Vita Sackville-West and the Love Affair with Virginia Woolf

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Victoria “Vita” Sackville-West was born at Knole House on 9 March 1892, and she was the only child of the 3rd Baron Sackville and his wife Victoria.  Later in life when her father died in 1928, the ancient British inheritance customs presented Vita from inheriting the grand Knole House. Instead, the estate was inherited by Vita’s father’s nephew. For the rest of her life, Vita was upset for being excluded from taking possession of the estate she saw as rightfully hers.

At the age of 21, in 1913, Vita married the 27 year old writer and politicians Harold Nicolson. Interestingly enough, both of them had same-sex relationships before and after their marriage. Together they had two sons, Nigel and Benedict.

In 1917, Vita published her first book, Poems of East and West, and in 1919 she published the novel Heritage. The novels The Heir and Knole and the Sackvilles, in which she dealt with the feelings about her family.

Vita had many same-sex relationships, but the most known affair is that with fellow author Virginia Woolf. They first met a a dinner party in 1922, and after learning that Vita was a writer, Virginia invited her to publish a novel with her publisher, Hogarth Press. This work related relationship developed into a friendship and eventually also a sexual affair. After Vita and her husband had visited the Woolf’s in February 1923, Virginia wrote in her diary:

“We had a surprise visit from the Nicolson’s. She [Vita] is a pronounced sapphist, & may, Thinks Ethel Sands, have an Eye on me, old though I am. Nature may have sharpened her faculties. Snob as I am, I trace her passions – 500 years back, & they become romantic to me, like old yellow wine. I fancy the tang is gone.”

Vita and Virginias love affair began in December 1925. It continued for a few years and many letters were exchanged between the two. At the height of their  affair Vita wrote Virginia from one of her many travels at main land Europe. On 21 January 1926, after a sleepless night thinking of Virginia, Vita wrote from Trieste:

“I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia. I composed a Beautiful letter to you in the sleepless nightmare hours of the night, and it has all gone: I miss you, in a quite simple desperate human way….. I miss you even more than I could have believed; and I was prepared to miss you a good deal. So this letter is just really a squeal of pain. It is incredible how essential to me you have become. I suppose you are accustomed to people saying these things. Damn you, spoilt creature; I shan’t make you love me any the more by giving myself away like this.  But oh my dear, I can’t be clever and stand-offish with you: I love you too much for that. Too truly. You have no idea how stand-offish I can be with people I don’t love. I have brought it to a fine art. But you have broken down my defences. And I don’t really resent it….”

The love the two women felt for eachother is ever som obvious in the letters. Early in 1927, on 29 January, Vita wrote Virginia Another loveletter filled with longing, this time from Hanover.

“I hoped I should Wake up less depressed this morning, but I didn’t. I Went to bed last night as black as a sweep…. Why aren’t you with me? Oh, why? I do want you so frightfully…. It is quite true that you have had infinitely more influence on me intellectually than anyone, and for this alone I love you…. Yes, my very dear Virginia, I was at a crossways just about the time I first met you. You do like me to write well, don’t you? And I do hate write badly, and having written so badly in the past. But now, like Queen Victoria, I will be good. Hell! I wish you were here!…. Send me anything you write in papers, and send ‘On reading’. Please. I hope you will get my letters Quick and often. Tell me if I write too often, I love you. V.”

Virginia often felt jealous over the fact that Vita frequently had other lovers on the side. She felt like the older woman [Virginia was ten years older than Vita] in their relationship, unwanted and dowdy. Eventually, the affair ended sometime late in 1927 or early 1928, but the women’s friendship survived. Virginia, still very mych in love with Vita, wrote a very touching letter to her ex-lover in August 1940, when Britain was under attack from the German Luftwaffe.

“I’ve just stopped talking to you. It seem so strange. It’s perfectly peaceful here – they’re playing bowls – I’d just put flowers in your room. And there you sit with the bombs falling around you. What can one say – except that I love you and I’ve got to live through this strange quiet evening thinking of you sitting there alone. Dearest – let me have a line…. You have given me so much happiness…”

Seven months after Virginia had written the letter to Vita, she took her own life by drowning herself in the River Ouse, 59 years old, on 28 March 1941. Vita, who continued to write novels and poems, and having more love affairs, lived on until 2 June 1962, when she passed away at her home at Sissinghurst Castle, losing the battle against stomach cancer at the age of 70. She was cremated and was buried in the Sackville family vault at Withyham.

Vita Sackville-West was related to Diana Sackville, of which the interested reader might want to read about in an earlier blogpost on this site.

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