Who was Vita Sackville-West?

Liz Highleyman | March 08, 2007

Though author Vita Sackville-West is perhaps best known today for her relationship with Virginia Woolf, in her day she was a successful poet and novelist in her own right.

Victoria Sackville-West was born on March 9, 1892, to an aristocratic family in Kent, England. Privately educated, she began writing at an early age, and by her late teens she had already produced several unpublished novels and plays. By this time, she was also aware of her passionate feelings for other women, including her childhood friend Rosamund Grosvenor.

In 1913 – despite Grosvenor's protestations – Sackville-West married Harold Nicolson, a diplomat and journalist. After a brief stint in Constantinople, Sackville-West and Nicolson returned to England, where they had two sons, Benedict and Nigel. Around 1930, Nicolson left the foreign service to devote more time to his family and his writing; a few years later, he was elected as a Member of Parliament for the Labour Party. The couple purchased a decrepit old manor, Sissinghurst Castle, which they refurbished and outfitted with an elaborate garden. While Sackville-West and Nicolson enjoyed a devoted partnership that lasted nearly 50 years, both also had same-sex relationships, as chronicled in Nigel Nicolson's Portrait of a Marriage (1973), based on his parents' letters and private diaries.

Around 1918, Sackville-West began a relationship with Violet Keppel Trefusis, whose mother was a mistress of King Edward VII. The two women initially met at school as adolescents; after rekindling their friendship a decade later, they often traveled together, with Sackville-West donning men's attire and calling herself "Julian." During one trip to France, the women's husbands pursued them and demanded they return home, causing a public scandal. Sackville-West and Trefusis eventually ended their romantic relationship due to jealousy on both sides, but their friendship endured.

Not long after ending her affair with Trefusis, Sackville-West met Virginia Woolf, a member of the Bloomsbury Group of artists and writers, who was also in an amicable though passionless marriage to a man. Though 10 years older and a more famous writer, Woolf was apparently awed by Sackville-West's glamour and greater sexual experience with women. The women's romantic relationship lasted throughout most of the 1920s, and their friendship continued until Woolf's suicide in 1941. The affair inspired Woolf's 1928 novel, Orlando, about an aristocratic youth who changes sexes as the story proceeds through historical eras from Elizabethan England to the present day.

Over the course of her career, Sackville-West wrote more than 50 books, including the best-selling semi-autobiographical novel, The Edwardians (1930). Beginning in the late 1940s, she penned a weekly gardening column for The Observer newspaper, and she was a founding member of the garden committee of Britain's National Trust, a preservation agency that maintains historic sites. Sackville-West died from cancer at her home on June 2, 1962.

Sackville-West is known to have written at length about her sexuality only once, speculating in her diary that as "the sexes become more nearly merged on account of their increasing resemblances" in the years to come, "I believe that the psychology of people like myself will be a matter of interest, and I believe it will be recognized that many more people of my type do exist than under the present day system of hypocrisy is commonly admitted."

For further reading:

  • Glendinning, Victoria. 1983. Vita: The Life of V. Sackville-West (Knopf).
  • Leaska, Mitchell, and John Phillips (eds). 1989. Violet to Vita: the Letters of Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West, 1910-1921 (Methuen Publishing).
  • Sproles, Karyn Z. 2006. Desiring Women: The Partnership of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West (University of Toronto Press).

    Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics.

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