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09 September 2012

Vita Sackville-West (1892 - 1962) writer, aristocrat.

Vita Sackville-West by Philip de László, 1910
Victoria Mary Sackville-West was born at Knole House in Kent, the only child of Lionel Sackville-West, and his cousin Victoria, the daughter of his uncle, also Lionel, the 2nd Baron Sackville and Pepita, a Spanish dancer. Victoria Mary was usually known as Vita, to distinguish her from her mother. In 1908 the elder Lionel Sackville-West died, and his eldest son, Ernest claimed the Barony, but the English courts declared that he and his siblings were all illegitimate. The younger Lionel thus became the 3rd Baron Sackville.

In 1913 Vita married Harold Nicolson, the 3rd son of the 1st Baron Carnock, of HM Diplomatic Service, which made her the Honourable Lady Nicolson. It was Nicolson’s duty in August 1914, to hand Britain’s declaration of war to the German ambassador. He served at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference and was appointed Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George.

In the closing months of the Great War and for some years afterwards Vita conducted a passionate affair with her childhood friend Violet Keppel, daughter of the old king’s mistress.  Violet would soon marry Denys Trefusis. Vita took the name Julian, and put a khaki bandage around her head, which in the immediate aftermath of war was not uncommon, and browned her face and hands. She was successful in this persona - being tall was an advantage. Julian and Violet travelled to Cornwall, Paris and southern France. The two husbands pursued in a private plane, and the press picked up on the story.

In 1924, Vita published Challenge, a novel, based on their affair, with herself as Julian Davenport the leader of a revolution on a Greek island. His cousin Eve (Violet) joins him as his lover but becomes jealous of his attachment to the island. The book was published in the States only, for Vita’s father found the portrayal obvious enough to identify his family. In the real world, Julian and Violet broke up because the latter had sex with her own husband.

Vita and Harold remained in a loving marriage relationship despite, or because, they both conducted same-sex relations with others. They had two sons. Both their fathers died in 1928. Knole and the Sackville Barony went to Lionel’s brother Charles.

Vita as Orlando, 1928
In the late 1920s, Vita had an affair with Virginia Woolf, who immortalized Vita by imagining her as the gender-switching protagonist of the novel Orlando, 1928.

In 1926 and again in 1933 Vita won the Hawthornden Prize for her long narrative poems. She is the only person to win the prize twice.

In the early 1930s Vita had an affair with Gwen St Aubyn. In the novel, Dark Island, she wrote herself into both the jealous husband, Venn, and his secretary, Christina, as they compete for Shirin, Vita’s real-life name for St Aubyn.

In the 1930s Vita and Harold acquired Sissinghurst Castle in Kent. Sissinghurst is now owned by the National Trust and its gardens are the most visited in England. Gordon Langley Hall, the child of servants on the estate later emigrated to the US where she made a very public transition as Dawn Langley Simmons.

Vita at Sissinghurst 1955
In 1947 Vita was made a Companion of Honour for her services to literature. The same 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 also published books on travel and literary topics.

In her last novel, No Signposts in the Sea (1961), she denies what we now know her for by having the main character, Laura, muse:
“Perhaps a relationship between two women must always be incomplete--unless, I suppose, they have Lesbian inclinations which I don't happen to share. Then, or so I have been given to understand, the concord may approach perfection.”.
Her fifty-five books include seven collections of poems and stories, twelve novels, and twenty-two works of nonfiction.

She died of stomach cancer in 1962. Harold died six years later.
  • Vita Sackville-West. Challenge. New York: George H. Doran 1924. London: Collins 1974
  • Virginia Woolf Orlando: A Biography. London: Hogarth Press 1928.
  • Nigel Nicolson. Portrait of a Marriage. New York: Atheneum, 1973.
  • “Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West”.  http://kaykeys.net/passions/virginiawoolf/virginiaandvita.html


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The Wikipedia article comments “The Sackville family custom of following the Salic rules of agnatic male primogeniture prevented Vita from inheriting Knole on the death of her father”.  It was hardly a family custom, it was standard practice. The Wiki authors imply that she would have inherited Knole and the barony otherwise.  However if the custom were not observed,  Pepita’s son, Ernest would have been the 3rd Baron.

Like Dorian Gray, Vita kept the 1910 portrait by Philip de Laszlo in her attic, although not with the same results.

Vita dabbled with transvestity in her 20s but then gave it up.  If she were not so famous in literary circles we would not be considering her as a transvestite.

Dawn Langley Simmons used the name Pepita, precisely because it was the name of Vita's grandmother.

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