Herstory Spotlight: Vita Sackville-West Wrote Words, Wooed Women, Wanted Woolf

click for other "the way we were" posts

June is LGBT Pride Month, so we’re celebrating all of our pride by feeding babies to lions! Just kidding, we’re talking about lesbian history, loosely defined as anything that happened in the 20th century or earlier, ’cause shit changes fast in these parts. We’re calling it The Way We Were, and we think you’re gonna like it. For a full index of all “The Way We Were” posts, click that graphic to the right there.

Previously:

1. Call For Submissions, by The Editors
2. Portraits of Lesbian Writers, 1987-1989, by Riese
3. The Way We Were Spotlight: Vita Sackville-West, by Sawyer
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Raise your hand if you’ve heard of Virginia Woolf. That ought to be about 99% of you feministas. Now keep your hand raised if you’ve heard of Orlando, the novel she wrote about her lesbian lover. Is your hand still up? If it is, can you name Virginia’s muse for that book? (Pro tip: yes, because she’s the title of this post).

Vita Sackville-West not only inspired a great piece of 20th century literature, but was also pretty awesome herself: she was an acclaimed poet, author, journalist and gardener; had an open marriage, countless lesbian lovers, and sometimes cross-dressed. Aren’t you glad you’ve heard of her now?

via blog.temperleyknight.com

But let’s backtrack. Vita (christened Victoria Mary Sackville-West) was born into aristocracy in 1892, and didn’t meet Virginia until the 1920s as part of the London-based literary collective known as the Bloomsbury Group.

Her first foray into lesbianism happened while at school, with a friend, Rosamund Grosvenor. Their affair continued even after Vita became engaged in 1912 to her future husband, Harold Nicolson: “It did not seem wrong to be… engaged to Harold, and at the same time so much in love with Rosamund”. Rosamund was also passionately in love with Vita, and the two exchanged (rather racy) letters . Excerpt: “I want to feel your soft cool face coming out of that mass of pussy fur like I did last night.”

In 1913, Vita married Harold and her affair with Rosamund ended. There were indications she was growing tired of her dear Roddie by then, though, saying she had “no personality.” A clear case a lesbian bed death, amirite? (Note: I am probably not right.)

Harold Nicolson, Vita Sackville-West, Rosamund Grosvenor and Lionel Sackville-West in 1913

Vita wasn’t just known for her compelling personal life, she also earned a reputation as a writer. She published her first verse drama, Chatterton, in 1909 at just 17; while her first novel was not published until 1919, she had allegedly completed eight novels and five plays before she turned 18.

Vita was not one for monogamy, and she had multiple lovers at once. Violet Keppel (later Trefusis) was another school friend. Even after the two women were married, they continued to see each other and, from 1918 onwards, sometimes eloped together to France, where Vita dressed as a man and called herself Julian. Vita’s novel, Challenge (published in 1923) was supposedly inspired this affair – the male lead being called Julian. The novel’s portrayal of bisexuality was seen as too overt, and it was banned from being published in the UK. Violet became jealous of Vita’s other affairs (most of which I haven’t mentioned, as they are just THAT NUMEROUS), which eventually led Vita to end their relationship.

Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West in 1933, taken by Leonard Woolf

And then, of course, there is the aforementioned affair with Virginia Woolf, Patron Saint of Women, Defender of Feminism, etc. etc. The relationship between Virginia and Vita has become the stuff of pop culture; for instance, poet laureate (and badass lesbian) Carol Ann Duffy references it in her poem The Kray Sisters. Interestingly, the very moment the novel Orlando was conceived is recorded by Virginia as being October 5th, 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.”

Vita’s son, Nigel Nicolson, calls it “the longest and most charming love-letter in literature,” which is a claim that runs testament to just how deeply their love ran.

The reason Vita stands as such an icon to me is the sheer scope of her achievements. Besides her intriguing persona life, Vita was a prolific writer. She won the Hawthorden Prize for literature twice – once in 1927 for her long narrative poem The Land (which was dedicated to another of her lovers, the poet Dorothy Wellesley) and again in 1933 with her Collected Poems, making her the only person to have won the award twice. Her home in later life, Sissinghurst Castle, has the most visited formal gardens in the UK. In 1946, Vita became a founding member of the National Trust and also started a column for The Independent newspaper about gardening.

Portrait of Vita Sackville-West by Philip de Laszlo, 1910

By the time she died in 1962 – despite living through a time of social conservatism – Vita had succeeded in living a life involving more lesbian lovers and literary accomplishment than most can only dream of, and was more than just Virginia Woolf’s lover. Her life seems best summed up by Nigel Nicolson in his book A Portrait Of Marriage, about his parents’ open marriage:

“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.”

I like raspberry lip balm and can't speak French. I also enjoy music, writing and trawling the internet when I should be doing something useful. Aspiring writer and expert music junkie.

Sawyer has written 6 articles for us.

41 Comments

  1. I’M SO GLAD YOU POSTED THIS. I’m writing a research paper on lesbian themes in Virginia Woolf’s writing and Katherine Mansfield and I was reading a lot about Vita. This is awesome!

    • Seconded. My family were in London over Christmas and I went and nerded out over Woolf’s drafts of “To the Lighthouse” in the British Library. I compared her diaries alongside in an effort to get a grasp on her writing process, but ended up just discovering that she was much more into women than the standard biographies suggest.

      My mum found a book called “Lesbian panic: homoeroticism in British Literature” in my room once, and I was able to truthfully say that it had a fascinating article on Virginia Woolf on it.

      Vita’s mother was a pretty fascinating character as well — she was the illegitimate daughter of the English ambassador to Washington and apparently at least half of the city was madly in love with her, before she married her first cousin.

      • I want that book! Earlier this year I wrote an awesome paper on homoeroticism in English Renaissance poetry, but I only focused on male-male relationships by male authors because women at the time were not educated so there wasn’t a lot to work with. It was so much fun reading about it! Basically, in that time period homosexuality was not perceived as an identity as it is today, so certain situations in the literature that we might read as gay behavior was really just expressions of close friendship. Sure, the “sodomite” was a threat to society, but men sleeping naked together was simply indicative of the masculine friend.

        ANYWAY. I’m totally fascinated by homoeroticism in literature (sp. British lit)

        • I didn’t find it very well written, although the subject’s interesting enough. I looked up the details for you and those of a better book, in my opinion, by Irish author Emma Donoghue.

          Lesbian panic : homoeroticism in modern British women’s fiction / Patricia Juliana Smith. New York : Columbia University Press, c1997.

          Passions between women : British lesbian culture, 1668-1801 / Emma Donoghue. Publisher London : Scarlet Press, 1993.

          • Thanks. Good luck with your research — it’s such a fascinating topic generally, and Woolf’s work is such fertile ground.

          • There’s also a book called ‘Virginia Woolf’s Women’ by Vanessa Curtis which examines VW’s relationships with key female figures in her life, including Vita and Katherine Mansfield (as well as her mother and sister). It’s quite interesting for how it sets the VW-Vita friendship/affair in a wider context of VW’s fascination with women, both specific and general.

            Really enjoyed this post! Might have to go and look at the To the Lighthouse drafts in the British Library now…

          • This interaction, between the two of you, is one of the cutest things I’ve seen on autostraddle. I love you both and I love this post and I love this place.

  2. AHH hello historical crush. Also I ship these two like mad.

    … clearly I have nothing of any intellectual value to add to this conversation.

  3. I am such a fangirl of these two that I screamed when I saw this post. I read the Letters of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West and it made me cry all over the place. I have so many feelings right now ahhhhhhh.

    • Yeah! I would also scream if my mom wasn’t in the same room as me in the time when I saw this article 😉 I love Virginia Woolf since I read Michael Cunningham’s The Hours and then her Mrs Dalloway. I found that book so amazing that I had to find more about Virginia Woolf to know who she really was… and then, I found Vita. I’ve read some of their letters on the internet and I was like OMG! Now, I’ve already read all Virginia’s books and also would like to read something by Vita. It’s so great this article is here!

      • *runs in circles* I can’t even brain right now. This is the best thing.
        I just started The Hours, and I’m stoked.
        Seriously, though my Virginia Woolf Things book collection occupies about the same amount of space as the rest of my books combined. #deadpersoncrushes

  4. WHAT
    WHAT
    WHAT
    This is the happiest a website has ever made me.
    I really love Vita Sackville West, I voted we name our kitten Vita Sackville West, I was so annoyed when it got vetoed and we ended up with Moppet.

  5. Read/watch Portrait of a Marriage. Seriously. It tells the story of Vita and Violet’s affair. The book is their letters and VIta’s journal, edited by Vita’s son, and the TV mini series is a dramatised version thereof with JANET MCTEER!

    One of my most vivid memories from the time when I had only just realised I was gay was combing through the TV listings magazine for any hint of lesbian content. I developed something of sixth sense for the gay. I don’t know what compelled me to laboriously, secretly set the timer on my parents’ VCR to record all 3 parts of Portrait of a Marriage at 3am on some now-defunct Sky channel, but I did. I watched the next day, my parents safely out at work, and those 3 instalments (less so the last, sad one) become some of my favourite television ever. I saw it at such a pivotal moment in my life; it’s impact has stayed with me over the years. I have a DVD nowadays, my VHS tape couldn’t take it.

    • I had the house to myself for a while in November, and it was all misty outside, so I just had this on repeat + stood by the back door in my corduroy trousers in the rain looking out as if I had a country estate. Clearly I was Vita in a previous life.

    • If Portrait of a Marriage had been on when I was coming out, I would’ve been watching like my life depended on it. Fiona, you’ve inspired me to get the DVD; I want to do a VW+Vita party with high tea.

      That being said, Orlando was totally my thing. I saw the film, then read the book and swooned.

  6. Thank you, this is fantastic. I’m so glad that this found its way into herstory month.

    I hope it’s ok to post my favourite Vita Sackville-West poem here, it might be relevant to (y)our interests 🙂

    “And so it ends

    And so it ends,
    We who were lovers may be friends.
    I have some weeks in which to steel
    My heart and teach myself to feel
    Only a sober tenderness
    Where once was passion’s loveliness.

    I had not thought that there would come
    Your touch to make our music dumb,
    Your meeting touch upon the string
    That still was vibrant, still could sing
    When I impatiently might wait
    Or parted from you at the gate.

    You took me weak and unprepared.
    I had not thought that you who shared
    My days, my nights, my heart, my life,
    Would slash me with a naked knife
    And gently tell me not to bleed
    But to accept your crazy creed.

    You speak of God, but you have cut
    The one last thread, as you have shut
    The one last door that open stood
    To show me still the way to God.
    If this be God, this pain, this evil,
    I’d sooner change and try the Devil.

    Darling, I thought of nothing mean;
    I thought of killing straight and clean.
    You’re safe; that’s gone, that wild caprice,
    But tell me once before I cease,
    Which does your Church esteem the kinder role,
    To kill the body or destroy the soul?”

  7. I have not read as much Vita Sackville-West as I might have liked to, but one of my favorite reads novella she dedicated to Woolf, Seducers In Ecuador. It demonstrates a very sly sense of humor. It reminded me of Wodehouse at his best (without the slapstick goofiness).

  8. I have not read as much Vita Sackville-West as I might have liked to, but one of my favorite reads is the novella she dedicated to Woolf, Seducers In Ecuador. It demonstrates a very sly sense of humor. It reminded me of Wodehouse at his best (without the slapstick goofiness).

  9. Ok. This is awesome. This lady is the most badass woman I have ever read about.
    I can’t believe you mentioned ‘The Kray Sisters’.
    MUST OUR AS LEVEL COURSE HAUNT US FOREVER? Surely you could have got something about homosexual panic in?
    “living a life involving more lesbian lovers and literary accomplishment than most can only dream of” <- I'm pretty sure you just predicted your future, love.
    AUTOSTRADDLE PEOPLE, WHOEVER IS IN CHARGE HERE, YOU NEED THIS GIRL TO WRITE FOR YOU, SHE'S HILARIOUS AND WRITES AMAZING ARTICLES ABOUT BADASS LESBIANS. Which, from what I can work out, is sort of the point of the site.

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