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28 November 2014

Between desire and dynasty: the dual identity of Vita Sackville-West

Energetic and confident, the heir to the Sackville dynasty always felt comfortable in her own skin. Being Vita wasn’t the problem – patriarchy was.

By Rachel Holmes

Behind the Mask: the Life of Vita Sackville-West 
Matthew Dennison
William Collins, 384pp, £25

In 1936, Vita Sackville-West published a biography of Joan of Arc. Clad in armour and boys’ breeches, brave, zealous, uncompromising, St Joan was a figure in whom she invested much of herself. “One wonders what her feelings were, when for the first time she surveyed her cropped head and moved her legs unencumbered by her red skirt,” Vita mused. But she knew very well, having experienced these same sensations. And her friend and sometime lover Virginia Woolf had already depicted them in Orlando (1928), a fictionalised biography of Vita’s life.

Energetic and confident, the heir to the Sackville dynasty always felt comfortable in her own skin. Being Vita wasn’t the problem – patriarchy was. Her assessment of Joan of Arc’s first dilemma mirrored her own: “The practical inconvenience of belonging to the wrong sex must be faced and overcome.” Vita was young when she discovered that what she loved most could never belong to her. The law of male entail excluded her from inheriting her home, the great Kentish house of Knole, where she was born in 1892. “Knole is denied to me for ever, through a ‘technical fault over which we have no control’,” she wrote.

Struggles over inheritance and illegiti­macy shaped Vita’s psyche. Knole connected her to history. Her poetry describes the solitary games of an only child, shoeless in the galleries, sleeping by canopied beds of forgotten kings. For her “a very private thing”, her parents’ legal battles made Vita the subject of gossip and salacious headlines.

Matthew Dennison takes his title from her unpublished novel about modern marriage. Behind the Mask analyses Vita’s self-fashioning with empathy and probity. She believed that her conflicting elements or “sides” – the paternal English and maternal Spanish – were irreconcilable opposites, “propriety pitched against protest, conformity against self, kindness against cruelty, ‘a free spirit or a prisoner’<span style="letter-spacing:
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Writing, Dennison argues, was always her greatest adventure, although she “never fully succeeded in explaining herself to herself”. He comprehensively documents her literary career while also leading a grand tour through Vita’s rake’s progress: her sexual and romantic adventures that were held in tension with her marriage to Harold Nicolson and motherhood of Benedict and Nigel. Beneath the veneer of the conventional aristocratic family were vexed, damaging relationships with her sons.

She was prolific from childhood, and her primary impulse was to poetry but she wrote fluently across genres, penning bestselling novels and biographies. Through writing, she tried to resolve the issues that troubled and inspired her – from her duality and the charade of Edwardian aristocracy to the best ways to plant a garden.

Vita was always in love and rarely with only one person, her affections capricious. “Love makes everyone a bore,” she wrote in her diary. “The excitement of life lies in the béguins [infatuations].” She caused the destruction of three marriages and the ruin of several careers without any visible signs of compunction. Dennison delivers her story in the context of its cast of characters, with evocative portraits of her husband, Violet Keppel, Virginia Woolf, Mary Campbell – and Vita’s numerous other lovers.

As in his biography of Queen Victoria, Dennison is good on the tensions of his subject’s life. Hedonism, escapism and self-indulgence vie with emotional and material liberality, diligent writing and social self-composure. Vita is shown as expansive and generous yet hobbled by class consciousness. Characteristic of Dennison’s work is his interest in exploring the degree of powerlessness felt by high-born women and how they seek to compensate for their dependence and dispossession. Ultimately, Vita seemed driven by the compensatory impulse to possession – of people and land.

In her regular Country Notes column in the New Statesman, she confessed, “I love the fields and the orchards so much that I want to see them safely mine.” Confronted by crisis in her marriage, she resorted to her planting philosophy: “Let us cram with flowers each threatened rift,” she wrote to Harold. She tired of people faster than property. Knole and Sissinghurst, also in Kent, were her greatest passions. Harold survived in her affections because he recognised this.

Dennison’s Vita is convincingly ambivalent and inflammatory, a product of her age, superficially radical but in reality a snobbish aristocrat who never learned to cook and who throughout her life depended on servants: “I like having things done for me.” Spectres of classlessness terrified her: “I detest democracy. I hate la populace. I wish education had never been introduced. I don’t like tyranny but I like an intelligent oligarchy.” La populace, she concluded, should be “as well fed and well housed as dairy cows – but no more thinking than that”.

For the last two decades of her life, she lived reclusively at Sissinghurst, the estate she made wholly her own, writing in her tower that flew the Sackville pennant and developing with Harold one of the world’s most renowned gardens. It is in the eccentricity and solitude of the older Vita that we find the most likeable woman. Her unconditional love of English horticulture superseded and tempered the turbulence and disappointments of her youth. 

Rachel Holmes’s most recent book is “Eleanor Marx: a Life” (Bloomsbury, £25)

Rachel Holmes will be discussing the life of Eleanor Marx with Shami Chakrabarti at the Cambridge Literary Festival, 11.30am, 30 November. Tickets £5-10 available here