‘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.
Even better than dressing up as a boy in a novel was dressing up as a boy in real life. When she was 17 she wrote a verse drama on the life and death of Thomas Chatterton: dressed in a white shirt and a pair of black breeches (run up for her in secret by Emily her maid), she would act it out alone in the attic at Knole and every time be ‘moved to tears’ by her own performance. Twenty years later, in a flamboyant account of her own adolescence attributed to the heroine of All Passion Spent, Vita described her thoughts as having been ‘of an extravagance to do credit even to a wild young man. They were thoughts of nothing less than escape and disguise: a changed name, a travestied sex and freedom in some foreign city.’ But by then she wore breeches every day, though she wore them with pearls, and had disguised herself as a man to go dancing with Violet Trefusis. She had even, at the height of her passion for Violet, changed her name, faked her sex and, briefly, found freedom in a foreign city. It wasn’t only Vita herself, or the giddy Violet who found her trousers a turn-on. Virginia Woolf told Vita that it had been the sight of her gaiters that inspired Orlando, Virginia’s homage to Vita’s androgyny.
Vita, unlike most women who would rather be men (let alone men who would rather be women), had good reason to be discontented: had she not been a girl she would have inherited Knole. The house, given to Thomas Sackville by his cousin Elizabeth I, was, in its way, quite magnificent, with 52 staircases and one bedroom for each day of the year; seen from across the park, as Vita put it, it seemed ‘less a house than a medieval village’ (wandering into the Great Hall one day, she came face to face with a stag sheltering from the cold). Virginia Woolf didn’t think much of it (‘too little conscious beauty for my taste’), but for Vita it was the most fierce, and most lasting, of her many attachments. ‘I cannot bear to think of Knole wounded and me not there to be wounded with it,’ she told Harold Nicolson when she heard that the house had been hit by a bomb. It wasn’t simply that she thought she and Knole were the same thing, though she often did. The house also provided her with visions of herself extending back over hundreds of years. Mrs Glendinning makes the point that ‘she never wrote a fictional version’ of its loss: ‘Vita’s heroes are always in possession of their ancestral homes’ – but one could also make the point that her heroes always have ancestral homes to be in possession of.
Vita didn’t altogether dislike being a woman and wasn’t wholly a lesbian. ‘I don’t object to homosexuality,’ she said to Harold Nicolson several years after the end of her affair with Violet and at the beginning of her relationship with Virginia Woolf. She was talking about her cousin Eddy but it may leave one wondering what subtle category she had in mind for her own and her husband’s behaviour. As a young girl she had two relationships of the kind Mrs Glendinning calls ‘exciting’, one with Rosamund Grosvenor (‘what a funny thing it is to love a person as I love Roddie’), the other with Violet Keppel. By the time of her engagement to Harold Nicolson, in 1913, when she was 21, there were four or five women telling her that they loved her – ‘de tout mon coeur – and more every day, if that is possible’. It’s true that there were also young men, some described here as ‘unsuitable’ and some as ‘brilliant’, who seemed to want to marry her and whom she teased but kept at arm’s length. ‘Men did not attract me in what is called “that way”,’ she wrote in her ‘Autobiography of 1920’, first published in 1973 as part of Nigel Nicolson’s Portrait of a Marriage. ‘Women did. Rosamund did ...’ ‘She and Rosamund,’ Mrs Glendinning explains, ‘shared a diffuse and sentimental sensuality, but never, then or later, did they technically “make love”.’ Apparently, ‘they did not think of it,’ but that kind of thing is hard to ascertain.
‘What fun,’ was Vita’s comment on meeting Harold Nicolson. In the three years between their meeting and their marriage she spent a lot of time worrying whether she wouldn’t have more fun with someone else, with Rosamund or Lord Lascelles, or ‘in a tower with my books’. Mrs Glendinning, always mindful of the possibility that readers may find Vita ‘unlikeable’ – she has some difficulty later on with her snobbery and her anti-semitism – at this point nods wisely and remarks, ‘There is nothing peculiar to the modern mind about a vivid, clever, attractive, complex girl of 20 being unwilling to tie herself down for life,’ the implication being that if it isn’t peculiar now it must have been peculiar then. One could wish that Mrs Glendinning had said more about the context in which Vita led her wayward life. ‘Physical fidelity,’ she tells us à propos of Vita’s parents, ‘wasn’t greatly valued in the marriages of the British upper classes,’ but that doesn’t quite cover all of Vita’s behaviour. In 1960, when they had already been married 47 years, Vita told Harold in a letter that everything that happened when they were young had been ‘partly your fault’:
I was very young and very innocent. I knew nothing about homosexuality. I didn’t even know that such a thing existed – either between men or between women. You should have told me. You should have warned me. You should have told me about yourself, and have warned me that the same sort of thing was likely to happen to myself. It would have saved us a lot of trouble and misunderstanding.
She added for good measure that he wouldn’t even now like her letter: ‘you never like to face facts.’ But in her 1920 autobiography she knew enough to say that at the time she hadn’t thought it wrong that ‘I should be more or less engaged to Harold, and so much in love with Rosamund.’ And what about the many affairs she had in middle age – with Hilda Matheson and Evelyn Irons and Olive Rinder and any number of other women (‘she falls in love with every pretty woman, just like a man,’ Virginia Woolf told Ottoline Morrell)? As for Harold’s homosexual friendships with young men, it seems he simply took them for granted. To Harold, as his son observed in Portrait of a Marriage, ‘sex was as incidental, and about as pleasurable, as a quick visit to a picture-gallery between trains.’ Another thing the British upper classes didn’t greatly value was the old idea of taking their secrets with them to the grave.
‘In her awakening womanhood she desired nothing but that she might yield to him the most abased subjection.’ Coming from Vita the remark, made in an unpublished novel written at the time of her marriage, may seem a little overstated but no more so than many things she said of herself, especially in her fiction. She conceded that with Harold she ‘never knew the physical passion I had felt for Rosamund’, and was later to complain to her mother of his lack of sexual enthusiasm. (Her mother reported – poor man – that ‘H. is always sleepy and has her in a desperate hurry.’) On the other hand, he was, she said, ‘like a sunny harbour to me’. In the 1920 autobiography she wrote that ‘for sheer joy of companionship’ the first years of her marriage were ‘unparalleled or at least unsurpassed’, and in 1915 noted in her diary that ‘we are more in love than ever. I thank God I have known absolute happiness.’ A friend was proudly cited who had told her that ‘the doors of our house are like glimpses of paradise.’ Until late middle age Vita was either extremely happy or extremely miserable, or both at the same time.
The period of absolute happiness with Harold came to an end in the autumn of 1917 when he caught a venereal infection from one of his young men. Vita was not so much wounded as unleashed, and the long-drawn-out affair with Violet was the consequence. ‘I suppose I am too cultured and fin de siècle to impose my virility,’ Harold sighed, while she told him that she longed for ‘new places’ and had had enough of ordering lunch. On 10 February 1920 the two women eloped.
We will lead you such a dance
If in Belgium or in France,
But we aren’t going to trifle very long,
Vita wrote on the train from Boulogne to Amiens. On 14 February Harold and Denys Trefusis flew to Amiens in a two-seater aeroplane and reclaimed their respective wives. (‘Quite like a sensational novel,’ Lady Sackville noted in her diary.) The relationship didn’t really end until some time in 1922. Wild oats are all very well, Vita wrote to Harold, but not ‘when they grow as high as a jungle’.
Nigel Nicolson was three the year his mother eloped. Vita didn’t take much interest in her children until they were grown up and then took too much. ‘They rush after me whenever they see me, simply because they have nothing else to do,’ she complained to Harold when the boys were home from prep school or Eton. And when he reminded her that responsibilities were not something ‘to regard with shame’, she asked him how he would like to have entire charge of two children for four months of the year:
Supposing that someone – say Eddy – told you that he had to look after two boys and that it was too much of a good thing, you would instantly agree. It would never cross your mind to say he was being unreasonable. Why then is it different for me? Sex, I suppose. Well, I don’t see that it makes any difference, so there.
So there. Looking after her children came under the general heading of ‘Acid X’ – something she didn’t want to do but Harold (or the world) said she ought to. What concerned her mostly when she thought about them at all was whether she preferred Ben to Nigel or Nigel to Ben and which of the two was more like her.
One might have expected Nigel Nicolson to hold all this against his mother. One might have expected it were it not for the habit that leads the upper classes to celebrate their own and each other’s bad behaviour. If Vita was cruel, he says of the episode with Violet, ‘it was cruelty on a heroic scale.’ Had the fault been more modest would it have been less admirable? Mrs Glendinning, untroubled by these distinctions, speaks of Vita’s ‘potential for criminal carelessness’. That, too, seems dramatic but certainly Vita came and went at her own terrible pleasure. Some years later she had an affair with the art historian Geoffrey Scott. Of this incident Nigel Nicolson writes: ‘Vita had not been kind to Geoffrey – she had smashed his life and finally wrecked his marriage – but what part does kindness play in love?’ No doubt the question doesn’t expect an answer but even Vita could on occasion express unease about what she saw as the ‘savage’ side of her character, though she was more afraid for herself than worried about the damage done to others.
The affair with Violet was followed by the much more sober affair with Virginia Woolf. ‘Florid, moustached, parakeet coloured, with all the supple ease of the aristocracy but none of the wit of the artist’, Virginia Woolf noted in her diary for 15 December 1922. She had met Vita for the first time the previous evening. The Nicolsons were introduced into Bloomsbury by Clive Bell and generally considered a bad thing: ‘I mean,’ wrote Mrs Woolf, ‘we judged them both incurably stupid. He is bluff, but oh so obvious; she, Duncan thought, took the cue from him and had nothing free to say.’ Virginia never changed her mind about Vita’s intellectual capacities. Even when she and Leonard were making considerable sums of money out of Vita’s books – The Edwardians sold 800 copies a day – she would praise them to Vita’s face and describe them behind her back as ‘those sleepwalking servantgirl novels’. ‘Her real claim to consideration,’ she told Jacques Raverat, ‘is, if I may be so coarse, her legs.’ Harold warned his wife to be careful – ‘it’s like smoking over a petrol tank’ – and this time, more admiring, less engaged, she was: ‘I have gone to bed with her (twice) but that’s all.’ ‘Do you really like going to bed with women,’ Vanessa Bell asked her sister in a loud voice as they were buying some pills in a chemist’s shop. ‘And how d’you do it?’ That is one thing Mrs Glendinning alas doesn’t tell us. The two ladies went to the zoo together, they ate muffins in teashops, Vita taught Virginia how to drive and when passion faded they remained friends. Vita took up with Hilda Matheson and Virginia was consoled by Ethel Smyth.
After Hilda came Evelyn and Olive and Mary Campbell and all sorts of others; some were established lesbians with jealous partners, others, like Mary Campbell, had jealous husbands; several had never slept with a woman before. And so it went on, despite age and arthritis, till her death in 1962.
During all this time she and Harold never stopped being friends, never stopped saying (or Vita never stopped saying) that they loved each other more than any two people in the world: her love for him, she told him in 1929, was ‘immortal’. ‘All the gentleness and femininity in me,’ she wrote in her autobiography, ‘was called out by Harold alone.’ But she was not so wifely (or even, to be broad-minded, husbandly) as to show an interest in what he was doing. When the Foreign Office posted him to the Embassy in Berlin she paid him a brief visit and came home. When he was invited to join the British delegation at the League of Nations she didn’t know what the League of Nations was. He would ask her to accompany him to Buckingham Palace: she wouldn’t go – ‘I shall just have to lie low, and you will have to lie high if anyone asks where I am.’ If she spent any time thinking about what he did it was only in her unrelenting effort to persuade him to give it up. ‘People like you who can write marvellously should not waste themselves in a lot of humbug and fubsiness.’ By ‘humbug and fubsiness’ she apparently meant the preliminaries to the Second World War. When eventually he left the Foreign Office he was miserable. (So miserable that he joined Mosley’s New Party. Vita, who disapproved, consoled herself by securing a job for one of her girlfriends’ girlfriends on Mosley’s newspaper.) ‘It would be an overstatement to say that Vita wrecked Harold’s career,’ Nigel Nicolson remarks. But in the overstatement there’s a statement of some kind. ‘I know that there is no such thing as equality between the sexes,’ Harold noted in his diary in 1934, ‘and that women are not fulfilling their proper functions unless subservient to some man.’ In that overstatement, too, there is a statement of some kind.