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If everybody had a Wadley

Terry Castle: ‘Joe’ Carstairs, the ‘fastest woman on water’, 5 March 1998

The Queen of Whale Cay: The Eccentric Story of ‘Joe’ Carstairs, Fastest Woman on Water 
by Kate Summerscale.
Fourth Estate, 248 pp., £12.99, August 1997, 1 85702 360 9
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... prominent figures in this extraordinary sapphic society – Radclyffe Hall, Natalie Barney, Vita Sackville-West, Gertrude Stein, Mercedes de Acosta, Gluck, Djuna Barnes, Ida Rubenstein, Romaine Brooks, Elsie de Wolfe, Eileen Gray, Wanda Landowksa, Winaretta Singer, Rose O’Neill, Violet Trefusis, Janet Flanner and numerous others – demand ...

Dying for Madame Ocampo

Daniel Waissbein, 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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... state from Parliament to Government House. Virginia Woolf’s opinion of Victoria, in a letter to Vita Sackville-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 Sur. She is in Paris ... She is immensely ...

Pretending to be the parlourmaid

John Bayley, 2 December 1993

Selected Letters of Vanessa Bell 
edited by Regina Marler, introduced by Quentin Bell.
Bloomsbury, 593 pp., £25, November 1993, 0 7475 1550 6
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... letters of the time are rightly full of indignation, and gratitude for those who saw the point. To Vita Sackville-West she wrote as ‘the person Virginia loved most I think outside her own family’. The drowning and its unexpectedness (‘that possibility never occurred to me’) may later seem to have symbolically brought the life and times of ...

Soothe and Scold

Helen McCarthy: Mothers, 12 September 2019

Mother: An Unconventional History 
by Sarah Knott.
Viking, 336 pp., £14.99, March 2019, 978 0 241 19860 5
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... period of ‘confinement’. Harold Nicolson pushed verbal restraint to its limit in a note to Vita Sackville-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 Drusilla Beyfus, who had three pregnancies in the late ...

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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... becoming a kind of stratigraphic layer in an archaeological dig. The novels of Disraeli, Vita Sackville-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, celebrated for his flamboyant, scandalous love-life and ...

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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... 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 only format for a marriage of equals? Isn’t it what all ...

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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... Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Djuna Barnes, Romaine Brooks, Virginia Woolf, Janet Flanner, Vita Sackville-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, intriguingly, of Murphy’s. It’s true that 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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... since she was the offspring of peasants, it took a different form. Late in life the artist told Vita Sackville-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 Dumas on the ‘trainloads of young people’ arriving ...

Late Worm

Rosemary Hill: James Lees-Milne, 10 September 2009

James Lees-Milne: The Life 
by Michael Bloch.
Murray, 400 pp., £25, September 2009, 978 0 7195 6034 7
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... were lost in a maze of inter and extra-marital affairs in which all roads seem to have led to Vita Sackville-West. Alvilde had a passionate relationship with Vita for several years, Lees-Milne having had one earlier with her husband, Harold Nicolson. The fact that the Lees-Milnes looked to the Nicolsons for ...

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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... with an appreciation of the culture, and the ability to make their own way: Gertrude Bell, Vita Sackville-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 Hajj, was almost as popular a genre as ...

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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... them ungenerously, and enforced a servile hierarchy as strict as that depicted below stairs by Vita Sackville-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 Young admits, lies at the heart of their ...

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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... vacations as an auxiliary land girl on a large farm in Devon.) The doyenne of the detractors was Vita Sackville-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 was intrigued by her account of ‘us’. Apparently ...

Trained to silence

John Mepham, 20 November 1980

The Sickle Side of the Moon: The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Vol. V, 1932-1935 
edited by Nigel Nicolson.
Hogarth, 476 pp., £12.50, September 1979, 0 7012 0469 9
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Leave the Letters till we’re dead: The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Vol. VI, 1936-41 
edited by Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautman.
Hogarth, 556 pp., £15, September 1980, 0 7012 0470 2
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The Diary of Virginia Woolf. Vol. III: 1925-1930 
edited by Anne Olivier Bell.
Hogarth, 384 pp., £10.50, March 1980, 0 7012 0466 4
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Virginia Woolf 
by Michael Rosenthal.
Routledge, 270 pp., £7.95, September 1979, 0 7100 0189 4
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Virginia Woolf’s Major Novels: The Fables of Anon 
by Maria DiBattista.
Yale, 252 pp., £11, April 1980, 0 300 02402 9
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... she is playing parts. They are revealing in that they tell us which parts she chose to play. With Vita Sackville-West she played a rather childish game, simulating intimacy by adopting animal personae. ‘Well, my faithless sheep dog’ and ‘Yes, my clever colly,’ she wrote. She had earlier enjoyed playing the lover with ...

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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... angels – He sits on the edge of the bed and considers my symptoms like a judge,’ she wrote to Vita Sackville-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 hadn’t been for him.’ Given ...

Women of Quality

E.S. Turner, 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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... Her novel The Squire broke new ground as ‘a poetic vision of motherhood’, though it shocked Vita Sackville-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?) As a playwright her love of bons mots earned her, on ...

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