Trefusis, Violet (1894–1972)
Trefusis, Violet (1894–1972)
English novelist, memoirist, and salon hostess. Born Violet Keppel in London, England, on June 6, 1894; died at the Villa l'Ombrellino in Florence, Italy, onMarch 1, 1972; daughter of Colonel George Keppel (an army officer and brother of the earl of Albemarle) and Alice (Edmonstone) Keppel (1869–1947); sister of Sonia Keppel (1900–1986); married Denys Robert Trefusis (a cavalry officer with the Royal Horse Guards), on June 16, 1919, in London (died summer 1929); no children.
Had affair with Vita Sackville-West (April 1918–summer 1921); published first novel, Sortie de Secours (Emergency Exit) (1929); awarded the Legion of Honor (France, 1950); published memoir Don't Look Round (1952); received the Order of Commendatore from Italian government (early 1960s).
In her youth, Violet Keppel lived in a world of kings and castles, of nannies and governesses, a cosmopolitan world of elegance and charm. Violet's mother Alice Keppel , a "regally beautiful" woman, was the acknowledged mistress of King Edward VII of England. Through her mother (née Edmonstone), Trefusis could claim descent from the Stuart dynasty. Likewise, the family of her handsome, "consummately tactful" father, Colonel George Keppel, had connections to English royalty as the "irregular descendants of King Charles II" through one of the king's several mistresses. Intelligent, effusive, scandalous, elegant, and eccentric, Violet loved poetry, travel (she spoke French, German, and Italian fluently), and gracious living; she shunned conventional morality, was ambiguous towards the male sex, and disliked children ("Violet was never young," her sister Sonia Keppel remarked).
In 1904, at age ten, Trefusis met the "grande passion" of her life, the aristocratic, equally eccentric Vita Sackville-West , age twelve. They both attended Miss Wolff's exclusive school in London, shared common interests in their illustrious families and in books, and were avid Francophiles. Notes Philippe Jullian, Violet and Vita "were brought up by mothers with relaxed morals, but uncompromising manners." As a child, Violet was socially adept, amusing, and self-confident. King Edward VII "adored her" and wrote her notes signed "Kingy"; she accompanied her mother and the king to the French resort of Biarritz each year from 1905 until Edward's death in 1910. The Keppels spent summer holidays at Duntreath Castle, one of the largest castles in Scotland, which had been acquired by the Edmonstone family around 1434. With her French governess, Violet lived for months at a time in Paris and in Italy. Vita often joined them, since the girls had developed a "madly romantic" relationship. As Sackville-West wrote later, "from the beginning I was utterly sure of her."
When Edward VII died in November 1910, his wife, Queen Alexandra of Denmark , notified Alice Keppel of his demise. To avoid the prying eyes of the public and in deference to the royal family, the Keppels left London for Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). In 1911, Violet and Sonia left Ceylon to attend a finishing school in Munich, where Violet took painting lessons, attended operas, fell in love with a Bavarian prince, and developed a lifelong interest in Central and Eastern Europe.
A year later, Colonel and Alice Keppel purchased a sumptuous house in London on Grosvenor Square, the proper setting for entertaining royalty and the social elite of England and continental Europe; among their frequent guests were Prince Paul of Yugoslavia, Grand Duke Michael of Russia, the famous director of the Russian Ballet, Sergei Diaghilev, and Vaslav Nijinsky, the Russian dancer and choreographer. In letters to Vita, Violet signed herself "Lushka," and Vita called herself "Mitya," obviously influenced by the ballet's popularity among high society in London.
Trefusis' interest in literature led to her desire to become a writer; she had a few poems published and was working on a play in German. Alice Keppel was not pleased. She was readying Violet for her social debut, her "coming out," and was convinced that female intellectuals were not considered good marriage prospects. Equally worrisome was that Violet had a reputation for socializing in "fast" company such as the jazz-loving, unconventional debutante Nancy Cunard and the gifted, but eccentric, composer and painter Lord Gerald Berners. Moreover, Violet was in love with Vita, a passionate, erotic attachment: at age 16, Trefusis had clearly revealed the depth of her feelings for Sackville-West: "I love in you what I know is also in me, that is, imagination, a gift for languages, taste, intuition, and a mass of other things. I love you, Vita, because I have seen your soul." As Sackville-West's son, Nigel Nicolson, later noted, "Marriage was nothing to this: marriage was only for husbands and wives." In similar fashion, Violet wrote to Vita, declaring, "Marriage is an institution that ought to be confined to temperamental old maids, weary prostitutes, and royalty."
Despite her antipathy towards marriage, Violet had several "suitable" admirers, including the future duke of Wellington, Gerald Wellesley, the poet and writer Sir Osbert Sitwell, and Julian Grenfell (son of Lord Desborough) who was killed early in World War I. However, both Violet and Vita believed that through marriage they would gain their freedom from parental control and public scrutiny of their lifestyles. Vita had married the British diplomat Harold Nicolson in October 1913, but Violet refused to commit herself to a formal engagement. A visit to the Nicolsons' home (Long Barn in Kent) in April 1918 launched the defining episode in Violet's life, a turbulent, torrid love affair with Vita that threatened to become a public scandal. A discreet adulterous affair was commonly accepted in upper-class society, but lesbianism was not. Alice Keppel and Vita's mother, Lady Victoria Sackville-West , were surprisingly reasonable about the situation, but were also determined to bring their daughters "back to the fold." The affair convinced Alice Keppel that Violet must marry, and that would "cure" her. But Violet wanted to live with Vita, "to pursue their ideals of freedom, beauty, and excitement."
Sackville-West's description of their love affair is found in her novel Challenge, begun in May 1918, and dedicated to Trefusis. It is, Nigel Nicolson claims, "Vita's defense of Violet, and of herself." As lovers, Violet assumed the "feminine" role, in fiction and in reality, and is called "Eve" in the novel. Vita appears as "Julian," and in fact, assumed a "masculine" persona when the lovers appeared together in public. The lovers' parents feared the scandalous depiction of their love affair would damage their daughters' reputations, and they urged Vita to withdraw her manuscript from the publisher. Vita complied with their wishes, much to Violet's disappointment, but the book appeared in the United States in 1924. Despite family pressures, the young women continued their liaison. From November 1918 to late March 1919, they traveled together in France. Vita's husband was convinced that Violet meant to wreck his marriage, and he wrote to his wife asking why "there is nothing between eloping with Violet and cooking my dinner?"
To Trefusis, love and marriage were not necessarily synonymous. Alice Keppel ignored Violet's nuanced distinction and was relieved when, on March 26, 1919, Violet became engaged to Major Denys Robert Trefusis of the prestigious Royal Horse Guards. Tall, handsome, charming, and "an accomplished sportsman," he came from an old family in Cornwall. As a young man, he had spent several years (1908–14) in Russia and was fluent in the language. During the First World War, he had commanded a company in France and was awarded the Military Cross for bravery in June 1919.
The couple were married in London on June 16, 1919. Vita was in France with her husband, furious that Violet had betrayed their commitment. As Vita had explained to Harold, "I feel that people like Violet can save me from a sort of intellectual stagnation, a bovine complacency." It has been suggested that Violet's marriage was never consummated, that Denys had agreed to this arrangement, and that he might have been impotent. Trefusis herself expressed no interest in sex with men, and Victoria Glendinning claimed that Violet had two obsessions, "chastity and the horror of male sexuality." Violet's marital status did not interfere with her affair with Vita for two more years, but in mid-1921, "the great adventure was over." Denys had threatened to divorce Violet, which would have meant a scandal if he had named Vita as co-respondent. Finally, Alice Keppel intervened; she would provide a generous allowance if the couple remained married and lived abroad.
In late 1921, Violet and Denys settled in Paris where they became part of Parisian high society. Through the Princesse Edmond de Polignac (the American heiress Winnaretta Singer ), an active patron of music in Paris, Violet was introduced to musicians and composers, and to poets and writers, including the Comtesse Anna de Noailles and Colette . Trefusis frequently traveled with Singer to North Africa, Greece, and Venice, often accompanied by Alice Keppel to avoid any hint of impropriety. In Paris, Violet avoided the company of well-known lesbians such as Natalie Clifford Barney and Gertrude Stein , but appeared to accept the wealthy, cultured princesse, a professed lesbian, whose husband was homosexual. Parisian café society did not appeal to Violet; it was "too bourgeois and contrived" for her taste. Her disdain for popular culture applied to America, too. In 1927, Violet and Denys visited the United States which they judged as philistine and boring. People drank too much and engaged in banal conversations. In Palm Beach, the millionaires displayed "a lack of any signs of intellectual life." The couple made a quick departure for Cuba.
At home in France, Trefusis presided over a salon that attracted well-known writers such as Jean Cocteau and Max Jacob, diplomats and politicians, including Paul Reynaud, the future prime minister of France, the famous couturiers Christian Dior and Pierre Balmain, and European royalty. A gracious host, Violet was also a gifted writer. Her fiction concerned the similarities and differences between England and France as seen in her first novel, Sortie de Secours (1929), which was a success. That same
year, Denys died of tuberculosis. In her memoir Don't Look Round (1952), Violet wrote of her husband, "We were both Europeans in the fullest sense of the term…. We quarrelled a lot, loved not a little. We were more to be envied than pitied."
As Trefusis assumed the rule of "international grande dame," she attracted the amorous attentions of a variety of aristocratic gentlemen, which she enjoyed. But literature and socializing interested her more than flirtatious affairs. Scotland was the setting of her next novel, Echo (1931), which became a bestseller and received good reviews. Two more well-regarded novels (Tandem and Hunt the Slipper) appeared during the 1930s. Her last work in French, Les Causes Perdues (Lost Causes), was published by Gallimard in German-occupied Paris in 1940. In her writing, Trefusis was credited with an "excellent gift of observation" and also a "talent for mimicry and flair for decor." These qualities are evident in her novels written in English and in French, and Violet is recognized as one of the few English writers to have written equally well in French. Her novels also reflect "a snobbery rather reminiscent of the turn-of-the-century attitudes," i.e., Edwardian, that had molded her worldly outlook.
Violet lived in Paris and at her country house, St. Loup de Naud, near Paris, which became a social center of high society for 15 years. She received, and rejected, numerous marriage proposals; of one suitor, she wrote, "I don't like his character, but I admire his faults." After age 40, Trefusis began to age rapidly, but she remained an active, fascinating, complex personality. In the 1930s, she took a small palace in Budapest and visited Russia, about which she wrote several articles for Le Temps. She also spent time at her parents' Villa dell'Ombrellino in Florence where she met Winston Churchill and the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini. Trefusis was active but "rarely happy"; it has been remarked that her portraits exhibit the "wistfulness of exiles." England, and Vita, were never forgotten, however.
War broke out in Europe in 1939, and after France capitulated to the invading German forces in 1940, Violet closed St. Loup, hid her silver, and made plans to leave France. She moved to the Ritz Hotel in London with her parents and contacted Vita who informed Violet, "I don't want you to disrupt my life." While in England, Trefusis wrote short stories for Horizon magazine and broadcast for Radio Free France from London. Two months after the liberation of Paris, she obtained a visa and returned to France. Germans had taken over St. Loup during the occupation, and Trefusis set about repairing the damage and painting over graffiti on the walls. After the war, she became increasingly eccentric, but as Jullian observes, "Eccentricity is an impertinence which can flower fully only in an aristocratic society." And in Violet it came to full bloom. Now "a Paris dowager" with an "English flair," she resumed her lavish social life, hobnobbing with such celebrated exiles as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor . In 1950, Trefusis was awarded the Legion of Honor in France, and in the early 1960s, the Order of Commendatore from the Italian government, seldom bestowed on women. She inherited l'Ombrellino from her parents and spent half of each year there. Like her home in Paris, the villa became an international social center. She even persuaded Vita and Harold Nicolson to visit her. With age, the women's ardor had cooled but not vanished, as Vita admitted to Violet, "There is a very odd thing between you and me, Lushka. There always was."
Despite declining health, Trefusis divided her time between London, Paris, and Florence. She had begun writing her memoirs in 1949, and in 1952, Vita corrected proofs of the book at Violet's villa in Florence. After Trefusis broke her hip a second time, she was still able to travel and to host lavish dinner parties. Her odd behavior manifested itself in the "myths and fantasies" with which she embroidered the realities of her life, and few friends dared question her: that Edward VII could have been her father, for example. However, Violet Trefusis was more than an eccentric dowager socialite; she was a distinguished writer, a woman of intelligence and wit. As Vita's son, Nigel Nicolson, observes, "She was always a bird of paradise, different, electric … a brilliant, exciting woman."
Trefusis died at l'Ombrellino in 1972, and was cremated and buried with her parents in Florence. A plaque at St. Loup is inscribed, "Violet Trefusis 1894–1972. Anglaise de naissance, Française de coeur" ("English by birth, French at heart").
Glendinning, Victoria. Vita: The Life of Vita Sackville-West. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1984.
Jullian, Philippe, and John Phillips. The Other Woman: A Life of Violet Trefusis. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1976.
Nicolson, Nigel. Portrait of a Marriage: V. Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson. NY: Atheneum, 1980.
Jullian, Philippe. Violet Trefusis: Life and Letters. London: Hamilton, 1976.
Keppel, Sonia. Edwardian Daughter. London: Hamilton, 1958.
The Last Edwardians: An Illustrated History of Violet Trefusis and Alice Keppel. Boston, MA: Boston Athenaeum, 1985.
Sharpe, Henrietta. A Solitary Woman: A Life of Violet Trefusis. London: Constable, 1981.
Souhami, Diana. Mrs. Keppel and Her Daughter. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1997.
Trefusis, Violet. Don't Look Round. London: Hutchinson, 1952, reprinted, Viking, 1992.
Jeanne A. Ojala , Professor Emerita, Department of History, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah