10 August 2018

The Letters of Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf edited by Louise DeSalvo and Mitchell Leaska

Over the past few weeks we've been busy moving everything from two floors down to the basement in preparation of new flooring.  It's a project we've dreaded but it had to be done.  So now the worst of the upheaval is over, the new floors are in and they look gorgeous; baseboard delivery is Monday for round two.  While the installers were hard at it, my job was to make sure Kip didn't escape through an open door.  The two of us stayed outside during a scorcher of a summer while my husband escaped to work each day.  Kip nestled under the dogwoods, racing unsuspecting joggers along the fence while I read (it wasn't as blissful as it sounds!). A book of letters is absolutely perfect for times when your level of distraction is high.  Despite all the busyness, these letters swept me away to London, the gardens of Sissinghurst, and visions of Monk's House where I spent some time while on holiday last year.

Vita and Virginia could have simply picked up the telephone to call one another (and, at times, they did) but I'm so thankful for their trail of correspondence.  Their letters start off as friendly but formal, then they become dotted with humour, inside jokes, pet names, intimacy and then pleas for reassurances of affection,  reflecting the hallmarks of so may of our relationships.  But most people are not two of the most iconic figures from the twentieth century.  This collection of letters provides a rich portrayal of the everyday life of these two women, the inception of some of their most famed writings, the anxieties surrounding the publishing of their work, and fascinating name dropping of an assortment of socialites and celebrities of the day.

The two women first met in December of 1922, at a dinner hosted by Clive Bell.  At first their letters were sporadic, becoming regular by 1924.  When Mrs Dalloway was published in 1925, Vita wrote....

'One thing she has done for me for ever: made it unnecessary ever to go to London again, for the whole of London in June is in your first score of pages.  (Couldn't you do a winter London now?  with fogs and flares at the street corners, blue twilights, lamps, and polished streets?) 

Having only read four of Virginia's books I'm wondering if she ever did write about a wintery London?

I loved the gossipy moments such as Vita using the term 'misty Gloomsbury' while comparing her fondness for warmer climates such as in Greece and Persia with Virginia's love of London's squares.  And thinking everyone within the Bloomsbury sphere were accepting of fluid relationships, but not taking into account their elder relatives.  Vanessa's elder relations were shocked to discover she was living in sin (and does she ever sell a picture?).  The image of Virginia Woolf with any other hairstyle than the casual look I've seen in photos is difficult to reconcile.  At one point, Virginia tries out a new look...

   'She cut my hair off.  I'm shingled.  That being so - and it'll look all right in a month or two, the hairdresser says - bound to be a little patchy at first - lets get on to other things.  Its (sic) off; its in the kitchen bucket; my hairpins have been offered up like crutches in St Andrews, Holborn, at the high altar.'

Vita is much more effusive when it comes to sharing her feelings, bluntly asking Virginia to use a term of endearment in her letters.  When Virginia then starts her next letter by referring to Vita as 'Honey' it made me feel sorry for her.  This is a woman with so many thoughts in her head but seemingly, incredibly repressed in her ability (or confidence) to share emotion with an intimate.  In 1927, Vita writes...

'And why have you such an art of keeping so much of yourself up your sleeve: as to make me suspect that after twenty years there would still be something to be unfolded, - some last layer not uncoiled.'

But on a lighter note, in 1928 Vita writes to ask if Virginia's ears are still sore after being pierced and if she enjoys the sensation of twirling them once they've become stuck.  Apparently Vita did!

Part of the pleasure of reading these letters is discovering the extent of Vita's travels and her somewhat bohemian lifestyle.  Her exploits were very much a window through which Virginia experienced life beyond the country lanes of Rodmell, or even London.  I never knew where Vita was off to next, but my favourite snippet from one of her letters to Virginia is this one....

  'I went to tea with a lady lying on a divan playing with a parakeet.  I went to tea with another lady, - an old one this time, - who lives with a nephew who is expected to commit a crime at any moment.  She consoles herself with 3 Aberdeen terriers.  A real Balzac household - plus a sister-in-law with a broken leg.  When not in Berlin they all live in a XIIth century castle near Hanover, all at sixes and sevens, and no money so that the roof is falling in.  Another sister in law law just died of a broken heard, and a son-in-law of appendicitis.'

I laughed at the epic scale of a rant by Vita's mother when she sent ...twenty-four pages of abuse.  There is no mention of what set her mother, Baroness Sackville, but it didn't seem to bother Vita very much.  And in 1933, when Vita and Harold travel to the States for four months on a lecture tour, she writes about seeing the plains and cowboys.  A far cry from the green and pleasant land of Knole in Sevenoaks.  Vita also expresses an interest in bringing back a tin of salamanders for the greenhouse after being to the Sahara.  I wonder if she did?

Vita's gardens at Sissinghurst provided Virginia and Leonard with plenty of extras to supplement their rations at the beginning of WWII.  Baskets of fruits and vegetables would appear on the doorstep of Monk's House when Vita's petrol supply would allow it.  When a glorious packet of butter arrives in Virginia's envelope box, she eats a chunk from the block right then and there.

The last letter in this collection is Virginia's last letter to Vita, six days before her suicide.  It is short, without a sign of anything remotely like a good-bye, in fact, Virginia refers to a possible visit to Sissinghurst.  The creamy blankness on the last three-quarters of the page in my book -  heartbreaking.  Having such an intimate glimpse into the lives of these two women and their relationship is a gift.  I can't help wondering how many collections of its kind there will be in the future with everyone whipping off short texts.

Delightfully, this collection of letters has cascaded into another facet of the relationship between Vita and Virginia....Orlando!


  1. This sounds wonderful - and I'm PRETTY sure I have it on my shelves. If not, I'm clearly going to have to...

    And congrats on facing the daunting flooring project! It was difficult enough to make myself move two bookcases to paint the hall.

    1. You made me laugh, Simon, but I'm impressed by your initiative! Moving bookcases is frequently something you can talk yourself into doing another day.
      All the best with your shelf scan...hope you find a copy!

  2. Have you read the two (relatively) recent books about the Sackvilles -- Inheritance and The Disinherited -- by Robert Sackville-West? They're a fascinating family! But mostly you're reminding me that I used to read letters often, and don't as much anymore. Will need to work on that. :)

    1. I have not, Audrey, but clearly I must! Thank you so much for the heads up. Straight off to the library's website to see if we own copies of those titles.

  3. A room without books is like a body without a soul.”