- Vita: The Life of V. Sackville-West by Victoria Glendinning
Weidenfeld, 430 pp, £12.50, September 1983, ISBN 0 297 78306 8
‘Contemplating a worn piece of green velvet on her dressing table, I felt my whole being dissolve in love. I have never ceased to love her from that moment.’ The person who said that was known as Christopher St John, though her real name was Christabel Marshall. We know how she felt about the object of her passion, Vita Sackville-West, because she kept a ‘love-journal’ in Vita’s honour. Miss Sackville-West, who had recently (and most unusually) been abandoned by another woman, allowed Miss St John to hold her hand. She even allowed her, Victoria Glendinning reports, to accompany her in her car ‘all the way’ to Tonbridge: in Tonbridge Christopher was put on a train back to London. But on the way out of London – on the Westminster Bridge Road, to be precise – Vita had ‘stretched out her left hand’ and told Christopher that she loved her, and when they got to the station in Tonbridge Vita parked the car in a side street and gave Christopher ‘a lover’s kiss’. (‘I never knew unalloyed bliss with V. except on that November day.’) The lover’s kiss was followed by ‘one night of love’. Then it was all over.
Mrs Glendinning’s book is mostly about love: Vita falling into it, dying for it, falling out of it; being adored, being swept off her feet, glimpsing paradise, getting bored. At the time of her affair with Christopher St John Vita was 40: Christopher, Mrs Glendinning writes, was ‘very ugly and in her late fifties’. (Virginia Woolf, called upon to intercede with Vita on Christopher’s behalf, described her as ‘that mule-faced harridan of yours’.) Vita didn’t drop Christopher: she liked people to go on loving her, provided they didn’t expect much in return, and Christopher eventually settled for a phone call every Friday night. She didn’t stop being in love with Vita, however, and twenty years later, at the age of nearly 80, was still in love with her: ‘my dearly loved Vita – my soul’s joy’.
All the women who loved Vita Sackville-West loved her with that kind of intensity. ‘I have loved you all my life,’ Violet Trefusis wrote: ‘loved you as my ideal, my inspiration, my perfection.’ And in most cases Vita’s feelings, for a while at least, ran equally high. There can’t be many people who were so much involved in bliss. Vita’s son, Nigel Nicolson, attempting to give some account of what went on between his mother and Violet Trefusis, speaks of the two women being ‘carried on the breezes towards the sun, exalted and ecstatic, breathing the thin air of the empyrean’. One might, more meanly, say that an important part of their extreme love for each other was the sense it gave them of their great superiority to everyone else. In a life in which what mattered most was to be grand and free and take risks and have adventures and generally be carried on the breezes towards the sun, there is something to be said for a minor character like Christopher St John who made a note of what exactly happened to her, however meagre, and what the street was called and where the car was parked.
The young Vita Sackville-West, living at Knole, prepared for her adventurous life in a variety of literary forms – ‘all romantic and all long’, as Virginia Woolf said of the works of the young Orlando. Tremendously dissatisfied with herself – ‘I must have been quite dreadful’ – Vita filled her exercise books with elaborate and high-minded reconstructions of the past. Her heroes were aristocratic and overdressed: Richelieu and the Medicis and her own Sackville ancestors. ‘My Vita,’ Harold Nicolson was to say of his wife, ‘is a heroine to everyone including her own darling self.’ But it took her a while to figure out what sort of heroine she was going to be. When she had finished a 65,000-word novel celebrating Edward Sackville, a modest hero of the Civil War, she added a coy ‘author’s note’ – she was then 14 – in which she wondered whether he could see her and if he knew ‘how I wish to be like him’. (This coyness is infectious: Mrs Glendinning in her author’s note says that she thinks Vita ‘would like’ the form her biography has taken.) She was more bold in her next novel, at any rate about her wish not to be a girl, and told her mother that its young hero, Cranfield Sackville – ‘he held his tongue and committed his thoughts to paper only’ – was intended to be a portrait of herself.