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Vita Sackville-West

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Vita Sackville-West

Vita Sackville-West

William Strang
Vita (Victoria Mary) Sackville-West (March 9 1892–June 2 1962)
Used with permission of the author

English poet and novelist, born into an old aristocratic family, proprietors of Knole House in Kent, which was a private country estate with 365 rooms. Vita Sackville-West wrote about the Kentish countryside and was the chief model for the Orlando character in Virginia Woolf's novel of that same title from 1928. Sackville-West's best known poem, THE LAND, was awarded the Hawthorne Prize in 1927.

Victoria Mary Sackville-West was the only child of Lionel Edward, third Baron of Sackville, and Victoria Josepha Dolores Catalina Sackville-West, his first cousin and the illegitimate daughter of the diplomat Sir Lionel Sackville-West. She was educated privately. As a child she started to write poetry, writing her first ballads at the age of 11. "I don't remember either my father or my mother very vividly at that time, except that Dada used to take me for terribly long walks and talk to me about science, principally Darwin, and I liked him a great deal better than Mother, of whose quick temper I was frightened." (from Portrait of a Marriage by Nigel Nicolson, 1973) Vita's mother considered her ugly - she was bony, she had long legs, straight hair, and she wanted to be as boyish as possible.

Between 1906 and 1910 Sackville-West produced eight novels and five plays. CHATTERTON, A DRAMA IN THREE ACTS, was privately printed and appeared in 1909. In 1913 she married the diplomat and critic Harold Nicolson, with whom she lived a long time in Persia and then at the Sissinghurst Castle in Kent. At first she played her role as a dutiful wife, but then her husband admitted that he had a male lover. The marriage endured despite their homosexual affairs, but Harold's affairs were less passionate than Vita's. They had two children, the art critic Benedict Nicholson and the publisher Nigel Nicolson. In 1923 the art critic Clive Bell introduced Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf, and the two became lovers. According to an anecdote, when Nigel was a child, an adult told him, that "Virginia loves your mother," he had replied, "Yes, of course she does: we all do." Sackville-West also had affairs with Hilda Matheson, head of the BBC Talk Department, and Mary Campbell, married to the poet Roy Campbell, but her life long companion was Violet (Keppel) Trefusis, the daughter of Alice Keppel, Edward VII's mistress

Violet and Vita had met in childhood in 1904. Violet, who was two years younger, gave Vita a ring in 1908 when they both were teen-agers - it was her first gesture of affection and tenderness. "She is mine," Sackville-West wrote later in her diary, but they did not meet much before the late 1910s. Vita fell also in love with another girl, Rosamund Grosvenor, who was four years older than Vita. Violet's and Vita's relationship continued until after their respective marriages. At one point they 'eloped' to France but in 1921 Violet returned to her husband Denys Trefusis. This long relationship was the subject of Sackville-West's secret diary and gave material for her third novel, CHALLENGE. It depicted a Greek vineyard owner who was torn between his love for a woman and for his island home.

Sackville-West's father died in 1928 and his brother became the fourth Baron Sackville, inheriting Knole. Her husband decided in 1929 to resign from the foreign service and devote himself to writing. They purchased Sissinghurst Castle, a near-derelict house, and started to restore it. In the 1930s Sackville-West published THE EDWARDIANS (1930), ALL PASSION SPENT (1931), and FAMILY HISTORY (1932) which were bestsellers, portraying English upper-class manners and life. PEPITA (1937) depicted the story of her grandmother, who was a Spanish dancer. Her passionate gardening was rewarded in 1955 by the Royal Horticultural Society. Sackville-West also wrote several books about gardening and kept a regular column at the Observer from 1946.

In 1946 Sackville-West was made a Companion of Honour for her services to literature. She died of cancer on June 2, 1962. Harold Nicolson died six years later. Sackville-West believed in equal rights for women. She is best remembered for her novels but her most enduring work was perhaps the garden at Sissinghurst Castle, evidently the joint creation of Harold and Vita, and as Nigel Nicolson suggested the true "portrait of their marriage." Nicolson published in 1973 a book, Portrait of a Marriage, which was based on her parents' journals and notes, and described their private life and marriage. The book was made into a television mini-series in 1990, starring Cathryn Harrison, Janet McTeer and David Haigh.

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