Vita and Harold: The Letters of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson
The celebrityhood of Victoria Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, “Vita and Harold” in the British television series recently shown on US prime time, falls well below that of Di and Charles but is richer in both prurient and intellectual interest than that of the younger combatants. The present selection of the correspondence has been condemned for snobbery. But not to worry: most of it is too far away to be hurtful, and much can be enjoyed as unconsciously comical.
Not many readers are likely to take issue with Nigel Nicolson’s judgment that his father was a “better”—he might have added, a more forbearing and sympathetic—“letter-writer” than his mother. Nor will many wish to challenge his in any case unverifiable assertion that this very odd couple, if less and less so by the hour, who were unfaithful to each other by mutual consent with people of their own sex, achieved “a relationship richer and more enduring than most.” He does not explain that the endurance was partly the result of the parallel, partly of the circumstance that the couple did not live together much of the time. Though at age eighteen she had certainly been the lover of Rosamund Grosvenor, late in life she told her husband that she had been ignorant of same-sex love before her marriage. After it she renounced the other kind and denounced the marital “system” as “wrong” and “claustrophobic,” while conceding that “very, very intelligent people like us…are able to rise superior.”
Vita is more frank about her affairs than Harold about his. He admits to loathing “women in general,” but remains buttoned up about consummations with, among others, the “amazingly beautiful,” if regrettably “bedint” (the Sackville shibboleth for middle-class), Patrick Hepburn. Vita, her son writes, was “born to be a lesbian lover,” adding that “her only problem was to free herself of one love affair in order to begin the next.” The callousness of this amorous modus vivendi is exposed in a line from one of her poems: “We take a heart and leave our own intact.” In a letter attempting to rationalize her love life by compartmentalizing it, she hides behind a sexual duality that, if it ever existed, was remarkably lopsided:
If you were in love with another woman, or I with another man, we should both or either of us be finding a natural sexual fulfillment which would inevitably rob our own relationship of something. As it is, the liaisons which you and I contract are something perfectly apart from the more natural and normal attitudes we have towards each other, and therefore don’t interfere. But it would be dangerous for ordinary people…
As the letters testify, her “natural sexual fulfillment” was with women, for which reason she abrogated virtually all conjugal relations with her husband after the birth of their children.
Nigel Nicolson tells us that his mother could be “merciless” as well as “reckless and cruel.” While she is indefinitely diverting herself on the Riviera with her lover Violet Trefusis, her usually acquiescent spouse accuses her of being “more selfish than Agrippina in her worst moments.” The letters confirm this possibility, as when, during World War II, she deplores the requisitioning of the woods near her castle at Sissinghurst by a detachment of soldiers: “I shall never love the lake or the wood again in the same way…a thing of beauty, now tarnished forever.” The thought that the base occupiers were training to protect lives, including hers, at the risk of their own, does not occur to her.
Virginia Woolf figures as prominently in the correspondence as Violet, the most transgressive among Vita’s earlier paramours. Vita recalled her affair with Violet as a “madness,” perhaps remembering their elopement to Monte Carlo, where she appeared dressed as a soldier named Julian, her hair covered with a bandage, which, only two weeks after the 1918 Armistice and in a country with millions of soldiers mutilated or dead, could not have been seen as in the best of taste.
Virginia “rumpled my hair” while “I sat on the floor” by firelight, Vita bluntly informed Harold, yet she pretended to be “scared to death of arousing physical feelings in her, because of the madness”—she is “so sane, when not mad”—and he replied, warning of the “mess” that would ensue if an affair were to trigger a new attack of insanity. But further on in the same letter, Vita discloses that she has “gone to bed with her (twice),” and in a later one tauntingly reminds him that “I did sleep with her.” Nigel Nicolson characterizes Orlando, Virginia Woolf’s mock-biography of his mother, as the “longest and most charming love letter in literature.” But by the time it was published (1928), Vita’s flexuous flirtations had swerved in the direction of Hilda Matheson, the BBC’s director of talks, and of Mary, wife of the poet Roy Campbell, a notorious liaison concealed from Harold, but revealed by Campbell in a scabrous satire.
Not surprisingly, Vita’s best books are biographies of women, but the best of these, oddly—both she and Harold were anti-“Christophagist” (the wafer) and anti-resurrectionist—are of saints Teresa of Avila, Teresa of Lisieux, and, currently a best-selling paperback, Joan of Arc. Vita’s attraction to female forms and textures is evident even in her horticultural writings. She loves the Cuisse de Nymphe, as well as a rosebush that “tapers toward the top like the waist of a Victorian beauty,” and a magnolia which has “all the softness and smoothness of youthful flesh.”
“Harold’s attitude to Americans was ambivalent,” his son asserts. “He could not justly be called a snob.” But the correspondence testifies that his attitude was unambivalently negative, as perforce it could only be from what the rest of the book tells us about him. When he writes that “there simply does not exist [in the US] the sort of person whom we like,” the observation may or may not be true, but he, doubtless, is being truthful.
The ambivalence is Nigel’s invention, apparently intended to make the letters more palatable to transatlantic book buyers, but achieving the opposite by adding that on a second visit to this “exciting country” Harold met such acceptable American yahoos as the Morrows and the Lindberghs, the banker Thomas Lamont, Archibald MacLeish, and “the whole Roosevelt clan” at Oyster Bay. “I do not feel you would care for Long Island in the very least,” Harold wrote, and, “I think it was a good thing that your ancestors disposed of their possessions in this continent.” (Long Island had been granted to a Sackville by Charles I in 1637.)
Nigel Nicolson blames his father’s unflattering reactions to the United States during the initial trip on the atmosphere of the 1933 Depression, the midwinter climate, and a lecture tour itinerary that took him to “some of the most unappetizing of American cities.” Harold wrote from Cincinnati that “you and I are very gifted and charming [but not] in the sort of way these people suppose.” The exception was Charleston, South Carolina, where the “voices are as soft as the feet of the negro women selling narcissus in the street. It is the most unamerican thing I have met.” Furthermore, Charlestonians “talk of the Americans almost as of enemies…. They still long for secession under the British crown.”
What sort of person did Vita and Harold like? His sort should be able to “wear a top hat without feeling foolish,” and, if someone referred to “Pinero’s plays,” would not need to ask, “Who’s Pinero?” (Pinero!!) He relishes the company of statesmen, “Winston” and other august people, but not De Gaulle (though “he is less horrible with his hat off”). And the titled: “I rather liked” King Paul of Greece, “an old pansy really”; the Duchess of York “talked to me so intelligently about Some People…it is an absolute tragedy that she should be a royalty”; talking to her later, as the Queen Mum, widow of George VI (“just a snipe from the great Windsor marshes”), Harold “had to leave in the middle to go wee wee, but she took it well.” He does not care for Edward VIII and “Willy” Maugham tells him: “I knew Mrs. Simpson when she was a Mrs. Simpson, not t-t-the Mrs. Simpson.” Maugham, Harold notes, has “an old-fashioned courtesy,” but is “rather bedint about it.”
As a young woman Vita enjoyed parties, not those “scrimmages at the Ritz” for rich riff-raff, but a proper ball at Sunderland House with “powdered footmen announcing duchesses…. I do like fit things. I do, I do.” She looks forward to another ball the following week in which she will go as La Grande Mademoiselle, wearing velvet clothes, a riding dress with high boots, and carrying a whip, and she asks him to look for her in this get-up in “the illustrated papers.” Still a dedicated partygoer a decade later, in the 1920s, but less of a précieuse ridicule, she attends three in a day on one occasion, going from a reception by “those frauds the Sitwells” to a small gathering at Clive Bell’s with Virginia Woolf and Maynard Keynes, then, after midnight, to an “immense party” at Argyll House. In the 1930s she turns down invitations from Buckingham Palace and slightly less exalted addresses with the excuse that she no longer has anything to wear.
The Nicolsons lived in their possessions, she more deeply than he in that Knole, the vast Renaissance castle in which she grew up (sleeping in Cranmer’s bedroom) and for which she yearned all her life, was her Sackville inheritance. Elizabethan drama might be said to have begun there, Thomas Sackville having been one of the authors of Gorboduc; two centuries later Alexander Pope wrote the epitaph for the tomb of Charles Sackville, sixth earl of Dorset. One of the book’s most amusing episodes develops from the higher elevation of her lineage to his: when Harold is knighted for his George V biography, Vita is appalled at the prospect of being addressed as “Lady Nicolson.” During her first pregnancy, Vita instructs her husband in how to distribute her baubles should she not survive the accouchement: “my emerald chain, my string of pearls…”; “my other tiara, the one with the leaf pattern in emeralds and diamonds…”; “my diamond crystal watch…”; “the seven big diamonds, the emerald ornament…and one or two of my rings…”
But the gardens of Vita’s more modest second castle, Sissinghurst, now, like Knole, the property of the National Trust, are the Nicolsons’ proudest possession. He is more snobbish than she about the flowers that should and should not be cultivated there: “Rhododendrons are to us like large stock-brokers whom we do not want to invite to dinner”; “I don’t feel that azaleas are very Sissinghurst…. They are Ascot, Sunningdale sort of plants”; “Anything with the suggestion of suburbia should be excluded,” and “Shrubbery is a great problem if one is to avoid the suburban”; “I quite see that those big pale yellow things…would look very well [but] they must be faint pallid yellow—nothing that shouts or raises its voice.”
Both writers award themselves top marks on their culture, but the evidence of artistic appreciation in the letters is exiguous. Ballet, in the Diaghilev era, is mentioned only once, and while Harold is “really wild about Cézanne” at one time, and at another dislikes Ingres more than any other great artist, the names of few other painters occur, and these in passing. Vita visits Rodin, “a commonplace little French bourgeois” with “the Légion d’Honneur in his buttonhole,” but confides to her diary, not to her husband, that the bedint sculptor had tried to seduce her, as he did every woman who ventured into his atelier.
Both Nicolsons were unmusical. Vita describes an escape from the laureate Robert Bridges’ twee “tinkling away at Handel” on his clavichord. And Harold describes his discovery, in Mozart, not of the superfetation of ideas but merely that one thing leads to another. (He actually wrote elsewhere that “musical people possess fantasy but no constructive imagination.”) Arriving late at “the Aberconway party,” he sits outside the door of a room in which the Quartet K 464 is being performed: “On and on they went Mozart is just like Bunny [a neighbor of theirs]. He says, ‘Well I must be going now,’ and then thinks of something else to say, and goes on and on till I could have struck the door with angry fists.” One of Harold’s letters reveals that he contemplated writing a biography of Ludwig II, a subject perfectly suited to his talents and temperament, except that Wagner meant nothing to him.
As represented here, many of the Nicolsons’ literary judgments are dubious, while their critical principles presuppose sanctuaries for those who belong to “a definite class, by birth…”; thus Edmund Wilson’s adverse article, “Through the Embassy Window: Harold Nicolson,” falls “into a common error of critics…to demand that a writer shall be something he is not,” and to expect “a gentle person of sensibility and culture to care for the rough and tumble.” She recoils from “the dunghill despair of Eliot,” and “his ‘combinations drying in the sun.”’ And he peeves about not having been able to “disinfect myself from the slime of Lolita.” Both of them profess high opinions of her poems, one of which inspires him to an allocution beginning, “If there was ever a work of art about which I felt certain, it is this,” after which, by way of demonstration, he cites the Kilmer-ish couplet “How delicate in spring they be / That mobled blossom and that wimpled tree.” Robert Bridges also praises her poetry, or may have intended to, with “not a woman’s writing at all—damn good.”
The best passages in the correspondence are the cameo portraits—in G.B. Shaw’s case, of his “white ashes” only (commingled with Mrs. Shaw’s), which Harold goes to see in “a car which was very rich and American…central heating and so on”: “Shaw was there, in the garden. Still in the shape of ashes…just like the stuff [you put] down for slugs.” Sinclair Lewis, wassailing, is a “red-faced noisy young man, who called me Harold from the start…and drank and drank…He said he was too tight to dress” for a ball, and “asked me did he look very tight because Edith [Dorothy Thompson] minded.” “Cyril [Connolly] is not perhaps the ideal guest. He is terribly untidy…. He leaves dirty handkerchiefs in the chairs and fountain pens (my fountain pens) open in books.” Joyce “told me that a man had taken Oolissays to the Vatican and had hid it in the shape of a prayer book—and that it had been blessed in such disguise by the Pope.”
Minna Curtiss, with whom Harold stays in the Berkshires, tells him that Lindbergh was “no more than a mechanic” who, if he had not flown the Atlantic solo, “would now be in charge of a gasoline station on the outskirts of St. Louis.” Harold, after spending considerable time with the “lone eagle,” finds him “shrewd and intelligent,” if “quite uneducated,” but wickedly quotes him in his native dialect: “these old dames…just because I flew alone to Purris…they think I am a safe pilot”; and on President Coolidge’s medal presentation ceremony at the White House, “the fust time I was kind of moved by the thing…[but] we had to go through the whole damned show over again in the yard, I mean lawn….”
As one of his country’s delegates to the Versailles Peace Conference, Harold Nicolson attended closed meetings between Lloyd George, Wilson, and Clemenceau, “three ignorant and irresponsible men cutting Asia Minor to bits as if they were dividing a cake…the happiness of millions being decided in that way.” Nicolson’s Peacemaking, 1919, with its devastating picture of Wilson affecting a laugh to cover “the slowness of his mental movements,” reveals much more than the letters of the behind-the-scenes behind the Treaty. More pertinent are the chapters in his biography of Lord Carnock, his diplomatist father, on the Bosnian crisis of 1909, which, though no substitute for Black Lamb, Grey Falcon, are enlightening on the background of the siege of Sarajevo, 1992, particularly concerning “national egoism” in the Balkans and Turkey’s recognition of the Austrian annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina despite the Slav minorities.
‘Love in a Cold Climate’ December 17, 1992