At Sissinghurst Gardens last summer in Kent, I fell under the spell of Vita Sackville-West. This week, in
my wandering restlessness, I picked up the Selected Works I bought at the gardens, and read her letters to Virginia Wolfe while she was traveling to the East, notably Tehran (about which she writes, "Persia as turned magenta and purple: avenues of judas-trees, groves of lilac, torrents of wisteria, acres of peach blossom…."). I fell in love, all over again. Here is another snippet from those letters:
The Indian ocean is grey, not blue; a thick, opaque grey. Cigarettes are almost too damp to light….One’s bath, of sea-water, is full of phosphorous: blue sparks that one can catch in one’s hand. The water pours from the tap in a sheet of blue flame…
…by the time I come home I shall have written a book, which I hope will purge me of my travel congestion, even if it serves no other purpose. The moment is released, it will pour from me as the ocean from the bath-tap–but will the blue sparks come with it, or only the blanket-grey of the daytime sea? (By the way, I have discovered since beginning this letter that one can draw pictures on oneself with the phosphorous, it’s like having a bath in glow-worms; one draws pictures with one’s fingers in trails of blue fire, slowly fading.)
I am enchanted by the visual of the bath in phosphorous water, and know well that sense of travel congestion (though I am ready to feel it again–September feels very far away!).
Vita captured me so completely last summer that I wrote an essay upon my return, published as one of my last columns for the NINK Girls in the Basement column. Here it is, because she and her work deserve more attention:
In a way,
I’m relieved. It seems it’s been awhile since some vague snippet fell into the
furrows of my brain and grew into that intent, focused need to know we all as
writers recognize. It feels lovely to be consumed with curious passion, that
hungry leafing, learning, exploring.
Whilst in England recently
(where one says whilst in perfectly ordinary conversation), I had an opportunity
to visit Sissinghurst Gardens. The girls and I are in absolute agreement about
gardens: we adore them. Sissinghurst has been on my list for many years.
Many of you are nodding at this, knowing it well; perhaps it’s a
place you hope to visit yourself, or you’ve already done so. For those who do
not know it, Sissinghurst is renowned even in a country of gardens. It’s in
Kent, which bills itself as the Garden of England, and a crown jewel it is. Set
among the walls and ruins of a 15th century manor house, it was the loving
creation of a husband and wife, two titled and monied Englishfolk, over the
thirties, forties and fifties. It was very close to my hostess’s home, and she
is an avid gardener who visits Sissinghurst often.
So, on an early
June day, we set out, my fellow passionate gardener and I, along with the
amiable Christopher Robin. The weather was absolutely perfect-sunny and clear,
promising to be hot later in the day, and there was a tour bus in the parking
lot, which I worried would mean the place would be too busy. It was not.
The gardens are set on the sprawling ground of the old manor house,
which replaced an older castle. A tower and parts of the wings still stand,
sturdy and livable, but much of the rest of it was in ruins, open plots of
ground into which Vita and her husband Harold planted their extraordinary
gardens. The buildings themselves caught my attention a little more than I had
imagined, but the tower especially. Four stories, stuck like an arrow into the
middle of everything (though of course, it was more that everything had fallen
down around it).
A woman behind me remarked, "Oh, that must be where
I blinked. Wrote what? I wondered, still just this side
of the tumble, as when you have only noticed the dark head of that man in the
party who will one day be your husband. My party and I entered a room that
showed Vita with her dogs. It said she wrote novels. Poems. Essays and travel
pieces. Articles about gardening and dogs. She kept a diary and wrote copious
A little frisson walked up my neck.
In a black and white photo, she stared haughtily down her ever-so-aristocratic
nose. She loved to travel. She loved flowers. She loved dogs. She would
likely have looked down that classist nose at my American accent and working
class world, but there I stood, smitten, knowing the truth of things, that we
were kindred, linked by our common passions and our need to explore them all through
the written word.
Why Vita? Why there when I was touring the
medieval and Georgian worlds I love, when I was journeying to Scotland, which
whispered sweet nothings in my ear in the past (and would do so
I am glad to find that I can still be
swept by a sensation I cannot logically explain to others;
That I am
still capable of an irrational passion,
I who had grown so ordered,
I have established my contact with irrational
That day wandering the gardens, I wanted
to weep over a stand of red poppies as tall as my shoulder, blooming in silky
splendor in the sunshine. I shot a dozen photos of one particular window,
standing in the middle of everything, but it was in the tower where I tumbled,
looking at her desk and the view of the gardens and the wall that said, VITA in
tiles. There, I could sense the spirit of the passionate, prickly, fierce woman
who once lived there, wrote there.
never the writer she wished to be. She lost her family home, a property she
loved to the patriarchal property laws of England. Although she created a
satisfying partnership with a man who loved her all her life, she fell in love
with women, over and over again. She was arrogantly aristocratic and
judgmental. She was difficult and opinionated. There must be easier historical
figures to get a crush on.
But we don’t ask, do we? They simply
arrive, and carry us away. It’s part of the weird makeup of a writer. We just
do this, fall in love with inappropriate people. Fall to minute, particular
writings, and a small novel. She was not a particularly brilliant writer;
certainly she was eclipsed by her most famous lover, Virginia Woolf. Her mind
was sharp and clear and witty, and she was gifted with a certain eye for detail,
and certainly there is passion, but that little something that would have made
her brilliant is missing. We don’t remember her for her writing. We remember
her for the splendiferous gardens she created (which, ironically, have kept her
She knew it, too, I think. Her reach exceeded
her grasp. And yet, writers write. So she wrote. She wrote and wrote and
wrote and wrote. She wrote about everything she loved-her homes and flowers and
the art and science of gardening. She wrote about her travels and wrote letters
back home to share what she’d seen. She wrote about dogs and love and the
society she lived in. She wrote poems and essays. She wrote articles and
diaries and wrote down her dreams.
I find inspiration in that
dailiness, in the simple, stout-heartedness of it.
and artists. They came to New Mexico in the 1910’s and 1920s. Mabel Dodge Luhan
led the charge, one that eventually included Georgia O’Keefe and DH Lawrence,
among others. A wealthy New York socialite, Luhan was restless and driven, and
wandered the world before she arrived in the sleepy, very old village of Taos
nestled in its spectacular setting, and spied a Taos Indian she decided she
would have as her own. (Never mind that he had a wife, and she a husband, never
mind that Lujan is really spelled with a J-her Anglo friends would never
pronounce it correctly, so she changed the spelling.) She was less romantic a
figure than Vita, but I found myself fascinated by Mabel, too. What an
undertaking it was to come to Taos in those days! And what did it take to
eschew the entire established world you’d taken for granted in order to live a
different life, one with an Indian husband, in a tiny Hispanic/Indian community
that only boasted great light?
Because she did undertake the
calling, and because she wanted to be surrounded by the artistic and creative
friends she’d left behind, an entire community developed. (Can you imagine
O’Keefe’s work without the skulls and bones and adobe churches she painted
there?) It was this, the community that emerged on the blue Taos plateau, in a
century still new enough to be unmarked, that captured my passion. What would
it have been like to be one of those artists, I wondered? Leaving everything
behind, all the markers of their privileged lives, the soft toadying, the
luxury, for a place that could be as prickly and difficult as the cactus and the
hard sun? An adventure, surely. A terror, too. Marriages and long partnerships
didn’t survive the move.
Did they do it for art? Not
necessarily, though bigger works of art and literature came out of their
travels, and going to Taos freed the best of Mabel Dodge Luhan, who was only a
middling writer, but a brilliant facilitator of art in all its forms. But they
were simply following their restless hearts where they lead them, and their
lives-and the bodies of work they left behind-were shaped by those choices.
I still feel a whisper of magic if I think of Luhan’s Taos.
Something about her, those times, the work they all did, gave me courage. I
returned, over and over, to Taos, then into Chimayo and further, into Santa Fe,
listening. When I drove the high road with a friend, I wondered what it had
been like to be a woman writer or artist, untethered, on that road in 1920.
With only the art itself to lead you, or rather your service to that art. I
don’t know that I found answers, precisely, but I found courage, and that
amounts to the same thing. Mabel and Georgia and the others heartened me, gave
me the courage to go where the work took me, to serve it, and my life without
trying so hard to make it THIS or THAT. They were women of means and art, and
they strode out bravely, and in that way, they were mentors to the fledgling
Sackville-West was their contemporary. She
even met Luhan (and in her titled British way, was not impressed) on her tour
through America. She, too, was a brave and intriguing, and rather tortured
character, certainly bigger than life with her adventures and love affairs. She
was a very productive writer, a mother and an adventurer, and devoted friend.
She’s a new mentor for a new stage of my life, partly for her
travels and her gardens and even her imperiousness, which I find I quite like.
But it is the dailiness and breadth of her work that so inspires me
at this stage of my life and career. In an age when we’re encouraged to
specialize, brand ourselves, I like discovering a writer who wrote everything,
who shaped her world with these tools we all use. Words. Just words. All those
essays and poems and novels and articles and journals and letters! How utterly,
utterly wonderful, to spend a life writing and writing and writing like
Then at the end of a chapter or trip, to go into the garden
and mull the positioning of roses and poppies, the drape of a vine over a wall;
to admire the water with willow branches floating over the surface, and create
something else entirely. How marvelous! I can’t imagine a more satisfying
combination of legacies. To love a child and lovers and dogs and books and
gardens and travel and do them all, day in and day out, until your time is
A good life, no?
Have you fallen in love with a historical figure or a writer or a found a mentor in a long-dead figure?
11 thoughts on “Vita and her passions”
I have wanted to read the letters from Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Wolfe for a long time now. And now, you have given me that boost. This selection of writings is actually one of the selections on my sapphic readers (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/sapphicreaders/ ) list. Guess I will be making my way to B&N today.
You asked if another writer has caught our attention and I would like to recommend:
Helene Hanff and her letters to Marks and Co. The title is 84 Charing Cross Road.
The blurb from the back of the book in part:
…brings together twenty years of correspondence between Helen Hanff, a freelance writer living in NYC and a used book dealer in London. Through the years, though never meeting and separated both geographically and culturally, they share a winsome, sentimental friendship based on their common love for books. Their relationship, captured so acutely in these letters, is one that will grab your heart and not let go.
I first saw 84 Charing Cross Road as a movie with Anne Bancroft and Sir Anonthy Hopkins in the lead roles, and I fell in love with the movie. Enough so that I searched out the book and I fell in love all over again. If you get a chance see the movie and read the book. They are both so worth it!
The movie Portrait of a Marriage is also about the life and times of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson. From the DVD jacket:
British aristocrat and writer Vita Sackville-West and diplomat Harold Nicolson married in 1913, and their love endured and deepened over the course of their 50 years together. Each, however, was knowingly and repeatedly unfaithful to the other, Vita most famously with fellow Bloomsbury group member Virginia Woolf. But only one affair threatened their union: Vita’s tempestuous liaison with her childhood friend Violet Keppel. This BBC drama is the story of that affair based on the extraordinary literary biography by Nigel Nicolson, Vita and Harold’s son.
There is also a book written by Nigel Nicolson (their son) of the same name Portrait of a Marriage.
Donna, I love 84 Charing Cross. It’s been ages, but I should rent it again.
Victoria Glendinning wrote a good biography of Vita. I’d love to go to Sissinghurst one day.
Barbara, so nice to re-read your NINK piece. My mother, an avid gardener, introduced me to Vita–in the literary sense.
In thinking about a historical or literary obsession, I found them to be so numerous that it would make a long list. Helene Hanff would be included. Along with Nancy Mitford (20th century), Edith Wharton (19th & 20th centuries, another great gardener!) and Elizabeth Inchbald (18th century).
I so enjoy your blog…the sharing of experiences, the food, and the connection to Colorado, where I passed a very happy and productive decade.
Barbara, Thank you for this beautiful essay. I’m drawn to reading about women like Vita Sackville and will certainly check out these books about her.
When I lived in Sussex in the late 60’s, I was a live-in receptionist at a very old 5 star hotel where there were a few elderly women who “lived-in” at the hotel. They were spinsters who had no family and had never married because so many men did not come back after the second world war. They were fascinating, interesting women who lived in another era.
Another woman who fascinates me is Freya Stark, an explorer who wrote travel books and lived to be 100.
Thanks also to Donna and Margaret for their recommendations on the British books and movies. I love the Foyles War mystery DVD’s as well. Gale
Wonderful to see you, Margaret. Are you a gardener, too? I’m going to spent this holiday weekend reading the gardening pieces in the selected works.
Oh, Gale, I bet those women had some stories to tell. I think I have a book on Stark around here somewhere…
For me, gardening ranks way up there.
I do roses and perennials, and have better luck with both in New England than I ever did in Colorado. But I do miss the wonderfully prolific apple trees I had when living in Jefferson County….
Gardening almost anywhere is easier than it is in Colorado. It takes dedication and cleverness to garden here, though there is a special pride in it, too. Though roses grow very well for me here. Sunlight and dry air.
Vita is the one I fell in love with! Thanks for your wonderful essay– I’ve featured it on my Vita Sackville-West Squidoo lens!
Kim, that’s wonderful. (And weirdly, I visited sissinghurst again last week.)