sackville-West, who were cousins. Her mother was the natural daughter of Lionel Sackville-West, 2nd Baron Sackville. Christened "Victoria Mary Sackville-West", she was known as "Vita" throughout her life, to distinguish her from her mother.
The Sackville family custom of following the Salic rules of agnatic male primogeniture prevented Vita from inheriting Knole on the death of her father. The house was bequeathed instead by her father to his younger brother Charles Sackville-West, 4th Baron Sackville. The loss of Knole would affect her for the rest of her life; of the signing in 1947 of documents relinquishing any claim on the property, part of its transition to the National Trust, she wrote that "the signing... nearly broke my heart, putting my signature to what I regarded as a betrayal of all the tradition of my ancestors and the house I loved."
Vita's portrait was painted by Hungarian-born portrait painter Philip de Laszlo in 1910, when she was seventeen. She thought it made her look like a vacuous Edwardian aristocrat, and kept it in her attic throughout her life.
In 1913, at age 21, Vita married the 27 year-old writer and politician Harold George Nicolson (21 November 1886 – 1 May 1968), nicknamed Hadji, the third son of British diplomat Arthur Nicolson, 1st Baron Carnock (1849–1928). The couple had an open marriage. Both Sackville-West and her husband had same-sex relationships, as did some of the people in the Bloomsbury Group of writers and artists, with many of whom they had connections.
These affairs were no impediment to the closeness between Sackville-West and Nicolson, as is seen from their almost daily correspondence (published after their deaths by their son Nigel), and from an interview they gave for BBC radio after World War II. Harold Nicolson gave up his diplomatic career partly so that he could live with Sackville-West in England, uninterrupted by long solitary postings to missions abroad.
Following the pattern of his father's career, Harold was at different times a diplomat, journalist, broadcaster, Member of Parliament, and author of biographies and novels. The couple lived for a number of years in Cihangir, Constantinople and were present, in 1926, at the crowning of Rezā Shāh, in Tehran, then Persia. They returned to England in 1914 and bought Long Barn, in Kent, living there from 1915 to 1930. They employed the architect Edwin Lutyens to make many improvements to the house.
The couple had two children: Nigel (1917–2004), a well known editor, politician, and writer, and Benedict (1914–1978), an art historian. In the 1930s, the family acquired and moved to Sissinghurst Castle, near Cranbrook, in Kent. Sissinghurst had once been owned by Vita's ancestors, which provided a natural dynastic attraction to her following the loss of Knole. There the couple created the famous gardens that are now run by the National Trust.
Affairs and bisexuality
Vita's first close friend was Rosamund Grosvenor (London, England, September 1888-30 June 1944), who was 4 years Vita's senior. She was the daughter of Algernon Henry Grosvenor, (1864–1907), her grandfather being Robert Grosvenor, 1st Baron Ebury. Vita met Rosamund at Miss Woolf's school in 1899, when Rosamund had been invited to cheer Vita up while her father was fighting in the Boer war. Rosamund and Vita later shared a governess for their morning lessons. As they grew up together, Vita fell in love with Rosamund, whom she called 'Roddie' or 'Rose' or 'the Rubens lady'. Rosamund, in turn, was besotted with Vita. "Oh, I dare say I realized vaguely that I had no business to sleep with Rosamund, and I should certainly never have allowed anyone to find it out," she admits in her journal, but she saw no real conflict: "I really was innocent."
Lady Sackville, Vita's mother, invited Rosamund to visit the family at their villa in Monte Carlo; Rosamund also stayed with Vita at Knole, at Rue Lafitte, and at Sluie. During the Monte Carlo visit, Vita wrote in her diary, " I love her so much ". Upon Rosamund's departure, Vita wrote, "Strange how little I minded [her leaving]; she has no personality, that's why." Their secret relationship ended in 1913 when Vita married. Rosamund died in 1944 during a German V1-rocket raid.
The same-sex relationship that had the deepest and most lasting effect on Sackville-West's personal life was with the novelist Violet Trefusis, daughter of the Hon. George Keppel & his wife, Alice Keppel, a mistress of King Edward VII. They first met when Vita Sackville-West was 12 and Violet was 10, and attended school together for a number of years.
The relationship began when they were both in their teens. Both later married, she and Trefusis had eloped several times from 1918 on, mostly to France, Sackville-West dressing as a man when they went out (as had the French writer Baroness Dudevant, Amandine Aurore Lucie Dupin, a.k.a. George Sand, (1804–1876), had done with ailing younger Polish musician Frederic Chopin, (1810–1849), some 100 years earlier, when residing as a couple, 1838 - early 1839, with her own 2 children, on the island of Majorca, Spain).
The affair ended badly, with Trefusis pursuing Sackville-West to great lengths until Sackville-West's affairs with other women finally took their toll.
The two women had made, apparently, a bond to remain faithful to one another, meaning that although both women were married, neither could engage in sexual relations with her own husband. Sackville-West heard allegations that Trefusis had been involved sexually with her own husband, indicating she had broken their bond, prompting her to end the affair. By all accounts, Sackville-West was by that time looking for a reason for breaking up the relationship, and used this as justification. Despite the rift the two women were devoted to one another, and deeply in love, and continued to have occasional liaisons for a number of years afterwards, but never rekindled the affair.
Vita's novel Challenge also bears witness to this affair: Sackville-West and Trefusis had started writing this book as a collaborative endeavor, the male character's name, Julian, being Sackville-West's nickname while passing as a man. Her mother, Lady Sackville, was the illegitimate Anglo-Spanish daughter of the 2nd Lord Sackville, Lionel, married to a cousin, Vita's father, the third Lord Sackville, found the portrayal obvious enough to refuse to allow publication of the novel in England; but her own son Nigel Nicolson, (1973, p. 194), however, praises her: "She fought for the right to love, men and women, rejecting the conventions that marriage demands exclusive love, and that women should love only men, and men only women. For this she was prepared to give up everything… How could she regret that the knowledge of it should now reach the ears of a new generation, one so infinitely more compassionate than her own?"
The affair for which Sackville-West is most remembered was with the prominent writer Virginia Woolf in the late 1920s. Woolf, sister of Vanessa Bell, both daughters of Leslie Stephen, founder of the Dictionary of National Biography, wrote one of her most famous novels, Orlando, described by Sackville-West's son Nigel Nicolson as "the longest and most charming love-letter in literature", as a result of this affair.
Unusually, the moment of the conception of Orlando was documented: Woolf writes in her diary on 5 October 1927: "And instantly the usual exciting devices enter my mind: a biography beginning in the year 1500 and continuing to the present day, called Orlando: Vita; only with a change about from one sex to the other" (excerpt from her diary published posthumously by her husband Leonard Woolf).
Vita Sackville-West also had a passionate affair between 1929 and 1931 with Hilda Matheson, head of the BBC Talks Department. "Stoker" was the pet name given to Hilda by Sackville-West during their liaison.
In 1931 Sackville-West became involved in a menage a trois with journalist Evelyn Irons, who had interviewed her after her novel The Edwardians became a bestseller, and Irons's lover Olive Rinder.
She was also romantically involved with her sister-in-law Gwen St. Aubyn, Mary Garman and others not listed here.
The Edwardians (1930) and All Passion Spent (1931) are perhaps her best known novels today. In the latter, the elderly Lady Slane courageously embraces a long suppressed sense of freedom and whimsy after a lifetime of convention. This novel was faithfully dramatized by the BBC in 1986 starring Dame Wendy Hiller.
Sackville-West's science-fantasy Grand Canyon (1942) is a "cautionary tale" (as she termed it) about a Nazi invasion of an unprepared United States. The book takes an unsuspected twist, however, in that makes it something more than a typical invasion yarn.
In 1947 Sackville-West was made a Companion of Honour for her services to literature. The same year she began a weekly column in The Observer called "In your Garden". In 1948 she became a founder member of the National Trust's garden committee.
She is less well known as a biographer, and the most famous of those works is her biography of Saint Joan of Arc in the work of the same name. Additionally, she composed a dual biography of Saint Teresa of Ávila and Therese of Lisieux entitled The Eagle and the Dove, a biography of the author Aphra Behn, and a biography of her own grandmother, the Spanish dancer known as Pepita., the mother of many children by British diplomat and second Lord Sackville, Lionel Sackville-West, (1829–1908), as stated extensively above, running by 2010 at some 11 editions in English. For instance, the 1985 edition by Telegraph Books, (ISBN 9780897607858). The first edition was Doubleday Publishers, 1937. There was another by Amereon, date unknown, (ISBN 9780848811501).
Her long narrative poem, The Land, won the Hawthornden Prize in 1927. She won it again, becoming the only writer to do so, in 1933 with her Collected Poems.
Sissinghurst Castle is now owned by the National Trust, given by Sackville-West's son Nigel in order to escape payment of inheritance taxes. Its gardens are famous and remain the most visited in all of England.
A recording was made of Vita Sackville-West reading from her poem The Land. This was on four 78rpm sides in the Columbia Records 'International Educational Society' Lecture series, Lecture 98 (Cat. no. D 40192/3).
A plaque on their house in Ebury Street, London SW1, commemorates her and Harold Nicolson.
Vita Sackville-West's Timeline
March 9, 1892
Knole House, Kent, England, UK
August 6, 1914
January 9, 1917
June 2, 1962
Sissinghurst Castle, Kent, England, UK