Portrait of a-What?

Vita Sackville-West
Vita Sackville-West; drawing by David Levine

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).

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