V is for Vita Sacville West

Serpent and Apple
Serpent and Apple — Image by © 68/GK Hart/Vikki Hart/Ocean/Corbis

If I could make use of a time machine, one person I wouldn’t mind acquainting myself with would be Vita Sackville West.  It is obvious that there was much more to her than being an acclaimed poet and noted gardener.  She appears to be a woman whose character resonates and sparkles, the Latin translation of her name is “life”. She was a woman who really “lived” her life. She loved to travel,  she seems to be a born adventurer and her adventures included affairs outside of her marriage, well documented in a controversial book called “Portrait of a Marriage” .

Her life seems to be scandalized in tabloids even in the present day,  check out this Daily Mail headline

Stately home seductress who makes Downton’s wildest plots look tame: Vita Sackville-West was known to have affairs with men AND women but she is reveals she was more voracious than anyone thought

The beginning of the article states Tall, dark and magnetically attractive, Vita Sackville-West had the dubious knack of inflaming passions wherever she went.

Marriages crumbled in her wake. Grown men and women threatened suicide. One lover even produced a pistol and threatened to blow her own brains out.

Yet, on the face of it, Vita led a life of serene Edwardian upper-class respectability. Feted as a poet and novelist — her most successful book was The Edwardians — she was a baron’s daughter who had married a diplomat and borne two sons.

All this despite the fact that she died in 1962,  a year after I was born.  People love to delve into the more “lurid” aspects of her life. I have vague memories of her husband Harold, a brief encounter in the garden at Sissinghurst. She was married to my Great Uncle. My Mother spent a lot of time during the war and has many fond memories of Vita and to this day loves to relates stories about her and was dubbed Vita’s favorite niece.

Here is a woman who had elements of her life being fashioned into a story called “Orlando” written by one of her paramours Virginia Wolf.  The great love of Vita’s life, despite spending a troubled childhood there was Knole, a house with six hundred years of history, but a house she was not allowed to inherit, on account of being a woman.

Here is a woman whose relationship with Violet Trefusis, was dramatized by the BBC, Vita being played by the imposing figure of Janet  McTeer.

Vita seems to represent a woman who was ahead of her times, married to a man who was homosexual  and yet despite each partner involving themselves with other people, they still managed to sustain their marriage as well as bring up two sons, Ben and Nigel.  It is hard to imagine they planned such an open marriage from the onset, but this is how it panned out.  They must have had inklings about  their sexual orientation before they were married,  things were different in their era.

One thing is for certain Vita seems to have all the hallmarks of an eccentric, wearing her trademark jodhpurs,  trying to pass herself off as a man,  while on a amorous sojourn with Violet.  She might have left a trail of pain in her wake, with her risky affairs,  but she seems a spirited woman.

I have met people while living  in France who are avid admirers of both Vita and the Bloomsbury set.  Her legacy seems strong and enduring as ever…

Francis H Powell is a writer. His recently published book is Flight of Destiny, a book of 22 short stories.


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