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.’

Challenge was published in the United States in 1923 but, because of the notoriety of Vita and Violet’s love affair, it wasn’t published in Britain for another 50 years, by which time both women were dead. It was the formidable Lady Sackville who insisted that the proofs be pulped and publication abandoned. ‘I hope Mama is pleased,’ Vita wrote in 1920. ‘She has beaten me.’ But Violet, who felt she was almost the co-author and certainly the inspiration for Challenge, was devastated, describing the decision as ‘unfair’, ‘absurd’, ‘useless’ and ‘disloyal to me’. This unhappiness was a foretaste of the despair she would feel at the end of their affair more than a year later. She blamed Vita’s mother for much of this and would retaliate in her memoirs by reversing the transformation she had performed on Vita, this time turning beauty into something comic and preposterous.

In her too fleshy face, classical features sought to escape from the encroaching fat. An admirable mouth, of a pure and cruel design, held good. It was obvious that she had been beautiful. Her voluminous, ambiguous body was upholstered, rather than dressed, in what appeared to be an assortment of patterns, lace, brocades, velvets, taffetas. Shopping lists were pinned to her bosom.

Virginia Woolf read the American edition of Challenge in the mid-1920s when she began writing Orlando, described by Sackville-West’s son Nigel Nicolson as ‘the longest and most charming love letter in literature’. Orlando is a love letter to his mother, the eponymous figure who is magically transformed over four centuries from a handsome male aristocrat into a modern woman closely resembling Vita herself – to whom this fictional ‘biography’ is dedicated. But the first and most lyrical chapter gives Woolf’s vision of the intense relationship between Vita and Violet, who makes her appearance as an exotic Russian princess, Marousha Stanilovska Dagmar Natasha lliana Romanovitch – known as Sasha:

Hot with skating and with love they would throw themselves down in some solitary reach, where the yellow osiers fringed the bank, and wrapped in a great fur cloak Orlando would take her in his arms, and know, for the first time, he murmured, the delights of love… She [Sasha] was like a fox, or an olive tree; like the waves of the sea when you look down upon them from a height; like an emerald; like the sun on a green hill which is yet clouded – like nothing he had seen or known in England.

Since the end of her relationship with Vita in the early 1920s, Violet had been living in France, slowly and painfully teaching herself to write. Alice Keppel, as powerful a figure in her fashion as Lady Sackville, had insisted that Violet live in exile and that she marry Denis Trefusis, a decorated war hero who knew nothing of lesbianism and found himself in a mariage blanc. ‘I could compare him to many things,’ Vita said later, ‘to a racehorse, to a Crusader, to a greyhound, to an ascetic in search of the Holy Grail … a tragic person.’ He was also an idealist, a sensitive, brave and prodigal man, with whom, under different circumstances, Vita herself might well have enjoyed a brief affair – a man rather like Julian in Challenge. But because he was married to Violet, Vita felt 0nly hatred for him and this hatred ‘was the most violent feeling I have ever experienced’.

Denis Trefusis died at the age of 39 in September 1929. Shortly afterwards Violet published her first novel, Sortie de secours. This and her second book, a memorable novella called Echo, were written in French and, possibly because both had autobiographical subtexts recalling her passion for Vita, neither was translated into English during her lifetime (Alice Keppel, with whom Violet was now on good terms, didn’t speak French). In the early 1930s, after reading Orlando, Violet wrote her third novel, Tandem, in English, dedicated it to her mother, and asked Woolf to publish it at the Hogarth Press.

There isn’t an account of their meeting in Woolf’s diary but she wrote excitedly to Vita Sackville-West: ‘I quite see now why you were so enamoured … what seduction! What a voice – lisping, faltering, what warmth, suppleness … like a squirrel among buck hares – a red squirrel among brown nuts.’ Later, when her attachment to Vita was long over, Virginia confided to the composer Ethel Smyth that she ‘didn’t take to Trefusis’. What precisely she didn’t take to was Tandem, a novel that strays haphazardly into the future. Despite many witty passages, it is not one of her better novels, its style, as Graham Greene observed, being ‘rather consciously spangled with felicities’ (it was published in Britain by William Heinemann).

The Hogarth Press’s refusal of Tandem became a stimulus for Violet’s next novel, Broderie anglaise, which she wrote in French. As Orlando had evolved from Challenge, so Broderie anglaise found its origins in Orlando. It is a subtle and imaginative novel, a variant history that in part acts as literary criticism (of the sort Fielding wrote of Richardson’s Pamela). It plays no outrageous tricks with time, though there are tremors from the past that disturb the present. It is the book of an exile, a reject from Britain, and is dedicated to no one.

Alexa Harrowby Quince, Violet’s version of Virginia Woolf, is a bluestocking, angular, narrow, contemplative and well known for her culinary incompetence. She has an elderly neck, thin scanty hair and generally lacks colour. She seems socially inept and, being devoid of femininity, is sexually apprehensive. But she has a youthful eye and beautiful hands, and her strange whimsical writings have made her one of the most distinguished women in England.

There was not one detail of her person that was not famous, from her nostalgic hats, medieval hands and timid expression to her little handbag that always ended up looking like a half-plucked chicken. The vagueness, or, rather, the limpness, of her clothes lent her movements the undulation of a sea-anemone. She was fluid and elusive; a piece of water-weed, a puff of smoke.

Woolf’s Sasha, the enchanting Russian princess, is described in Broderie anglaise as a ‘brilliant, volatile, artificial creature, predictably unpredictable, a historical character’. In short, she is a mythical being to whom Woolf has given a simulacrum of life on the page. Maybe, Violet speculated, this was the sort of extravagantly romantic and fateful character Alexa (Virginia) wished to be herself. She already knew her ‘as if she created her – every feature, every tone of voice’. But she was ‘sometimes afraid truth might hamper her imagination, which used to get on so well on its own’. In other words, to use Woolf’s own terms, there was too much rainbow and not enough granite in her being.

The missing granite is provided by Anne Lindell, Violet’s self-portrait in Broderie anglaise, no longer a character cloaked in legend like Sasha, a mirage disappearing into the distance. Far from being a ravishingly beautiful woman, she ‘wasn’t even pretty’. ‘Her features were irregular; her nose turned up, her mouth was too big and her lips were too thick.’ She speaks, however, in ‘a voice that was soft, full of hidden depths, crepuscular’, which made her seem mysterious as well as candid, impulsive and curiously rational. ‘She was a disciplined romantic.’

The meeting between Alexa and Anne is the pivotal scene in the novel. Both women have been, indeed still are in love with the same man. They meet apparently as rivals but come away as colleagues. Or do they? Initially an elemental spirit from a magical world, Anne becomes ‘the mouthpiece of the necessary, the apotheosis of the ordinary’ – two everyday qualities that, representing the granite of a factual world, were missing from Orlando. Alexa gains fresh confidence in her femininity from their encounter; and Anne gathers new hope for her career as a novelist. That is the hopeful conclusion.

The male character in this triple drama, representing Sackville-West, is Lord Shorne, a disdainful and self-assured Prince Charming ‘with a hereditary face which had come, eternally bored, through five centuries’ of one of his country’s most illustrious families. Early in the story he explains to Alexa that ‘people only love those they’re never sure of.’ By the end of this ingenious novel, he himself is sure of nothing. He is a taciturn young man with a languid grace, heavy dark eyelids and prominent lips – a sombre beauty with ‘latent fire which turned this picture of idleness into a figure of rhetoric’. Both Anne and Alexa love him because they believe they can ignite that latent fire, give content to his rhetoric and rescue him from himself – as well as from his mother. The good John Shorne, we are told, ‘was his father’s son; the bad John was the son of his mother.’

And so we come again to Lady Sackville. The description of her in Broderie anglaise is very close, in places identical, to Violet’s portrayal almost 20 years later in her memoirs. Lord Shorne’s mother is ‘a stout lady of about 50, whose plump face bore the trace of beauty now in decline. Among features fast disappearing amid the encircling flesh, an admirable mouth stood out, finely etched and cruel.’ The analysis of her character is even more devastating. ‘There was something not quite right about this great lady,’ Violet writes. She is ridiculous when seen ‘clad in a dirty old flannel dressing-gown [and] covered in jewels from head to foot’. But she is also monstrous; ‘a big spider in the middle of her web’, she hangs menacingly over the plot, terrifying her son and frustrating both Anne and Alexa. She doesn’t love her son. She has an antique dealer’s heart with space for only one love: Otterways, the great house she has inherited from her husband and the ownership of which will pass to her son when he marries. So she will not let him marry.

This is Violet’s take on Lady Sackville’s power over Vita and her attachment to Knole, the Sackvilles’ extraordinary maze of a house with its towers, battlements, courtyards, gables and galleries. The habit of giving priority to things and the ownership of things over the needs of human beings is a moral fault often explored in Trefusis’s novels and identified by her as the heart of English snobbery. Lady Shorne’s ‘exclusive and fanatical nature, hungry for a “mission”, embraced the cause of Otterways with a fervour which in earlier times would have been directed towards religion and heavenly rewards’, she writes.

The ramifications of Vita’s passionate affair with Violet became well known following the publication of Portrait of a Marriage in 1973, when both women were dead (Violet had died the previous year). In this dual autobiography, as Diana Souhami has pointed out, Nigel Nicolson converted his mother’s vivid and still unpublished description of her liaison with Violet into a defence of her marriage to his father, Harold Nicolson. Some 12 years later, in the mid-1980s, Broderie anglaise was translated into English and brought out in America and Britain. The novel had lost none of its subtlety and eloquence since its original publication in France in 1935.

The story of these three women gives animation to a few pages of Challenge, but though Orlando and Broderie anglaise may be enriched by their autobiographical subtext they don’t depend on it for their continuing lives. Both books, one a brilliant and original fantasy, the other a sophisticated and percipient comedy, gain a new layer of interest from the other.