Sackville-West, Vita (1892–1962)

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Sackville-West, Vita (1892–1962)

English poet, novelist, short-story writer, biographer, and gardener whose unusual lifestyle was portrayed in her son's book Portrait of a Marriage. Name variations: Lady Victoria Mary Nicolson. Born Victoria Mary Sackville-West at Knole in Kent, England, on March 9, 1892; died at Sissinghurst Castle, Kent, on June 2, 1962; only child of Lionel Sackville-West, 3rd Lord Sackville, and his cousin Victoria Sackville-West; attended Miss Wolff's School, London; married Harold Nicolson (later Sir), on October 1, 1913 (died at Sissinghurst, May 1, 1968); children: Benedict"Ben" Lionel Nicolson (b. August 6, 1914); Nigel Nicolson (b. January 19, 1917).

Bought Long Barn (1915); had an affair with Violet Keppel Trefusis (April 1918–summer 1921); met Virginia Woolf (December 1922); won Hawthornden Prize for The Land (1927); bought Sissinghurst Castle (1930); with Harold, went on lecture tour of U.S. (1932); won the Heinemann Prize for The Garden (1946); awarded Companion of Honor in New Year's Honors List (1947); received Honorary Doctor of Literature, Durham University (1950); knighthood bestowed on Harold Nicolson (1953); Sissinghurst passed to the National Trust (1969).

Vita Sackville-West, a proud aristocrat, loved women (sexually and emotionally) and her gentle, passive, homosexual husband Harold Nicolson. She was passionate, selfish, eccentric, and complex, the product of exclusive upper-class English society of the early 20th century. Statuesque, sophisticated, well traveled, and well connected, Sackville-West cherished her independence which she was able to maintain in her "open" marriage and her numerous love affairs; all her relationships were conducted on her terms, and she convinced herself that she could love her accommodating husband while being "in love" with her female lovers. A prolific writer, Sackville-West produced 15 books of poetry, 12 novels, 3 collections of short stories, 6 biographies, and 17 works of nonfiction, mostly on gardening and travel. She was a modern woman who hated the modern world, a feminist in attitude and lifestyle who repudiated the feminist label. Vita loved country living, flowers, and dogs; she ignored politics and detested marriage as an institution which devoured a woman's identity.

Vita Sackville-West had two deep and abiding attachments in her life—her beloved husband and Knole, her ancestral home. Queen Elizabeth I gave Knole to her cousin, Thomas Sackville, and it had remained in the family since the 16th century. Knole constituted a kind of self-contained small town; it allegedly had 365 rooms, 52 staircases, and 7 courtyards. The complex of stone buildings, dating from the 15th century, covers more than six acres, and when Vita was born, the Sackvilles employed about 60 fulltime servants. The family could trace its history back to Herbrand de Salkaville who came to England with William the Conqueror in 1066. The second Baron Sackville-West, Vita's grandfather, had sired five illegitimate children, including Vita's mother, Victoria Sackville-West , with a Spanish dancer known as Pepita . Lacking a legitimate heir, Knole and the noble title would pass to the baron's nephew Lionel Sackville-West, who married his cousin Victoria in the Chapel at Knole in 1890. Thus, Vita inherited her dual nature from her father's solid Kentish stock and her Latin mother. The handsome young couple entertained lavishly; old noble families, the rich and famous, and royalty, including King Edward VII, were frequent guests.

Vita was an unruly child who resented other children intruding into her world at Knole; she treated them so roughly that most of her playmates refused to come to tea or the dance class on the estate. She loved her father more than her mother who had a fierce temper and criticized Vita's untidy habits and "her silences," not wanting to look at the child "because I was so ugly," Sackville-West recalled. Brought up by nurses and governesses, Vita was a secretive, imaginative child. She spoke French by the age of seven and began writing poems, plays, and historical novels when she was twelve. Her parents disapproved of her concentration on writing, fearing she would become eccentric and too intellectually inclined. Vita ignored their admonishment and between 1906 and 1908, she composed three plays and a novel, all in French. Her "fantasy world," which revolved around Knole, her ancestors, and herself, was augmented by a complex family situation. By the time Vita was seven years old, her parents' marriage had changed into a convenient and mutually tolerated ménage à quatre—Vita's father and his mistress Olive Rubens , her mother and her mother's wealthy admirer Sir John Murray Scott, known as Seery. Infidelity was common among the upper classes who maintained a public image of marital stability, thus avoiding scandal. Indeed, the Sackvilles' "open marriage" made an impression on their daughter who "became too knowing, while remaining childishly innocent." Sackville-West easily accepted the objects of her parents' affection, with whom she lived quite amicably at Knole and during frequent visits to Seery's apartment and villa in Paris or his hunting lodge in Scotland.

As an adolescent, Sackville-West attended Miss Woolff's School in London; the girls at this exclusive establishment were encouraged to be conscious of who they were and what their families represented. Vita considered herself unpopular, "a prig and a pariah," but she did well in her studies and was fiercely competitive. At age 12, she made two friends who would change her life: Rosamund Grosvenor and ten-year-old Violet Keppel (Trefusis ), whose mother Alice Keppel was King Edward VII's mistress. The day she met Violet, Sackville-West wrote a song, "I've got a friend," innocently unaware that their "love" for one another would last a lifetime. Travel on the Continent was an integral part of education for upper-class children, and in 1908, Vita, Violet and their governesses went to Florence, Italy—Vita had learned Italian as well as French. At age 16, she was almost six feet tall, a striking young woman; she attracted the unpleasant attentions of her well-regarded godfather, the Honorable Kenneth Halleyburton Campbell, who tried to rape her several times. She refused to confide in her parents—Campbell was an old family friend—but as she told a companion later, "Perhaps it accounts for much," referring to her negative attitude towards men and sex, and her attraction to women.

In 1909, Sackville-West had her "coming out," which she did not enjoy. When the death of Edward VII curtailed social functions, she happily concluded, "Thus can the tragedies of great Kings be turned to the uses of little people." But she and her father dutifully attended the funeral and later the coronation of King George V. Having made her debut in society, Sackville-West was eligible for marriage, a prospect that had little appeal for her. Despite her lack of interest in men, while in Florence in the spring of 1909, the Marchese Pucci, from an old Florentine family, fell in love with her and followed her back to England. Fortunately, her parents were against Pucci's suit, and he eventually abandoned his courtship. That autumn, Vita, her mother, and Seery went to Russia where they were guests of Count Joseph Potocki on his estate in the Ukraine, which covered 100 square miles. The opulent, princely lifestyle of the family did not impress Sackville-West as much as did the miserable conditions of the peasants who grovelled at Potocki's feet as he lashed at them with a dogwhip. Vita later said she could understand why Russia erupted in revolution in 1917.

Old Lord Sackville, Vita's grandfather, had died in 1908, and her father inherited Knole and the title. However, the old man's illegitimate children laid claim to the estate; in the ensuing court case, Lionel and Victoria won the judgment. Now legally secure in their rights to the property and title, Lord and Lady Sackville returned home to the enthusiastic applause of their servants at Knole. The death of the king and the prolonged court case had interfered with Vita's social commitments, including being introduced to suitable young men. Lord Sackville feared Vita would marry a "soul" (an intellectual), though she was being courted by Viscount Lascelles and the heir to the dukedom of Rutland. But at a dinner party in London in June 1910, Vita met Harold Nicolson, an Oxford graduate who worked in the Foreign Office. He was definitely a dreaded "soul," but Lady Sackville liked him, and so did Vita. There was an obstacle, however, of which Harold was not aware—Vita was involved in a liaison with Rosamund Grosvenor. Vita characterized their affair as "almost exclusively physical," but V. Glendinning claims they never "made love" in the technical sense: "They did not think of it." Vita saw no conflict between loving Rosamund and not discouraging Harold who wanted to marry her. "I was very fond of [Rosamund]," Vita recalled later, "but she was quite stupid." Stupid or not, Vita had no intention of abandoning her for a man, however gentle, clever, and accommodating he might be.

Lady Sackville and Vita made frequent trips to Italy and southern France, two of Vita's favorite places. Tea with former French Empress Eugénie and balls and lavish parties at the great houses of friends kept Vita circulating among possible suitors, several of whom proposed to her. However, she hesitated to commit herself to Harold or any man; she preferred to be with Rosamund, as she explained to Harold in a letter. Harold probably understood her love for Rosamund for he was attracted to young men and was currently infatuated with a Frenchman at his diplomatic post in Constantinople. Vita knew she loved Rosamund, but she would not have been able to give their kind of love a name, just as she was ignorant of "the physical realities of male homosexuality." Years later, she would reproach Harold for not enlightening her on a subject that became a major feature of their married life: "I knew nothing about homosexuality," she wrote. "You should have told me about yourself, and have warned me that the same sort of thing was likely to happen to myself. It would have saved us a lot of trouble and misunderstanding."

Sackville-West shied away from marriage and Harold, for, as she told him, she "had only just begun to live and to make friends." But Harold persisted despite Vita's declared preference for Rosamund and her obvious "distaste for the idea of marriage." Why then did she marry, and why choose Harold instead of one of the aristocratic and landed young men who pursued her? Perhaps because she and Harold were "more than lovers, they were friends." Harold understood Vita's nature and needs, and, most important, her desire to write, to become a recognized poet. (Her first published poem, "A Dancing Elf," appeared in The English Review in 1913.) Vita already knew, too, that "some men seem born to be lovers, others to be husbands; [Harold] belongs to the latter category."

She was not mistaken, and this unusual couple were married in the chapel at Knole on October 1, 1913. Vita was given a diamond and emerald necklace by her mother and a sculpture from Rodin, one of Lady Sackville's ardent admirers. The newlyweds would have few financial worries, despite Harold's moderate income; Lady Sackville had inherited the bulk of Seery's vast fortune and was a generous benefactor.

Shortly after the wedding, the couple set out for Constantinople with Vita's maid Emily and Harold's valet "Wuffy." Harold found great satisfaction in his Foreign Office career, but Vita disliked diplomatic life with its emphasis on protocol and precedence—and in which she was Mrs. Harold Nicolson, subsuming her own individual identity. In June 1914, Vita and Harold were in England awaiting the birth of their son and the imminent outbreak of war. Vita was pleased to learn that the Bodley Head publishing house had taken her book Poems of West and East, which would come out in 1917. On August 6, 1914, Benedict Lionel was born at Knole; inexplicably Vita asked her father's longtime paramour, Olive Rubens, to be the godmother, which outraged Lady Sackville. The Nicolsons were living in London that autumn, enjoying an active social life despite the war on the Continent. In March 1915, they purchased their first large country house, Long Barn, in Kent. Here Vita began her lifelong enthusiasm for gardening and wrote the first of her many garden poems. They also purchased a house on Ebury Street in London, but Vita preferred country living, and Long Barn was "home." Sackville-West would eventually acquire a national reputation for her expertise on plants and garden design and regularly contribute articles to journals such as the popular Country Life.

The first great sorrow of [Vita's] life was that, by an accident of gender, Knole could never be hers; the second, the realization that she was not a "great" writer.

—Victoria Glendinning

A stillborn son in 1916 was followed by the birth of Nigel the next year. The family considered Long Barn their primary residence where Vita could devote her time to poetry and her garden. Harold, however, did not share Vita's attachment to the land and historic manor houses. He considered entering politics, which Vita despised as much as the diplomatic service. During the war years, she did volunteer work at the local Red Cross, but the war did not prevent the Nicolsons and their society friends from attending grand weekend house parties. At a party in October 1917, Harold was compelled to tell Vita that he suspected he had contracted a venereal disease, and she would have to consult a doctor. This disclosure forced Harold to reveal his active homosexual life; after discussing this revelation, Vita responded "quickly and quietly," and they resumed their "normal" life; but from this time on, marital sex was no longer a part of their relationship. This was a crucial turning point in their lives and would lead to the only real crisis to threaten their marriage.

Sackville-West was gaining recognition as an accomplished poet, and her Poems of West and East received favorable reviews. In 1918, she began a novel, Heritage (1919), in which she explores her own double heritage through the character Rawdon Westmacott who was of Spanish-Kentish ancestry, as was Vita. This duality is also found in her view of love—"love as passion and as loyal companionship"—which originated in her fiction and ended as a reality. Vita developed an all-consuming passion for her friend Violet Keppel which led into conflict with Harold, her loyal companion. At the time, Harold was immersed in his career and often absent from Long Barn. In April 1918, Violet came to visit, and Vita revealed to her the sexual complexity of her marriage. Violet, in turn, told Vita "how much she loved her and why, and in what ways." As Vita wrote later, she felt she was "beginning life again in a different capacity."

"The adventure had begun," as Glendinning describes it. Vita longed for excitement and adventure, "for places where no one will want me to order lunch, or pay housebooks." And as she explained to Harold, Violet could rescue her from "a sort of intellectual stagnation, a bovine complacency." However, this passionate love affair nearly wrecked her marriage. During their three-year liaison, Vita and Violet spent a great deal of time abroad—Vita always feared scandal—faithfully writing to Harold every day. Periodically, Vita returned to Long Barn to immerse herself in the solitude that was essential to her well-being. She was especially pleased when her first published novel, Heritage, received good reviews. And she had already begun writing Challenge, a romantic novel featuring herself as Julian and Violet as Eve. In her real-life affair, Vita had taken to wearing men's clothes and appearing in public with Violet, both in London and abroad, disguised as her "husband" and calling herself Julian. Even Violet's marriage to Denys Trefusis in 1919, which was mutually agreed to be platonic only, did not diminish Violet's love for Vita. Nor did the affair affect Harold's commitment to his wife. (Vita never allowed herself to be referred to as "wife.") Harold was a delegate to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, trying to juggle his demanding duties and his bizarre marital situation: Vita had informed Harold that she intended to "elope" with Violet. "Why do you imagine that there is nothing between eloping with Violet and cooking my dinner?" Harold inquired. When Vita carried out her threat and eloped with Violet in 1920, Harold and Denys "finally rescued them" in a hotel room in Amiens, France. Their escape from their respective spouses was foiled, but Vita never forgot the depth of her affection for her lover. In January 1921, the women once again fled abroad; but Vita was now torn between her love for Harold, her sons, and her passionate attachment to Violet. However, when Vita learned that their escapade threatened to provoke a scandal, she became frightened and gradually drew back from her lover. While the affair was still a fresh memory, Vita wrote a kind of confession of this tangled tragicomic affair which her son Nigel found in a locked box after Vita died and published in his Portrait of a Marriage.

When Lady Sackville read the proofs of Vita's novel Challenge, she was appalled to recognize Eve as Violet; she admitted she did not understand same-sex attraction, but she tried. She certainly was not ignorant of Vita's proclivities since her daughter confided in her concerning her most personal thoughts and doings. Under pressure from her mother and Violet's parents, Vita withdrew the book and paid the publisher to recover the "rights" to the novel. Beginning with the publication of The Dragon in Shallow Waters in 1921, which became a bestseller, Sackville-West entered a productive period. Her short story, "The Heir," centers around the love of a man for a great manor house; surprisingly there are no women in the story. But Vita's interest in poetry was foremost, and she contributed poems to the Mercury though "the most interesting and personal pieces of writing" were never published, according to Glendinning. She also worked on a play called "Marriage," "a feminist piece." To be free, Vita wrote in the play, one must be selfish, but women need time to be free, to be alone. And further, a man, she asserts, is never identified on legal documents as a "married man" but a woman is a "married woman" and loses her own name, her separate self. The play was never finished because she "had not solved the problem," at least not at this time. But Vita Sackville-West—the woman, not the writer—would achieve a degree of freedom unknown to most women of her age, would spend, by choice, long periods alone, and would live and publish under her maiden name. Vita's book of poetry Orchard and Vineyard, which contained poems about Kent, love poems written during her liaison with Violet, and to her friend, Dorothy Wellesley , appeared in 1921. Vita was not the only writer in the family; Harold worked on his scholarly, well-written life of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. His work was solid and intellectually appealing, but his books never acquired the wide readership Vita's work attracted. Vita's deep attachment to Knole and her ancestors is reflected in her history Knole and the Sackvilles (1922). When it was completed, she wrote to her cousin Eddy Sackville-West, heir to Knole, that the Sackvilles " were a rotten lot, and nearly all stark raving mad. You and I have got a jolly sort of heredity to fight against." Rotten and mad, perhaps, but Vita was proud of her illustrious lineage. In 1923, she edited The Diary of Lady Anne Clifford , a spin-off of the Knole book, and completed Grey Wethers, both published that year.

Sackville-West was now an established author, admired and appreciated by some of the leading literary figures of the period, including George Moore, Aldous Huxley, Edith Sitwell , and the cliquish Bloomsbury group which included Leonard and Virginia Woolf , Clive Bell, Duncan Grant, and Virginia's sister Vanessa Bell . Sackville-West continued to publish poetry and articles on a variety of subjects in several reputable periodicals, and her books were well received. In recognition, she was elected to the PEN Club. Domestic affairs were never allowed to interfere with Vita's work; servants, a secretary, and a governess for the boys left her "free and alone" to pursue her writing, gardening, and her love affairs. Harold spent weekdays in London or on the Continent on diplomatic business while Vita lived at Long Barn with brief sojourns into London. She had not yet begun to isolate herself from society in London or the aristocratic country estates of friends. She knew, and liked, Winston Churchill, always at ease among her upper-class peers. Vita had a loving marriage and a great deal of independence; she remained Vita Sackville-West, even to Harold, and without guilt indulged in numerous love affairs with women. Harold, too, had a series of relationships with men who were his "intellectual equals," but he was "never a passionate lover," according to his son Nigel, so the "physical element" of these affairs was secondary and did not interfere with his work. Nigel says that Harold "saw Vita as the companion of a lifetime" although she took no interest in his career; when Harold was appointed to the staff of the League of Nations after World War I, Vita did not even know what the League was. But Vita's liaisons, which at times consumed her entire being, never diminished her love for Harold: "I love you more than myself, more than life, more than the things I love," she wrote to him in 1919. This sentiment remained valid to the end of her life.

On December 14, 1922, Vita met Virginia Woolf for the first time. Woolf was fascinated by Vita's aristocratic demeanor, "no false shyness or modesty…. She is … hard, handsome, manly; inclined to double chin." If Violet was Vita's great passion, Virginia Woolf's "friendship was the most important fact in Vita's life, except Harold," Nigel asserts. This friendship turned to love and then to physical intimacy. But Harold no longer saw Vita's love affairs, her "muddles" he called them, as a threat to their marriage. They shared a home, their sons, many friends, and their love of travel, which they often did together. Even Vita's affair with Geoffrey Scott, whom she met in Florence, did not alarm Harold. Of this short-lived romance, Nigel writes, Vita "smashed [Scott's] life and finally wrecked his marriage," then ended this "experiment in love because he was a man, because he was an impossible rival to Harold, and because he was replaced by someone… a woman, a genius, Virginia Woolf."

When Harold was posted to Teheran, Persia (now Iran), in 1925, Vita did not accompany him. But the following year, she joined him for the coronation of Shah Reza Pahlavi with side trips to India and Iraq where she was invited to tea with the king of Iraq. In Teheran, Vita finished her long poem The Land, for which she received accolades from the British literary community. Vita's relations with Virginia began to worry Harold who wanted to avoid any scandal that might affect his career. In truth, Harold was carrying on an affair, though discreetly, with Raymond Mortimer. Vita did not object to this, telling Harold, "I don't mind who you sleep with, so long as I may keep your heart."

Sackville-West loved to travel, especially to France and Italy, but she loved Long Barn more. She returned to England in the spring, content to be alone and to concentrate on her writing and her garden. She wrote to Harold that she intended to be "very eccentric and distinguished, and never see anyone." In September 1926, The Land was published and sold well; its 2,500 lines are a celebration of Kent and the "farmer's yearly round." Pleased at the critics' reviews, Sackville-West noted, "I will get myself into English literature. Somehow or another." Vita and Harold were elected fellows of the Royal Society of Literature, and Vita gave a lecture to the members in October. In early 1927, before leaving again for Teheran, Vita won the Hawthornden Prize for The Land. From her experiences in Persia, she wrote two insightful travel books, Passenger to Teheran and Twelve Days.

Sackville-West's intention to "never see anyone" did not apply, of course, to Virginia and the several other women with whom she was carrying on concurrent affairs. None of her lovers, except Violet, ever posed a threat to Vita's and Harold's consensual "open marriage." This is obvious from the daily letters they exchanged, even when living together. In her correspondence, Vita makes clear that their marital arrangement would not suit "ordinary people," for only intelligent people, like themselves, could make marriage work, any marriage. And Vita was grateful that their "liaisons" were separate from "the more natural attitude we have towards each other." To Sackville-West, marriage was claustrophobic from which her liaisons provided relief, an outlet for her "restlessness and excess energy." She composed love sonnets for her lovers, many of which Harold judged to be too "b.s." (back-stairs or homosexual) to ever be printed. At least 14 women were romantically involved with Vita for rather lengthy periods of time, but, inexplicably, she failed to realize that the women who loved her were more seriously committed to the affairs than she was. However, Vita never completely severed these emotional ties, and former lovers were prone to exact "emotional alimony" from her.

Despite Sackville-West's propensity for entanglements, she was a prolific writer and a sound business woman, managing her money, lands and tenants. Trees were planted, flower gardens proliferated, and her manor house at Long Barn was refurbished, all at her expense. Harold's salary was his own, and Vita often chided him for not being able to live within his means. Vita also was expected to bring up Benedict and Nigel who, she admitted, interrupted her life. In fact, Vita was never on intimate terms with her sons, and Nigel acknowledges that they were closer to Harold than to their mother.

Virginia Woolf's friendship with Vita culminated in a literary masterpiece, Orlando, which revolves around Vita, Knole, and Harold. Spread over three centuries, the story follows Orlando (Vita), a young man in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I who turns into a young woman in the 18th century; thus, the author skillfully incorporates Vita's dual natures into a single portrait. No attempt was made to hide Vita's identity, for three of the eight photographs in the novel are of her. Vita was flattered to be the subject of Orlando; she admired Virginia's intelligence and imagination, and appreciated her support: Virginia and Leonard Woolf owned Hogarth Press which published 16 of Vita's works from 1924 to 1933. Other, larger publishing houses tried to convince Sackville-West to change publishers, but she refused. The Woolfs appreciated her loyalty. Lectures to various literary and cultural groups and talks on BBC radio allowed Vita to expound on modern poetry and express her views on "The Modern Woman"; in the latter, she declared that "Women cannot combine careers with normal life because they love too much. Men don't." Similar opinions are expressed in her novel All Passion Spent (1931). A married man, she wrote, could "enjoy his free, varied and masculine life with no ring on his finger or difference in his name." Vita adamantly defended similar rights for women and condemned "ordinary" marriage. In June 1929, she and Harold discussed the subject on the BBC; Harold claimed that "a man's work was a necessity, and a woman's career a luxury," and asked Vita if she thought "the joys of motherhood" were not adequate compensation, to which she retorted, "No, most emphatically I don't." Nigel Nicolson said his father did not particularly like women, and Vita made no secret that she preferred women to men, but opposing views seem to have had no bearing on their love for one another.

On a visit to Italy with Harold, Vita got the idea for her most commercially successful book, The Edwardians (1930), "her own romance of Knole" and a way of life that no longer existed. The book would be popular "for snobbish reasons alone," she told Virginia. Before it was completed, Vita had published a collection of lesbian poems, which Harold told her were not good, and a biography of Andrew Marvell (1929).

Place was always important to Vita; her roots, her Sackville identity were at Knole, but her home was at Long Barn which she had made into a showplace. However, in 1930, the possibility of a poultry farm locating next door forced Vita to consider moving. The moment she laid eyes on Sissinghurst Castle (in Kent), she had to have it. It was "a complex of ruins" on seven acres of "muddy wilderness," with no electricity or water, and not one habitable room. To Vita, it was magnificent, "Sleeping Beauty's Castle." Most important, it had a family connection: in 1554, Thomas Sackville had married the daughter of the owner. In Vita's mind, it was a "family house." A few days after the purchase, Vita planted a lavender bush "as an act of faith." In time, her faith would be rewarded as Sissinghurst became known as one of the most beautiful gardens in England and was opened to the public. Vita indulged her love of nature and enjoyed the solitude of her splendid ruins. Harold did not share her enthusiasm for renovation and isolation. He was beginning to feel old, useless, poor, and depressed. Having left diplomatic service, he tried journalism and in 1935 entered politics and served as a member of Parliament for ten years; he lived in London, coming home only on weekends. Vita, too, suffered from depression periodically, despite her diverse interests and time-consuming love affairs. Something was missing in her life. She refused to be involved in any way in politics, even turning down most invitations to events at Buckingham Palace. To relieve her tension and depression, Vita needed a passionate love affair, "the only thing that lifts life out of a trough," she believed. And though she "loved and moved on to new lovers," writes Glendinning, she "always kept in touch, even friends, with her lovers." But with Vita, no affair was permanent or remained exclusive for long. Only Harold was a constant in her complicated, often turbulent life.

Vita and Harold had more in common than their love for one another; they shared similar attitudes and biases. They were condescending towards the dull-witted, stolid middle-class ("bedints" in Sackville language) and were prejudiced against Jews and "colored" people, according to Nigel. In the 1930s, Harold joined Oswald Mosley's New Party. Vita "loathed" Mosley and his right-wing followers, and Harold disassociated himself from the group when Mosley openly embraced fascism. Vita found satisfaction not in politics but in local cultural events, writing poetry and novels, and acquiring new lovers. The Nicolsons were well known in the United States and were invited to undertake a lecture tour in 1932; they discussed marriage on radio shows, and Vita lectured on novel-writing to groups from New York to California. "Los Angeles is hell," Sackville-West wrote, and "Americans have an unequalled genius for making everything hideous." But she was impressed with the Grand Canyon and other natural marvels and intended to return to America.

The following year, Vita began giving a series of talks on gardening for the BBC which were then printed in the Listener. The program was extremely popular and earned Vita a nationwide reputation as an expert gardener. This kind of public exposure was uncharacteristic, for Sackville-West was becoming increasingly reclusive and conservative. At Sissinghurst, Vita's rooms in The Tower were physically separated from Harold's quarters and the boys' residence; Nigel comments that he and Ben entered Vita's sanctuary only about a half dozen times in the 30 years the family resided at Sissinghurst. Living in separate accommodations suited Vita who "had no talent or taste for the commonality of family life." In her Tower, Vita found refuge from the modern world which she hated. She was anti-Republican in the Spanish Civil War, and had no sympathy for King Edward VIII's "dilemma over Mrs. Wallis Simpson" (Wallis Warfield, duchess of Windsor ), that "piece of trash," as Vita fumed. But her interest in Knole and her ancestors never diminished. In reviewing the Knole succession case of 1910, she revived her interest in her Spanish "gypsy" grandmother. The result was Pepita (1937), "one of the most personal, humane and lively of all her books," writes Glendinning. Sackville-West was not religious, but her affinity for exceptional females led to books on Joan of Arc and saints Thérèse of Lisieux and Teresa of Avila .

As Europe moved closer to war, Vita withdrew even more among her flowers at Sissinghurst, contributing articles entitled "Country Notes" that regularly appeared in the New Statesman. She tried to avoid thinking about an armed conflict, "Otherwise one would go mad—one would become a lunatic in a world of maniacs." In the autumn of 1938, local inhabitants were issued gas masks. Vita and Harold were against appeasing Hitler, but they also did not believe Britain could win a war against Germany. However, Vita continued to make long-term plans for her garden "as an act of faith" in the future, and in May 1939, she opened the garden to benefit charity. When the "wicked folly" of war finally came, she was made an ambulance driver and was involved with the Women's Land Army. Harold was asked to join Churchill's wartime government, working in London. A German invasion of England was expected, and Harold obtained pills for Vita in case suicide became necessary. Sissinghurst lay on the flight path of German bombers, between the Channel ports and London; frequent air battles occurred in the Kent area, and Knole was damaged. In March 1941, Virginia Woolf committed suicide; her last novel, Between the Acts, was said to be her "letter of farewell to Vita," as Orlando "was her letter of love." Vita's Grand Canyon, set in World War II, was rejected by Leonard Woolf's Hogarth Press as "profoundly defeatist" and not appropriate for the times. In the book, the Germans are victorious and many Europeans flee to the United States which eventually signs a treaty with Germany. Published in 1942, it was not a success.

Vita felt all the more alienated from a rapidly changing world as she learned of plans for Britain's postwar welfare state. It was dreadful, she asserted, "The proletariat being encouraged to breed like rabbits … as though there weren't too many of them already … and everyone being given everything for nothing." Harold, however, supported the proposed changes. Sackville-West thought public funding should go instead to "extended education" and higher teachers' salaries. The real world was found wanting, but Sissinghurst, Vita's "one magnificent act of creation," largely compensated for what was lacking. Between 1939 and 1958, she published ten works on gardening; The Garden won the Heinemann Prize in 1946. In this beautiful long poem, Vita says about flowers: "They cannot break the heart, as friend/ Or love may split our trust for ever." Her weekly gardening articles for the Observer made her "more widely known and more eagerly read than anything else she ever wrote."

Sackville-West was among a select number of British subjects to be recognized on the King's New Year's Honors List in 1947. She also undertook lecture tours in North Africa and Spain for the British Council. In 1950, she was awarded an Honorary D. Litt. from Durham University. Three years later, Harold was granted a knighthood, and became Sir Harold Nicolson—Vita, however, refused to be called "m'lady." Advancing age, painful arthritis, and further isolation did not prevent the Nicolsons from traveling and meeting new people. Sissinghurst drew increasing numbers of visitors, one of whom was the queen mother (Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon ) who came to visit the gardens and have lunch: "I shall have to put on a skirt," was Vita's first reaction. Winter cruises with Harold to Indonesia, South America, the Far East, and Africa afforded Vita a respite from writing and gardening. At age 63, she was honored by the Royal Horticultural Society, bought a Jaguar car, and fell in love again; as Glendinning notes, Vita's "great adventure was never over."

On a New Year's cruise in 1962, Vita began hemorrhaging; when she returned to England, she underwent surgery and was diagnosed with cancer. Vita Sackville-West died at Sissinghurst in June; Harold died there from a heart attack four years later. Always to be associated with the name of Vita Sackville-West are Knole and Harold Nicolson, "the only person in whose love I trust." They helped to define her life and to mold her into an independent, memorable woman.


Glendinning, Victoria. Vita: The Life of Vita Sackville-West. Middlesex, Eng.: Penguin, 1983.

Nicholson, Nigel. Portrait of a Marriage. NY: Atheneum, 1980.

suggested reading:

Nicolson, Nigel. Virginia Woolf: A Penguin Life. NY: Viking, 2000.

Stevens, Michael. Vita Sackville-West: A Critical Biography. London: Michael Joseph, 1973.

Todd, Janet, ed. Dictionary of British Women Writers. London: Routledge, 1989.

Troutmann, Joanne. The Jessamy Brides: The Friendship of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1973.

Watson, Sara Ruth. Vita Sackville-West. NY: Twayne, 1973.


Vita Sackville-West's letters, diaries, notebooks, and correspondence are in Sissinghurst Castle, Kent; diaries of Lady Sackville and Vita's early diaries are located in the Lilly Library, Bloomington, Indiana.

Jeanne A. Ojala , Professor of History, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah