“I worshipped dead men for their strength, forgetting I was strong.”
– Vita Sackville-West
The Bloomsbury Group of 20th century England was made up of a collection of ragtag queer artists who wanted to break the mold of Victorian society. Among their number were Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forester, T.S. Eliot, Vanessa Bell, and Vita Sackville-West. Vita applied the modernist ideas of the Bloomsbury Group not only to her writing but her life.
She created an identity and a legacy for herself when the Sackville-West legacy was denied to her, building herself up out of the remnants of history. She was bold, open-minded, prolific, and confident, but we must acknowledge that it was her privilege that allowed her many of the opportunities in her life. It is this sense of self that struck me most, and what drew me to her, as so many others had been drawn before. Vita’s life is best explored when bookended by her two homes: Knole House and Sissinghurst.
Vita was born into Knole House. She was born in 1892 to Victoria Sackville-West, the illegitimate daughter of the owner of Knole, Lionel Sackville-West. This illegitimacy would eventually drive both Vita and her mother from Knole and, despite her mother’s victory in the court case to seize Knole, Vita would never return to her childhood home. On the one hand, Knole is described as “heaped with no attempt at symmetry; it is somber and frowning; the grey towers rise; the battlements cut out their square regularity against the sky.” On the other, the gardens at Knole—famous for their vibrancy—are described as “the gay, princely side, with flowers in the foreground…it has all the quality of peace and permanence; of mellow age; of stateliness and tradition." It was between these two dichotomies—the structure and gay beauty—that Vita grew up. This should suggest a sort of imbalance, but instead, makes sense of Vita’s inclination to break the mold of her era. When presented with the Victorian, the “somber” and “frowning” in contrast to the “gay” and “princely,” it makes sense that Vita would want to see one rise above the other.
This desire was reflected most obviously in Vita’s rejection of traditional relationships. While her exact sexuality is unclear, it can be said that Vita was either bisexual or pansexual. She took many lovers over the course of her life, both male and female, and she loved them all with a fierceness that was essential to her identity.
Violet Keppel was not the first woman that Vita courted; that honor goes to Rosamund Grosvenor. Violet was, however, Vita’s first experience with the violence of passionate romance. Their whirlwind romance went on for years, even after Vita was married to Harold Nicolson. Violet was naturally distressed by Vita’s marriage and by the seeming ‘taming’ of Vita that occurred post-marriage. In reality, Vita genuinely loved Harold but understood that her husband was gay. She was simply enjoying a level-headed relationship and a drawn-out honeymoon. For Violet, however, this peace was inexcusable. Here is an excerpt from a letter she wrote to Vita, willing her lover to come back to her:
“I will show you treason, infamy, women without scruple, without shame. I will show you madness, Vita (madness, do you hear?), which cracks from the fingers of a woman who saw her husband disembowelled last Sunday in the bull-ring!”
This passage seems to define the relationship between Violet and Vita: it was unconventional and bombastic; wrought with passion. Their passion for one another grew to the point where Vita and Violet agreed to leave their respective husbands and elope in France. This effort was stopped, and their relationship came to an end in every way.
Here, then, enters Harold Nicolson. This is not a storybook, and Harold Nicolson is not a villain. There is strong evidence that Vita loved him dearly, albeit platonically rather than romantically. Their marriage was one of convenience, and each of them knew of the other’s dalliances with various romantic partners.
Why, then, commit to marriage at all? First, let’s look at a passage from the book A Portrait of Marriage written by Vita and Harold’s son, Nigel.
Vita, in a diary entry included in the book, states that: “[Harold] was as gay and clever as ever, and I loved his brain and his youth and was flattered at his liking for me…I wasn’t in love with him then…But I did like him better than anyone, as a companion and playfellow, and for his brain and his delicious disposition. I’d hoped that he’d propose to me….”
Nigel goes on to talk about the security of his parents’ marriage, and how the almost-elopement with Violet was the only true scruple the two had over the course of fifty-five years. The scruple was not maliciously intended, either. Harold went after Vita to “protect her reputation,” not to control her. He understood his wife’s passions, and he supported them, both before this elopement and after. The elopement allowed Vita and Harold to sit down and talk about how they were going to work as partners in a non-monogamous marriage.
These kind of marriages were not uncommon, but the development of a sort of polyamorous identity is important to recognize. Harold and Vita approached their partner’s romances with open minds; it is lucky, one may say, that they found such compassion and love in one another as to allow an equally open relationship.
It was Harold, in fact, who would later encourage Vita’s relationship with on Virginia Woolf. Virginia deserves her own article, but in short, Virginia Woolf was disinclined to partake in physical, sexual relationships. She was, however, the one who “seduced” Vita. Their meeting was wrought with romantic tension, and while neither woman immediately liked the other, neither could deny the magnetism that existed between them. It was Virginia who made it clear to Vita that she wanted a romantic partnership. Vita, in a letter to Harold, had previously stated the following:
“I am scared to death of arousing physical feelings in [Virginia], because of the madness.”
“The madness” was the 20th century understanding of Virginia’s mental illness. This statement, however, shows the breadth of Vita’s compassion in her relationships. While she also states that “[loving[ Virginia is a very different thing: a mental thing; a spiritual thing…And intellectual thing” and is all around obvious in her great affection for the other woman, she respects Virginia’s boundaries and never pushes the other woman beyond tender cuddling. Comparing this relationship to Vita’s romance with Violet does well to show the spectrum of Vita’s love.
Furthermore, Vita’s romantic relationship with Virginia inspired one of the first texts with a genderfluid lead. Virginia Woolf wrote her novel Orlando with Vita in mind; the main character switches from male to female pronouns mid-novel and can reclaim the home she was once driven from—a story that Vita, imaginably, would have liked to have made true.
But Vita existed outside of her romantic relationships, as well. She was a prolific writer and won several awards over the course of her life, including the Hawthornden Prize for Imaginative Literature. She wrote nonfiction accounts of the life of her grandmother, books about gardening and her home of Knole. She wrote critical fiction like The Edwardians, in which explored the privilege of aristocratic society, and All Passion Spent, which explored feminist ideology and female agency. Though she never claimed to be a feminist, All Passion Spent exhibits great belief in the power of the female. She also wrote a science fiction novel entitled The Grand Canyon, wherein the Nazis attacked the unprepared United States and brought about a dystopian future.
Not only was her romantic spectrum broad, then, but so was Vita in her entirety. Her breadth of literature displays as much. All of this work and all of her relationships took place after Vita left Knole House – left behind the legacy of the Sackville-Wests that her family claimed she was undeserving of. It is after much of this work, however, that Vita went forth and undertook what I like to refer to as ‘the storming of Sissinghurst.'
Sissinghurst was a large house distantly connected to the Sackville-Wests. When Vita and Harold bought it in 1930, their son Nigel says that “Sissinghurst appeared to my eyes (age thirteen) quite impossible. It was the battered relic of an Elizabethan house in which not a single room was habitable. The future garden was a rubbish dump”. Despite this, Sissinghurst was given to the National Trust in 1967 and is now known for its splendid, vast gardens, and for its beautiful interior. This, I believe, shows just what strength Vita possessed and represented her ability to transform and create her legacy. When abandoned by her family, she was able to step out on her own. She discovered her sexual identity, and she owned it; her marriage was an example of peaceful, respectful polyamory; her literature was limited by no boundary and explored everything and anything that caught her interest.
Vita died at age seventy, having lived a full and passionate life. She did such work in building herself up as a person and understanding her worth over the course of those seventy years that I can’t help but see her as a role model. While she was incredibly privileged, her ability to create herself is an example of what confidence in one’s queerness can bring to one’s sense of self. Vita created her own home, her own family, and her own rules; she refused to let herself be anything less than the person that she was.
[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]
DeSalvo, L. (1993). “Tinder-And-Flint”: Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West. In Whitney Chadwick and Isabelle de Courtivron (Ed.), Significant Others: Creativity and Intimate Partnership. London: Thames and Hudson.
Nicolson, N. (1992). Portrait of a Marriage. London: Orion House.
Sackville-West, V. (1922). Knole and the Sackvilles. London: William Heinemann.
The history of Sissinghurst Castle Garden. (2016). National Trust. Retrieved from https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/sissinghurst-castle/features/the-history-of-sissinghurst-castle
Vita Sackville-West and Knole. (2012, November 2). National Trust. Retrieved from https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/knole/features/vita-sackville-west-and-knole