A Tale of Three Novels

Michael Holroyd

Violet Trefusis was born on 6 June 1894, the elder daughter of Alice Keppel, a famously discreet mistress of the future Edward VII. ‘I wonder if I shall ever squeeze as much romance into my life as she has had in hers,’ Violet wrote in the summer of 1918 to Vita Sackville-West. She had begun to squeeze a very indiscreet romance with Vita into her own life. The girls’ passion for each other was to be the subject of an early novel by Sackville-West called Challenge and secretly dedicated to Violet in Romany which in translation reads:

This book is yours, my witch. Read it and you will find your tormented soul, changed, and free.

Challenge, in the words of Vita’s mother, Lady Sackville, is ‘a brilliantly dull’ book which comes momentarily alive in the descriptions of Eve, the character based on Violet. We hear the dark drowsy tone of her voice, see her tempting red mouth and strange shadowy eyes, deep-set and slanting upwards, alive with mockery but at times inexpressibly sad. Spoilt, childlike in many ways, Eve seems destined not to be changed and free but, as Sackville-West writes, to grow ‘into a woman of exceptional attraction’, and for such women, she adds, ‘existence is packed with danger.’

Trefusis added what Vita described as ‘much excellent copy’ to Challenge, particularly in trying to bring the Byronic hero, Julian, more romantically alive on the page. Julian is distantly modelled on Sir Philip Sidney but is based more immediately on Vita’s ideal version of herself. Violet suggested a detailed description of Julian’s appearance. ‘“Julian was tall,” let us say and “flawlessly proportioned”,’ she wrote to Vita on 5 June 1918:

Julian’s hair was black and silky. Eve found herself wondering what it would feel like to stroke, and promptly did so; she was amazed to feel a sensation akin to pain shoot up her fingers and lodge itself definitely in the region of her heart … she was determined to analyse Julian’s beauty, feature by feature … Eve studied the recumbent figure … she hated herself for finding him beautiful, for beautiful he undoubtedly was. How resentfully she probed those heavy-lidded eyes, green in repose, black in anger … Then, abruptly, her gaze fastened itself on his mouth. She was conscious of a slight tremor … it was a sensual mouth, and its sensuality was enhanced, not diminished, by the strongly moulded chin.

‘How will that do?’ Violet asked at the end of the letter. It would do rather better in one of Vita’s bestselling novels than in Violet’s own fiction, written in what Lorna Sage called her ‘sardonically lightweight, accomplished and comic’ style. In her memoirs, published in 1952, Violet presented Vita as an uncompromisingly English figure: gauche, perpendicular, stolid, unsuitably dressed in her mother’s old clothes. It was her mother who was primarily at fault for this unaesthetic spectacle. Nevertheless ‘Vita is romantic,’ Violet acknowledged. And, as if in a fairy story, she transformed her into something just short of a romantic caricature. ‘Vita had turned into a beauty. The knobs and knuckles had disappeared. She was tall and graceful. The profound, hereditary Sackville eyes were as pools from which the morning mist had lifted.’

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