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Soothe and Scold

Helen McCarthy: Mothers

12 September 2019
Mother: An Unconventional History 
by Sarah Knott.
Viking, 336 pp., £14.99, March, 978 0 241 19860 5
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... were in a ‘delicate condition’ or the ‘family way’; after nine months, they retreated into their period of ‘confinement’. Harold Nicolson pushed verbal restraint to its limit in a note to VitaSackville-West shortly after the birth of their son in 1914: ‘Give a hug from me to that odd little funny which happened the other day.’ Revulsion for the maternal body persisted. The journalist ...

The Candidate of Beauty

Alexander Stille: D’Annunzio and the Pursuit of Glory

2 July 1998
Gabriele D’Annunzio: Defiant Archangel 
by John Woodhouse.
Oxford, 420 pp., £25, February 1998, 0 19 815945 5
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... their work as its merits, and what they wrote increases in historical density as it loses literary freshness, becoming a kind of stratigraphic layer in an archaeological dig. The novels of Disraeli, VitaSackville-West, Georges Sand and Jack London and the plays of Clifford Odets come to mind. Gabriele D’Annunzio is now best known as a historical figure, as a dandy-poet in Fin-de-Siècle Rome ...

One of the Pyramids of Egypt

Ruth Bernard Yeazell: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

27 May 1999
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: Comet of the Enlightenment 
by Isobel Grundy.
Oxford, 680 pp., £30, April 1999, 0 19 811289 0
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... his tea, Pope responds by handing her ‘the rough draught of a certain famous line in the “Characters of Women” ’. Woolf may have intended her mock-biography as an affectionate portrait of VitaSackville-West, but Isobel Grundy is surely right in thinking that these episodes in Orlando’s career were primarily inspired by the life and letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Of course Lady ...

Four in a Bed

Wendy Doniger

8 February 1996
Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life 
by Marjorie Garber.
Hamish Hamilton, 608 pp., £25, January 1996, 9780241134481
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... bisexual?’ How indeed? Simple addition would seem to make bisexual monogamy an oxymoron: bi plus me = three. Indeed, the three should ideally be four; Garber remarks that the marriage of Harold and Vita Nicolson ‘was a “bisexual marriage” in an unusually complete way, since both of them had same-sex partners’. But why is the Nicolson marriage ‘unusually complete’? Does it not present the ...

Sit like an Apple

Ruth Bernard Yeazell: Artists’ Wives

23 October 2008
Hidden in the Shadow of the Master: The Model-Wives of Cézanne, Monet and Rodin 
by Ruth Butler.
Yale, 354 pp., £18.99, July 2008, 978 0 300 12624 2
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... looking bitch of a Mme’. The misogyny directed at Rodin’s partner was somewhat less virulent; and since she was the offspring of peasants, it took a different form. Late in life the artist told VitaSackville-West that Beuret had attached herself to him ‘comme une bête’ – less ‘like a crazy person’, as Butler has it, than ‘like a dumb animal’. (Butler earlier quotes Alexandre ...

You better not tell me you forgot

Terry Castle: How to Spot Members of the Tribe

27 September 2012
All We Know: Three Lives 
by Lisa Cohen.
Farrar Straus, 429 pp., £22.50, July 2012, 978 0 374 17649 5
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... Anderson, editors of the avant-garde literary magazine the Little Review; not to mention Colette, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Djuna Barnes, Romaine Brooks, Virginia Woolf, Janet Flanner, VitaSackville-West, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Ivy Compton-Burnett, the gallery owner Betty Parsons – even the kooky, spooky, more-than-a-little-ropey Patricia Highsmith, a gothic late-life pal ...

Miniskirt Democracy

Roxanne Varzi: Muslim Women’s Memoirs

31 July 2008
Soft Weapons: Autobiography in Transit 
by Gillian Whitlock.
Chicago, 216 pp., £10.50, February 2008, 978 0 226 89526 0
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... and travel writing. The best were written by talented Western women fluent in the local language, with an appreciation of the culture, and the ability to make their own way: Gertrude Bell, VitaSackville-West, Freya Stark (who, yes, may have been a spy). Iranians themselves were engaged in travel writing as early as the 19th century, when the Safarnameh, the Iranian traveller’s account of going on the ...

For a Lark

Patricia Beer

21 March 1996
Hearts Undefeated: Women’s Writing of the Second World War 
edited by Jenny Hartley.
Virago, 302 pp., £12.99, May 1995, 9781853816710
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... Land Army. (I should mention my own interest here: a student for most of the war, I spent all my vacations as an auxiliary land girl on a large farm in Devon.) The doyenne of the detractors was VitaSackville-West. She organised a large area for the Land Army and had a wider knowledge of it than Sissinghurst alone could provide, but that did not stop her from being patronising and inaccurate. I ...

Utopia Limited

David Cannadine

15 July 1982
Fabianism and Culture: A Study in British Socialism and the Arts, 1884-1918 
by Ian Britain.
Cambridge, 344 pp., £19.50, June 1982, 0 521 23563 4
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The Elmhirsts of Dartington: The Creation of an Utopian Community 
by Michael Young.
Routledge, 381 pp., £15, June 1982, 9780710090515
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... For all their claims that Dartington was a community, they employed a domestic staff of twenty, paid them ungenerously, and enforced a servile hierarchy as strict as that depicted below stairs by VitaSackville-West in The Edwardians. Like the Fabians, the Elmhirsts were unable to reconcile the competing claims of élitism and egalitarianism. Hence the ‘Dartington paradox’ which, as Michael ...
3 March 1988
‘Sur’: A Study of the Argentine Literary Journal and its Role in the Development of a Culture, 1931-1970 
by John King.
Cambridge, 232 pp., £27.50, December 1986, 0 521 26849 4
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... one evening, and he was still, no doubt, aching after a fall from his horse as he was progressing in state from Parliament to Government House. Virginia Woolf’s opinion of Victoria, in a letter to VitaSackville-West of 1939, is as revealing as it is funny: ‘A woman, Victoria Okampo who is the Sybil [Colefax] of Buenos Aires, writes to say she wants to publish something by you in her Quarterly ...


Frank Kermode: James Lees-Milne

30 November 2000
Deep Romantic Chasm: Diaries 1979-81 
by James Lees-Milne, edited by Michael Bloch.
Murray, 276 pp., £22.50, October 2000, 0 7195 5608 2
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A Mingled Measure: Diaries 1953-72 
by James Lees-Milne.
Murray, 325 pp., £12.99, October 2000, 0 7195 5609 0
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Ancient as the Hills: Diaries 1973-74 
by James Lees-Milne.
Murray, 228 pp., £12.99, October 2000, 0 7195 6200 7
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... people who had no claim whatever to be gentlemen, studying them with an anthropologist’s curiosity. The generic description for such people is ‘bedint’, a term borrowed from Harold Nicolson and VitaSackville-West; meaning, I suppose, someone who serves, whose manners are appropriate to a subordinate station. They might be ‘Liverpool Geordies’ (it’s hard to tell one bedint from another) or ...


Lorna Sage: Henry Green

25 January 2001
Romancing: The Life and Work of Henry Green 
by Jeremy Treglown.
Faber, 340 pp., £25, September 2000, 0 571 16898 1
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... their subjects’ particularity, the banal but precious fact of everyone’s uniqueness, which is just what they’re cracked up to celebrate. Indeed, it’s often the juiciest biographical subjects, VitaSackville-West, say, or Kingsley Amis, who anticipate the process, and turn themselves into caricatures and stereotypes in life. There’s a touch of this about Green’s long years of decline, when ...

Unreal Food Uneaten

Julian Bell: Sitting for Vanessa

13 April 2000
The Art of Bloomsbury 
edited by Richard Shone.
Tate Gallery, 388 pp., £35, November 1999, 1 85437 296 3
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First Friends 
by Ronald Blythe.
Viking, 157 pp., £25, October 1999, 0 670 88613 0
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Bloomsbury in France 
by Mary Ann Caws and Sarah Bird Wright.
Oxford, 430 pp., £25, December 1999, 0 19 511752 2
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... we are told, the Woolfs had hot chocolate in a tea-shop, before buying a looking-glass. At Saulieu, Virginia Woolf, writing after ‘the most delicious luncheon of her life’ in the company of VitaSackville-West, foresaw ‘that if we stay here for two days eating caneton en croûte and crème double, washed down by Bourgogne mousseux, we shall get dyspepsia.’ After more than two hundred ...

Doctors’ Orders

Ruth Bernard Yeazell

18 February 1982
‘All that summer she was mad’: Virginia Woolf and Her Doctors 
by Stephen Trombley.
Junction, 338 pp., £12.50, November 1981, 9780862450397
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... chose to be nursed and protected: ‘He is a perfect angel – only more to the point than most angels – He sits on the edge of the bed and considers my symptoms like a judge,’ she wrote to VitaSackville-West in 1929. ‘He brings home huge pineapples: he moves the gramophone into my room and plays until he thinks I’m excited. In short, I should have shot myself long ago in one of these illnesses if it ...
9 October 1986
The Pebbled Shore 
by Elizabeth Longford.
Weidenfeld, 351 pp., £14.95, August 1986, 0 297 78863 9
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Leaves of the Tulip Tree 
by Juliette Huxley.
Murray, 248 pp., £7.95, June 1986, 9780719542886
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Enid Bagnold 
by Anne Sebba.
Weidenfeld, 317 pp., £15, September 1986, 0 297 78991 0
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... Enid Bagnold, writer, she drew vividly, without inhibitions, on life as she and her friends lived it. Her novel The Squire broke new ground as ‘a poetic vision of motherhood’, though it shocked VitaSackville-West and made H.G. Wells feel he had been attacked ‘by a multitude of many-breasted women’. (Perhaps Lady Longford, with her self-proclaimed ‘addiction to motherhood’, enjoyed it ...

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