Mary Sackville-West, BBC, The Hon Lady Nicolson, CH (9 March 1892 – 2 June 1962), best known as Vita Sackville-West, was an English author and poet. Her long narrative poem, The Land, won the Hawthornden Prize in 1927. She won it again, becoming the only writer to do so, in 1933 with her Collected Poems. She helped create her own gardens in Sissinghurst, Kent, which provide the backdrop to Sissinghurst Castle. She was famous for her exuberant aristocratic life, her strong marriage, and her passionate affairs with women, such as novelist Virginia Woolf.
Sackville-West was born at Knole House in Sevenoaks Kent, and her first love affair was with this venerable and huge house; because she was a woman, she could not inherit it, and this affected the rest of her life. She was the daughter of Lionel Edward Sackville-West, 3rd Baron Sackville and his wife Victoria Sackville-West. Christened "Victoria Mary Sackville-West", she was known as "Vita" throughout her life. She was a descendant of Thomas Sackville, contributor to Gorboduc and Mirror for Magistrates. Her portrait was painted by Philip de Laszlo in 1910.
Personal life, marriage and bisexuality
In 1913, Sackville-West married Harold Nicolson, and they moved to Cospoli, Constantinople. Nicolson was at different times a diplomat, journalist, broadcaster, Member of Parliament, author of biographies and novels, and, crucially, a fellow bisexual in what would now be called an open marriage. Both Sackville-West and her husband had several consecutive same-sex relations outside their marriage, as was common among the Bloomsbury Group of writers and artists with which they had some association. These were no impediment to a true closeness between Sackville-West and Nicolson, as is seen from their nearly daily correspondence (published after their deaths by their son Nigel), and from an interview they gave for BBC radio after World War II. They were truly devoted to each other, and Nicolson gave up his diplomatic career partly so that he could live with Sackville-West in England, uninterrupted by long solitary postings to missions abroad.
They returned to England in 1914 and bought Long Barn, in Kent; they stayed from 1915 to 1930 and employed their friend the architect Edwin Lutyens to help design a small parterre. The couple had two children: Nigel, also a politician and writer, and Benedict, an art historian. In the 1930s, the family acquired and moved to Sissinghurst Castle, near Cranbrook, in the rural depths of Kent, the county known as the garden of England. There they created the renowned gardens that are now run by the National Trust.
Vita and Rosamund Grosvenor
Vita's first real friend was Rosamund Grosvenor, who was four years older than she. Vita met Rosamund at Miss Woolf's school in 1899; Rosamund had been invited to cheer Vita up while her father was fighting in the Boer war. Rosamund and Vita later shared a governess for their morning lessons. Vita fell in love with Rosamund, whom she called 'Roddie' or 'Rose'. Their secret relationship ended when Vita was married in 1913.
Lady Sackville invited Rosamund to visit the family at their villa in Monte Carlo; she also stayed with Vita at Knole, at Rue Lafilte and at Sluie. During the Monte Carlo visit Vita wrote in her diary " I love her so much ". When Rosamund left, Vita wrote "Strange how little I minded, she has no personality, that's why ."
Relationship with Violet Trefusis
The same-sex relationship that had the deepest and most lasting effect on Sackville-West's personal life was with novelist Violet Trefusis, daughter to courtesan Alice Keppel. They met when Sackville-West was age twelve and Trefusis ten, and attended school together for a number of years. A relationship started while both were in their teens. Both married, but by the time both of Sackville-West's sons were no longer toddlers, she and Trefusis had eloped several times from 1918 on, mostly to France, where Sackville-West would dress as a young man when they went out. The affair eventually ended badly, with Trefusis pursuing Sackville-West to great lengths until Sackville-West's affairs with other women finally took their toll.
Also, the two women had made a bond to remain exclusive to one another, meaning that although both women were married, neither could engage in sexual relations with her own husband. Sackville-West received allegations that Trefusis had been involved sexually with her own husband, indicating she had broken their bond, prompting her to end the affair. By all accounts, Sackville-West was by that time looking for a reason, and used that as justification. Despite the poor ending, the two women were devoted to one another, and deeply in love, and continued occasional liaisons for a number of years afterward, but never rekindled the affair.
Vita's novel Challenge also bears witness to this affair: Sackville-West and Trefusis had started writing this book as a collaborative endeavour, the male character's name, Julian, being Sackville-West's nickname while passing as a man. Her mother, Lady Sackville, found the portrayal obvious enough to insist the novel not be published in England; her son Nigel (1973, p. 194), however, praises her: "She fought for the right to love, men and women, rejecting the conventions that marriage demands exclusive love, and that women should love only men, and men only women. For this she was prepared to give up everything… How could she regret that the knowledge of it should now reach the ears of a new generation, one so infinitely more compassionate than her own?"
Affair with Virginia Woolf
The affair for which Sackville-West is most remembered was with the prominent writer Virginia Woolf in the late 1920s. Woolf wrote one of her most famous novels, Orlando, described by Sackville-West's son Nigel Nicolson as "the longest and most charming love-letter in literature", as a result of this affair. Unusually, the moment of the conception of Orlando was documented: Woolf writes in her diary on 5 October 1927: "And instantly the usual exciting devices enter my mind: a biography beginning in the year 1500 and continuing to the present day, called Orlando: Vita; only with a change about from one sex to the other" (posthumous excerpt from her diary by husband Leonard Woolf).
Vita Sackville-West also had a passionate affair with Hilda Matheson, head of the BBC Talks Department. "Stoker" was the pet name given to Hilda by Sackville-West, during their brief affair between 1929 and 1931.
In 1931 Sackville-West became involved in an affair with journalist Evelyn Irons, who had interviewed her after The Edwardians became a bestseller.
She was also involved with her sister-in-law Gwen St. Aubyn, Mary Garman and others not listed here.
Well known writings
The Edwardians (1930) and All Passion Spent (1931) are perhaps her best known novels today. In the latter, the elderly Lady Slane courageously embraces a long suppressed sense of freedom and whimsy after a lifetime of convention. This novel was faithfully dramatized by the BBC in 1986 starring Dame Wendy Hiller.
Sackville-West's science-fantasy Grand Canyon (1942) is a "cautionary tale" (as she termed it) about a Nazi invasion of an unprepared United States. The book takes an unsuspected twist, however, that makes it something more than a typical invasion yarn.
In 1946 Sackville-West was made a Companion of Honour for her services to literature. The following year she began a weekly column in The Observer called "In your Garden". In 1948 she became a founder member of the National Trust's garden committee.
She is less well known as a biographer, and the most famous of those works is her biography of Saint Joan of Arc in the work of the same name. Additionally, she composed a dual biography of Saint Teresa of Ávila and Therese of Lisieux entitled The Eagle and the Dove, a biography of the author Aphra Behn, and a biography of her own grandmother, entitled Pepita.