In response to:
Love in a Cold Climate from the November 19, 1992 issue
To the Editors:
Robert Craft’s review of my parents’ letters, Vita and Harold, is generous in one respect: he has read the book [“Love in a Cold Climate,” NYR, November 19]. But he has read it with an initial bias, perhaps derived from the BBC’s dramatisation of Portrait of a Marriage, that both were unutterable snobs. I invite him to define more exactly what he means by that.
He starts his review with the admission that we are “not to worry” about the charge of snobbishness as “most of it is too far away to be hurtful,” but from then onwards he forgets this wise caution. What is considered snobbish in the 1990s was not in the 1920s. He is applying the standards of today to those of yesterday, just as he might condemn Jane Austen for snobbishness because she implies that no gentleman should be seen trying to make money.
By selective quotation he can of course make Vita and Harold appear snobs even by Edwardian usages. When Vita, aged 21, enjoys a grand party complete with footmen, Mr. Craft holds it against her. When, thinking that she might die in childbirth, she tells Harold how to distribute her jewels among her friends and lists them, this too is quoted at length to her discredit. When she writes to Harold, “Very, very intelligent people like us…are able to rise superior,” Mr. Craft totally misses the note of irony. When she complains that army tanks have spoiled her wood in 1944, she is said to be selfishly unpatriotic when nobody loved her country more than Vita. When she refuses to be called Lady Nicolson after Harold was knighted, Mr. Craft says that it was because the title was inferior to “the higher lineage” the Sackvilles had enjoyed, when Vita was only trying to cling to her own name, V. Sackville-West. It is difficult to see how Virginia Woolf would have chosen Mr. Craft’s version of Vita as her most intimate friend.
Then Harold. He too is a snob because on a lecture-tour of the United States in 1933 he found his ladies-club audiences uncongenial, just as any American intellectual would have found their British equivalents, but when Harold writes with sympathy and liking about the Lindberghs, the Morrows, Thomas Lamont, Minna Curtiss and Archibald MacLeish, these people are dismissed by Mr. Craft as “acceptable American yahoos,” and Harold’s attitude to the United States as “unambivalently negative.” Then he is said to be even more snobbish than Vita about gardens. Rhododendrons are out because they smack of suburban gardens and are quite unsuited to Sissinghurst. So they are. He is also a snob because he prefers the company of people like Winston Churchill and King Paul of Greece (“an old pansy, really”) to that of stout stockbrokers. And so on.
In fact, for their times, Vita and Harold were remarkably unsnobbish. Snobs are ultra-conventional. The Nicolsons, as their marriage and Harold’s diplomatic, political and literary careers amply prove, were not. If Mr. Craft were to read Vita’s novels The Edwardians and All Passion Spent, or her poem Sissinghurst, he would understand that while she valued the tradition of Britain’s aristocracy, she deplored and ridiculed the triviality and self-indulgence of its modern representatives. If he read Harold’s Some People or Public Faces, he would observe that quality mattered to him far more than class.
Perhaps “quality” is no longer an acceptable term. One must not make distinctions between people on the grounds of their taste, manners, culture, friendships or occupations if they convey any suggestion that one is more commendable than another instead of just different. To do so is snobbish. I would like to put to Mr. Craft another definition of the word. A snob is a person who attaches exaggerated importance to birth or wealth, and claims unfounded acquaintance with the eminent. In what conceivable sense could that definition be applied to Vita or Harold?
Robert Craft replies:
I purchased Vita and Harold with at first no thought of reviewing it and for no other reason than that I have always enjoyed Harold Nicolson’s pothole-free prose. I have read all of his books—Public Faces was given me by the poet from whom Nicolson borrowed the title—as well as the Observer reviews which it is to be hoped Nigel Nicolson will collect and publish. I am thankful for these writings, for two hours in Harold Nicolson’s company in a Hotel Connaught dining room in November 1958, and for the pleasures of the Sissinghurst gardens on a visit not long ago. But I cannot gainsay his own judgment in a 1936 letter to Vita: “You have a Sackville snobbishness.”
Nigel Nicolson has looked at my review rather carelessly. Nowhere does it say, or imply, that Vita was Virginia Woolf’s “most intimate friend.” Nor, when Vita complains about “army tanks”—her letter does not mention tanks—having “spoiled her wood in 1944,” does it accuse her of being “unpatriotic.” I did say that to deplore the soldiers in her wood “tarnishing” it “forever” seems somewhat ungrateful to these defenders of the realm she so “loved.” Nor do I hold Vita’s partygoing against her, or use evidence of her wealth to discredit her: my quotations simply seek to indicate something of the person she was from the life she led. Obviously the name V. Sackville-West, a long-established author, would survive her husband’s knighthood.
The alleged tone of irony in Vita’s remark about “very intelligent people like us” does not emerge with any force for the reason that the remark, in kind, recurs too frequently. But Mr. Nicolson himself misses the unintended irony in his defense of his father vis-à-vis Americans by saying that Harold approved of such front-page types as the Lindberghs, the Lamonts, the Morrows, and the Roosevelts. Did he never meet an “ordinary” person in whom he could find any interest?
Mr. Nicolson’s “other” definition of the word snob is in the dictionaries. I continue to think that, at least as concerns the attaching of importance to birth, it exactly applies to Vita and Harold.