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Portrait of a-What?

Out of the closet and all over the best-seller lists, Bloomsbury writers are at last achieving notoriety—unsought, unexpected, but not undeserved. There is some pleasure in watching those prissy mandarins, whose stock-in-trade was the exposure of Victorian humbug, being stripped in turn of their fig leaves, and at the hands of their own children too. Recent biographies and memoirs reveal the group to have been a coven of high-minded swingers, most of whom—Roger Fry, Leonard Woolf, and Clive Bell are the most eminent exceptions—preferred their own sex.

One might think that the chronicles of this precious coterie would have a limited readership. On the contrary, Bloomsbury with its exacting intellectual standards, and sexually equivocal relationships, has suddenly become a hot item. Even minor figures like Carrington and Lowes Dickinson now have a following, though nothing like as great as that of the two Woolfs, Forster, or Strachey. The latest revelations come from Nigel Nicolson, who unveils his parents—albeit peripheral people on the Bloomsbury scene—as a very odd couple indeed. Harold Nicolson’s affairs with young men of letters have long been an open secret, but Vita Sackville-West’s career as a besotted transvestite is an engrossing new story.

The core of Portrait of a Marriage is a memoir which Vita wrote in 1920-1921, when she was extricating herself from a messy affair with another married woman, Violet Trefusis. Instead of showing this document to her husband as she originally planned, Vita locked it away in a Gladstone bag, whence it only emerged after her death in 1962. After pondering the matter for ten years, during which time Violet obligingly died, Vita’s publisher son has finally decided that these confessions were written with publication in mind. So here they are verbatim, except that real names have been substituted for pseudonyms, and they are divided in two parts interspersed among three sections of pious exegesis by Nigel Nicolson. The result is a tasty, not to say gamy, club sandwich of a book—just the thing to satisfy the appetite of Bloomsbury’s hungry new public.

The memoir begins with an outline of Vita’s family background which unwittingly hammers home a crucial point: had she been born the only son instead of the only daughter of Lord Sackville, Vita would have inherited a historic title, a considerable fortune, and Knole, one of the largest (four acres of buildings) country houses in England. As it was, Knole eventually went to a cousin—another literary invert—and Vita came into a relatively modest income. No wonder she grew up aching to be a boy, and liked to quote Queen Elizabeth’s phrase, “Had I been crested not cloven, my Lords, you had not treated me thus.” No wonder she took to calling herself Julian, staining her aristocratic face and hands brown, and dressing as a man (in later life she settled for jodhpurs, sometimes topped by an old Etonian sweater of her son’s).

But Vita was not merely a peer manqué. The football-playing tomboy was also a shy and sensitive “soul” (a favorite word of Vita’s), and she proudly admits to veering between these two personae. Too proudly, perhaps. She mars the frankness of her confession by insisting on seeing her sexual deviation as a badge of class superiority. “Since ‘unnatural’ means removed from nature, only the most civilized, because the least natural, class of society can be expected to tolerate such a product of civilization.” Why should the upper classes have all the privileges? Vita’s special pleading is only slightly less evident when she claims that “cases of dual personality do exist, in which the feminine and masculine elements alternately preponderate. I advance this in an impersonal and scientific spirit…I am qualified to speak with the intimacy a professional scientist could acquire only after years of study…because I have the object of study always to hand, in my own heart.”

Granted, Vita’s theory of dual personality is of some literary interest, since it provided Virginia Woolf with the donnée for one of her two best sellers, that trying, trans-sexual saga, Orlando. But what a highfalutin and hypocritical way of justifying common-or-garden lesbianism, a word Vita never uses for what she doubtless thought a shamefully middle-class affliction. And this from someone who thought other people’s euphemisms genteel.

Vita confesses that before her marriage to Harold Nicolson, a diplomat with a taste for young men and literature, she had carried on several affairs with girls, notably with one of her bridesmaids, and that she and Violet Keppel (later Trefusis)—the badhat of this story—had had a crush on each other since childhood. Oddly enough, nothing happened between them until Vita had been a wife and mother for some four years. And then in April, 1918, Vita revealed herself to Violet in a brand-new landgirl’s outfit, breeches, gaiters, and all. “I ran, I shouted, I jumped, I climbed, I vaulted over gates, I felt like a schoolboy…Violet followed me across fields and woods with a new meekness…never taking her eyes off me.” The breeches did it. Despite the meekness, Violet proved to be a wily seductress who set in motion a succession of escapades and elopements—Harold Nicolson called them “Vita’s muddles”—which are the main subject of these pages.

The two women had more in common than a kink for male attire. They were desperately romantic, desperately literary. At the same time they were both victims of philistine Edwardian society which frowned on that sort of thing, just as they were both victims of peculiar family backgrounds. Take Vita’s parents. Her father was a typical Edwardian ladies’ man—charming and gentlemanly on the surface, arrogant and sullen underneath—who was forever traveling north in pursuit of fur, feather, or fin. But he was not nearly as dreadful as her mother: the illegitimate daughter of a Spanish dancer, the half-gypsy Pepita, by a previous Lord Sackville. Lady Sackville was unpredictable, bitchy, bizarre; as a girl at the British embassy, she had captured Washington—above all President Arthur, whose proposal of marriage she claimed to have refused—with her charm and looks, but in middle age she turned into a canny old coquette (she permitted Rodin “liberties but not license”) who squeezed a sizable fortune out of Sir John Murray Scott and preyed on other millionaires—Pierpont Morgan, W. W. Astor, Henry Ford, and Gordon Selfridge. After successfully defending her pile in a sensational lawsuit, Lady Sackville spent the rest of her life squandering it.

Poor Vita! She understandably came to distrust the Edwardian values—or lack of them—that her parents represented, as witness her best novel, The Edwardians. And much the same is true of Pepita, an account of her Spanish forebears which includes a matricidal portrait of the odious Lady Sackville. Yet Vita never entirely outgrew these values. In one respect—her anti-Semitism—she even exceeded the Edwardians, who were inclined to follow the king in accepting Jews so long as they were good shots and very rich.

Violet was even more of an Edwardian—louche, arch, and not as distinguished as she thought. Her mother was the last mistress of Edward VII, such an official mistress indeed that the queen summoned her to the king’s deathbed. On the strength of this relationship, Violet would in later years try to convince herself and anyone who would listen—you always knew when she was romancing: she would frantically powder her nose—that she was the daughter of the dear king and not of that pathetic cuckold, Colonel Keppel. Poor—no, awful—Violet! She was unable to reject the worldliness and artificiality of Edwardian life, as Vita ultimately did, but rather came to personify it. Nigel Nicolson aptly compares her to a pinnace that turned into a galleon—propelled Ritzward through life, one always felt, by high winds from Sandringham.

Social snobbery, as opposed to the intellectual snobbery of Bloomsbury, was inevitably one of the closest bonds between Vita and Violet. “We talked chiefly about our ancestors,” Violet wrote of their childhood meetings. And Nigel Nicolson frankly confesses that Vita “was a snob in the sense that she attached exaggerated importance to birth and wealth, and believed that while the aristocracy had much in common with working people, particularly those who worked on the land, the middle class [or ‘bedints’ in Sackville language] were to be pitied and shunned, unless…they had acquired dignity by riches. When she was twelve years old, she anxiously asked her mother, ‘The little Gerard Leghs are not bedint, are they?’ …She never quite rid herself of this complex.”

Nigel Nicolson goes on to imply that Vita’s snobbery—like her lesbianism?—was a consequence of her dual personality. “She was a conforming rebel, a romantic aristocrat…gipsy and grandee.” Once again this won’t really wash, largely because we have to take the gipsy and the grandee on trust. The gipsy never manifests him(her?)self in these pages, nor for that matter does the grandee. If anything, Vita’s description of a pompous dinner recalls Mrs. Veneering: “I liked it because it was so rich and unbedint and ambassadorial; and because I am snob enough to love long dinner tables covered with splendid fruit, orchids and gold plate.”

Vita’s preoccupation with other people’s vulgarity is of course inexcusably vulgar, but in later life she seems to have set less store by these foolish standards and to have developed a certain fastidiousness as she withdrew from the world to her study and garden at Sissinghurst. How, otherwise, could Virginia Woolf have put up with her? Violet’s snobbery, on the other hand, became a disease. She was corroded with every kind of it; she was a snob about plants, even about the truth; unvarnished facts were unpardonable. Nobody need bother with her vapid reminiscences, Don’t Look Round, but the review in which Harold Nicolson revenged himself on Violet thirty years later is worth quoting:

Many readers will derive the impression that they have been invited to meet several famous and intimidating people, only to find that their hostess is absent-minded and that the conversation is conducted in epigrams or French. Others may be irritated by this story of a spoilt child of fortune, drifting from Ritz to Ritz, from French castles to Italian villas…by her disregard of the English custom of understatement and self-depreciation, by the interest she takes in social values that are today irrelevant.

But the real giveaway is the show-off, novelettish style of Violet’s love letters to Vita quoted in the present book:

We’re different—gipsies in a world of landed gentry. They’ve taken and burnt your caravan…but they haven’t caught me yet! Come! Come away! I’ll await you at the cross-roads.

If Vita had been blessed with an ear (her poetry settles that point), she might have been proof against the missives of this relentless allumeuse. However, meet at the cross-roads they did, and under the cover of collecting local color for a novel—a cover they used more than once—the two hoydens eloped to Hugh Walpole’s cottage in Cornwall. “And I was yours, yours to bend over and kiss as the fancy seized you,” Violet later wrote. Violet’s girlishness brought out all the manliness in Vita. Back in London, she took to dressing as a wounded tommy (a khaki bandage helped hide her hair). “Julian,” or “Mitya,” as Violet preferred to call her, would then escort his “Lushka” on nocturnal strolls up Piccadilly or around the Palais Royal. “I never felt so free,” Vita wrote. Once in Monte Carlo the masquerade was so convincing that a French couple tried to interest “Julian” in their daughter. Vita was obliged to improvise some war reminiscences to explain her “wound.”

Should they or shouldn’t they leave their families for a vestal villa in the sun? Violet was all for it, but Vita held back, more for the sake of her husband than her two young sons. Meanwhile, people started to talk, particularly Lady Sackville, who wrote to all her friends that Vita had been bewitched by a sexual pervert, “thus spreading still more widely the news she was anxious to suppress.” Faced with scandal, the two men in the ladies’ lives were predictably abject. Though apparently much in love, Violet’s war-hero fiancé, Denys Trefusis, condoned the affair and agreed to a marriage in name only; they were to have a honeymoon à trois, followed by no sexual relations whatever. This surrender made Violet the more contemptuous. “Wretched man,” she wrote a week after the announcement of their engagement, “he cares for me drivellingly. His one chic was that I thought he didn’t.”

Harold Nicolson emerges as a no less craven figure, but then, like his wife, he was leading an active homosexual life. Was he perhaps relieved to have the voracious Vita taken off his hands? True, he whimpered a lot: “poor little Hadji,” he describes himself; his “heart feels like a pêche Melba.” And he made florid remonstrations: “I wish Violet was dead…she is like some fierce orchid—glimmering and stinking in the recesses of life, and throwing cadaverous sweetness on the morning’s breeze.” But in the last resort Harold, too, condoned the situation; I suspect he even relished it: “I love you,” he wrote to Vita, “in a mad way because of it all.” “You could at any moment have reclaimed me,” Vita later reproached him, “but for some extraordinary reason you wouldn’t. I used to beg you to. I wanted to be rescued and you wouldn’t hold out a hand.”

So things continued until February, 1920, when badgered by Violet (“Fly, fly, fly”), Vita finally left her husband and children for a new life abroad—nobody was quite sure where, Greece, Sicily, or growing sugar in Jamaica. In the boat-train Vita scribbled a few lines of defiant doggerel:

Here we come swinging along;
We will lead you such a dance
If in Belgium or in France,
But we aren’t going to trifle very long.

The dénouement, which was not long in coming, was straight out of Feydeau—a farcical succession of comings and goings, rows and reconciliations—and where else but in a provincial hotel room? Hotly pursued by their husbands in a flying machine, not to speak of Violet’s furious father, the lovers fetched up at Amiens. Colonel Keppel, who had instructed Scotland Yard to have “the ports watched to prevent them leaving the country,” huffed and puffed, while the girls laughed. The husbands cajoled and threatened; the girls, especially Violet, became abusive. “The upshot of it was we refused to leave one another.”

And then for once “poor little Hadji” did something effective: he told Vita that Violet had been deceiving her—with her own husband. Vita was outraged and insisted on confronting the guilty pair. “Have you ever been really married to Violet?” she asked Trefusis. Amazingly, he did not box “Julian’s” ears, instead the fool hedged; Violet stammered out a confession which she later retracted. Too late. The affair creaked on through the summer, but Vita’s eyes had at last been opened to the falseness, the fecklessness, the sheer Edwardian bitchery of Violet. As a catharsis Vita immediately started writing the present book.

Vita tells her queer tale straightforwardly, even touchingly, and her son rounds it off with an account of her subsequent life that is more filial than frank. On the rebound from Violet, Vita had a half-hearted affair with Geoffrey Scott (author of The Architecture of Humanism)—once again Harold was “pleased.” This in turn was followed by a romance with Virginia Woolf. Harold thought they “were very good for each other,” and they probably were. “But Vita had friends,” as we know from Quentin Bell’s biography, “a Sapphist circle—which Virginia found decidedly unsympathetic…second-rate; they engendered a school-girl atmosphere, and although she was conscious of being unkind to Vita she was unable to resist the temptation of telling her what she thought…. And so their friendship was for a time agitated.” Nigel Nicolson passes over this Sapphist circle in silence, presumably because many of the people involved are still around—one of them still boasts of the marks on her thighs made by Vita’s earrings.

By the same token he is reticent about his father’s boyfriends—which is regrettable in that it blurs an important part of the record. Like Vita, Harold found lovers in the purlieus of Bloomsbury, but we do not learn what repercussions his affairs with up and coming young writers had on Vita. Perhaps other Nicolson material will appear when certain people are no longer around to complain. The sexual geography of Bloomsbury is always fascinating to publishers and their customers, particularly those who are daunted by The Waves.

Nigel Nicolson obliges one to raise these points, because he has prefaced his book with the claim that his parents’ marriage was “the strangest and most successful union that two gifted people have ever enjoyed.” He claims too much. The Nicolsons, it is true, had much in common: both were writers, both inverts, both gardeners, both snobs, and they shared many reactionary views. They were anti-Semitic, anti-American, anti-modern life. As for contemporary literature, of which they saw themselves as being ardent champions, we have only to read the incensed letters they wrote their son, when his firm was publishing “lascivious,” “disgusting” Lolita. “It will do you infinite harm in Bournemouth [Nigel Nicolson was Conservative MP there] and possibly in any future constituency and surely it will tarnish the bright name of Weidenfeld and Nicolson,” thundered the erstwhile seducer of young Rosamund Grosvenor. And who but the homosexual Harold would write biographies of Swinburne and Verlaine in which the special sexual tastes of these two poets are camouflaged under the heaviest veils?

No, their union was largely successful in so far as it was based on mutual hypocrisy, and because both parties demanded so little of it and of each other. It was also a most convenient weekend arrangement. Nicolson’s further claim that this book should be seen as “a panegyric of marriage” is equally difficult to stomach, for Vita’s confession begins as a mea culpa and ends on a panic-stricken note, “in the midst of great unhappiness which I try to conceal from poor Harold.” I am afraid the only panegyrics come from Nigel Nicolson, and so excessive are they that the reader wonders whether the author feels somehow obliged to atone for the matricidal way he has acted—granted he had Vita’s implicit permission—in revealing her secret to the world.

Now that I know everything, I love her more, as my father did, because she was tempted, because she was weak. She was a rebel, she was Julian, and though she did not know it, she fought for more than Violet. She fought for the right to love, men and women, rejecting the conventions that marriage demands exclusive love, and that women should love only men, and men only women. For this she was prepared to give up everything. Yes, she may have been mad, as she later said, but it was a magnificent folly. She may have been cruel, but it was cruelty on a heroic scale. How can I despise the violence of such passion? How could she regret that the knowledge of it should now reach the ears of a new generation, one so infinitely more compassionate than her own?

This Schwärmerei does Vita and her sad little tale an injustice. Far from being a pioneer activist in the fight for homosexual rights—like Radclyffe Hall, for instance—Vita emerges as a weak and reckless eccentric who was foolish enough to be led astray by a femme fatale even more self-indulgent than herself. Let us face it. She was a very distant mother and a destructive wife, not least with regard to her husband’s diplomatic career. Vita and Harold wrote some readable books. But that is no reason why we must now indulge this family’s romantic mythmaking about itself.

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