A new, full-length life of Vita Sackville-West? Two hefty volumes about Harold Nicolson? We live in an age of biographical overkill. The cottage industry based on Bloomsbury and its dependencies is proof enough of that. But surely the curiosity of readers interested in the Nicolsons has been amply satisfied in their son Nigel’s Portrait of a Marriage, Harold’s own Diaries & Letters (three volumes), not to speak of countless references to them in other books, notably Quentin Bell’s life of Virginia Woolf and the Woolf letters and diaries.
In all these not many stones have been left unturned, and only a gifted biographer could go over the ground again to much effect. Unfortunately, neither of these entries can qualify. Glendinning plods along, dutifully summarizing Vita’s books, contributing little to what we already know, and chiefly relying on the widespread impression that Vita was a fascinating person. Maybe she was in real life. Certainly Virginia Woolf, enamored of her noble lineage, her pearls, and her legs like beech trees, though so; and so did many others, including her worshipful husband. But in print, she comes across as dull and immature, arrogant and spoiled, with a commonplace mind, and as even Virginia was forced to admit, “a pen of brass.” Glendinning doesn’t dispel this impression, perhaps because she seems unaware that it exists.
Lees-Milne does better by Harold, partly because his subject is an infinitely livelier one, and partly because he relies heavily on Harold’s letters (many of them previously unpublished), which in spite of all that can be said against his snobbery and superficiality are compulsively readable, and when he is writing to Vita and his sons often very moving. But there were mysteries about this sociable, conformist, class-ridden yet not at all stupid man that Lees-Milne has no interest in solving. Thus he tells us that “there can be little doubt that Guy Burgess extracted from Harold inside information which he passed on to his masters in Moscow.” Here he touches on one of the dilemmas of our time. How was it that men like Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt, the flower of English civilization if one is to go by their social and cultural credentials, betrayed their country? And how did they come by so many unwitting collaborators who, like Harold, ignored the evidence before their eyes?
The drunken Burgess seems to have given himself away over and over again; yet Harold refused to notice and exhibited a similar blindness when he allied himself to Oswald Mosley’s fascist party, to which he clung long after it was excusable to do so. The explanation that presents itself is of course the old-school tie among homosexuals and the unwritten law that the ruling class must keep its secrets or chaos will result. It is an explanation worth examining, but Lees-Milne, an intimate friend of Harold’s and himself a member of the old-boy network, won’t touch it.
The same is true of Harold’s relationship to Vita, the rock on which every interpreter of either of them has so far come to grief. How did it happen that this cheerily homosexual male (we are told that he never took his extramarital affairs seriously) was all his life obsessed by a woman? This is a problem worthy of Henry James or even Proust, since a large part of his adoration was based on her position as the daughter of the Sackvilles, though tragically for her not the heiress of Knole, the mansion built and inhabited since Tudor times by her family. The glamour of this overwhelmed him, and he never ceased to be grateful to her for having married him—the third son of a good but penniless and landless Scottish family. She was the Princesse de Guermantes to him. But she was also Odette. There are passages in his letters to her, startling in their emotional intensity, notably one in which he records minute by minute and hour by hour the agonies of a separation clouded by the suspicion that the loved one is being unfaithful, which could be those of Swann himself.
To some of this Lees-Milne was a witness. He describes Harold’s panic when Vita strolled across a village street in the face of light oncoming traffic: “Harold gripped my arm like a vice, turned his head away, and practically sobbing, cried out, ‘Oh Viti, Viti, she’s going to get run over. I know she’ll be killed. Oh God! Oh God!’ ” The Nicolsons had at this time been married for thirty-four years and even Lees-Milne could discern something peculiar in Harold’s behavior. Guilt? An extraordinary psychological dependence? Lees-Milne puts it down to husbandly devotion and lets it go at that, and this incuriosity is typical. Like Glendinning, he jogs from event to event without pause for analysis, and he is a poor writer. Sentences like “On arrival at Sissinghurst at the very end of April the garden was at its most promising” abound.
Why, then, these books? It isn’t as though either Nicolson had been an important writer. Some of us find Vita’s The Edwardians still readable for its social information (i.e., the servants in the great house going in to dinner in the same order as their masters upstairs); and gardeners will always admire her endlessly anthologized pieces for the Observer—chatty, informative, and a fountainhead of horticultural ideas, but scarcely literature. She never went beyond the conventions of the best seller. Overpraised in her lifetime, neither her novels, her biographies, nor her poetry can stand up to critical examination today.
Harold is another and in many ways sadder story. His natural talents were greater than his wife’s and he had two major qualifications: wit and a keen eye. Some People, recently reissued, is a little masterpiece in its genre; the Diaries & Letters are an invaluable record of the decline and fall of the British empire, albeit an unwilling one, and no student of the social and political history of England will be able to do without his brilliantly observed accounts of political meetings, smart luncheons, and weekends with the great and near-great with whom he was on intimate terms. Nevertheless, he failed in his ambition to be a serious literary man, and that for reasons he dimly grasped but couldn’t overcome. He had all the faults of the well-born English amateur, beginning with the inability to cope with brass tacks.
Heavy research fatigued him. For his life of Benjamin Constant, as one example, a lightning tour of Switzerland sufficed, and he made no effort to read the complete correspondence. According to Lees-Milne, “the calligraphy of Constant’s letters…revealed to him more than the words themselves glimpses of Constant’s sharp and mercurial character.” This mental laziness was his curse, too, in other ways. Lees-Milne tells us how tedious he found Sainte-Beuve’s “preoccupation with Port-Royal, sin and redemption,” and indeed his musings on that subject are the weakest parts of what is otherwise one of his better biographies. And if religion bored him, sex positively terrified him—not presumably in itself but for the risk he saw in any public discussion of it. Verlaine without the homosex, Swinburne without the vice anglais were typical of his sanitized literary studies, which too often read like the reflections of a gentleman who has noticed a slightly unpleasant smell and proposes to rise above it. As Edmund Wilson said in an unkind review, Harold’s perspective was essentially that of the British Foreign Office, and confronted with writers of dubious morals he instinctively distanced himself from them socially “by a quiet but well-placed accent of amusement, disapproval, disdain.”
Oddly enough, as Lees-Milne puts it, “Harold, while believing that Wilson had got the symptoms wrong, had a nasty feeling that he had got the illness right.” He knew he was a snob, and the perils of snobbery—amusingly set forth in his story of the French marquis who lost his only change at immortality by refusing Proust’s request to include him in Pastiches et Mélanges, on the ground that it would spoil his chance to get into the Jockey Club. Harold could see the absurdity of that, but not the parallel in his own life. Or what to do about it. Rather, he evaded the issue, preferring an explanation like Lees-Milne’s: that “his patrician background made him fastidious,” which won’t quite do, and anyway wasn’t true. Fastidiousness wasn’t the word for what ailed him.
His letters are studded with the symptoms of the disease. “How I wish I had not this aversion from Jews and coloured people,” he once wrote from a cruise ship. “I think they should be forbidden to bathe [in the ship’s pool] for they poison the water.” Americans were slightly better but not much. They had, he said, “a nice housemaid mentality,” and he compared Mrs. Dwight Morrow to the “very best type of retired upper servant.” Nearer home were the “bedints,” Sackville family patois for the lower orders and a word that tires one very much in both these books. Vita, too, used it constantly, and like Harold was made miserable by the presence of the working class. “My God, how workmen smell,” she writes when repairs are going on at Sissinghurst. “The whole house stinks of them. How I hate the proletariat.”
To be fair, many English were irritated by Harold’s blimpishness. When (for unadmirable reasons: he hoped Clement Atlee’s government would make him a peer) he suddenly enrolled in the Labour party, Richard Crossman said to him, “I hear you have joined the Labour Party. Which bit of it have you joined?” Worse was to come. Through a series of accidents, he found himself actually called upon to stand for Parliament as a Labour candidate. He was appalled, then rallied. “I have no hesitation about penetrating into working class houses,” he informed Vita, “and they are so grateful and loyal. It really moves me.” But it turned out they weren’t grateful or loyal enough, and Harold lost that election by twelve thousand votes.
But it is in the light of the Bloomsbury connection, canonized, so to speak, in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, that one comes to see the Nicolsons’ attitudes most clearly—and that, curiously enough, not on account of the differences but the similarities. Both sides would have repudiated this idea, Bloomsbury with indignation, for apart from Clive Bell, and in the younger generation, Raymond Mortimer, both of whom were devoted to him, Bloomsbury despised Harold—a pompous civil servant and negligible writer in their eyes, though in fact he was quite the equal of Strachey at anything but his best (which amounts to one book: Eminent Victorians) and a lot better than Strachey at his worst (Elizabeth and Essex); and must have been jollier company than the obscure Saxon Sydney-Turner, who rarely opened his mouth and whose accomplishments were nil. None of that counted. His diplomatic career was in itself enough to condemn Harold as a lightweight, to Bloomsbury a fatal charge, and he was dismissed accordingly.
Vita might have been expected to fare better. Sullen in her manners, farouche in dress (Lady Chatterley and her lover rolled into one, as some wit observed), she was as indifferent to the allurements of society as even Vanessa Bell could be; and though her books weren’t good books it can be pointed out that the Hogarth Press saw fit to publish several of them. What disqualified Vita to all but Virginia was mostly her way of life. Not for her the artsy-craftsy products of the Omega Workshop or the slapdash house-keeping. She had money (but so did the Bells), and she spent it on handsome houses full of fine things, and on her superb gardens.
The tone was all wrong for Bloomsbury, which might otherwise have been willing to overlook her literary limitations. It might have helped, too, if she had been a trifle humbler, seemed to have had a clearer notion of their intellectual superiority than she did. But while Vita admired and for a time desired Virginia, she was never disposed to court the rest of Bloomsbury, and cared very little what they though of her. Harold with his sharper mind and keener sense of worth did care; he would have liked their good opinion. On the other hand, he loathed the bohemianism, the cattiness, the tasteless jokes about buggery. Above all, he loathed Lytton Strachey. “I shall not,” he once declared, “become a flabby old sod like Lytton. I won’t, I won’t, I won’t.”
He didn’t. Nevertheless, they had more in common than a taste for sodomy, just as Vita had more in common with Virginia than the disparity in their literary gifts would suggest. Bloomsbury prided itself on its higher conscience and sensibility, its freedom from antiquated prejudices. But with the important exception of Leonard Woolf, who devoted his life to liberal causes, they exhibited in practice an obsession with class distinctions and a bigotry that hardly differed from those of the Nicolsons—and were sometimes worse. It is doubtful whether Harold would have gone so far as to describe Bernard Berenson as “a New York gutter-snipe,” as Strachey, who happened to be a guest at I Tatti at the time, didn’t hesitate to do; nor did he use the phrase “Jew boy,” as Clive Bell did when speaking of one of Duncan Grant’s lovers.
Harold was rather ashamed of his anti-Semitism. Bloomsbury had no such scruples, least of all Virginia Woolf, in whom one might have expected if not tolerance at least a decent silence on a subject which, on the contrary, she couldn’t leave alone. “How I hated marrying a Jew,” she told Ethel Smyth, “how I hated their nasal voices, and their oriental jewellery, and their noses and their wattles….” The least encounter with Leonard’s relatives brought forth a torrent of this sort of abuse, and especially of her pathetic mother-in-law: “Off we go again about her own tremendous sorrows, virtues, courage and endurance in raising 9 Jews, all of whom, with the single exception of Leonard, might well have been drowned without the world wagging one ounce the worse.” And so on, ad nauseam, for years and years.
The great unanswered question is what Leonard’s feelings can have been. Did he, for example, ever connect her sexual frigidity with a physical aversion to his race? “I feel angry sometimes at the strength of your desire. Possibly, your being a Jew comes in also at this point” had been one of the hesitations expressed in her acceptance of his proposal. Like Harold, Leonard married above his station, and albeit with more reason was likewise convinced that his wife was a genius. Both were therefore prepared to endure snubs to their families that other men might have found intolerable. Though racism didn’t come into it, Vita was equally unkind to Harold’s old parents, and taught her sons, as Harold once said in a rare burst of anger, to be “beastly” to their grandmother.
Beastliness is a peculiarly English term which may mean nothing worse than cold-heartedness or indifference. What it amounts to when applied to one’s inferiors is a repudiation of sympathy, and this was Virginia’s failing at least as much as it was Vita’s with her smelly workmen. The long-running serial of her relations with the two underpaid and overworked bonnes à tout faire who served the Woolfs is not pleasant reading, their illnesses being chiefly regarded as inconveniences, and their complaints as evidence of “the timid spiteful servant mind.”
She was haunted by the unpleasantness of the working class to an extent that could affect her literary judgment. Ulysses, for example, she called “an illiterate, underbred book…of a self taught working man, and we all know how distressing they are, how insistent, raw, striking and ultimately nauseating.” This estimate goes beyond what even Harold felt about “breeding,” education, and the restrictions they impose on art. In his heart of hearts he knew better than to believe that writing was a profession open only to the chosen few, and those few committed not to offend with unseemly copulations, sordid adventures, poverty, war, anything, in short, to do with real life. Virginia, secure in her Bloomsbury cocoon, did not, and only occasionally had glimpses of what the price of so many avoidances might be—to others if not to herself. Thus she could call E.M. Forster’s novels “impeded, shrivelled and immature” for all their excellence, which was of course quite true, but without recognizing that the same caveats could apply to her own, and for the same reasons. Both were self-condemned inhabitants of a closet, unwilling or unable to focus their art on their experience. Forster came closest in A Passage to India, a rare book generated by his anger at the colonialism he observed at first hand. But who could discover, in her fiction, the Virginia who went mad, married a Jew, fell in love with other women, and finally committed suicide? She isn’t there, and neither is anyone else who is half as interesting as the woman we have come to know in the letters and diaries.
Homosexuality was of course Bloomsbury’s great secret. So was it Harold’s and Vita’s. Here, too, was common ground, made more so when Virginia and Vita fell in love. But here, too, was a common policy: nothing said that might alert the general public to the truth. Memories of the Oscar Wilde case might be supposed to have had something to do with this. But there is no evidence that they did; and in fact they weren’t relevant. England’s anti-homosexual laws (which anyhow didn’t apply to women) were seldom if ever invoked against members of the ruling class who didn’t, as Wilde had, insist on an examination of their behavior. Had it been otherwise, institutions like the universities and the Foreign Office would have had to close down.
Nobody bothered to conceal his propensities in private life. Harold’s, for instance, were perfectly well known, and when he was in the diplomatic service his lovers as often as not were serving in the same embassy. A few of them went on to become well-known ambassadors. The issue, therefore, wasn’t what one did but what one could write about, and here the laws weren’t specifically directed against homosexuality but obscenity, whatever that could be taken to mean. In the case of D.H. Lawrence’s Pansies, poems sent by mail from abroad, opened by customs, and later denounced in Parliament as “grossly obscene,” the charge clearly didn’t involve homosexuality. But neither did it in the more famous case of The Well of Loneliness, Radclyffe Hall’s frankly lesbian novel, likewise banned on the ground of a vaguely defined obscenity. And in both instances it was the work, not the author’s life, that came under scrutiny.
Bloomsbury routinely and as a matter of principle protested all such bannings with letters to the editor. The Well of Loneliness, however, posed special problems, and might have been expected to arouse a more vigorous reaction than usual. A work of art it wasn’t, but as Virginia said, “a meritorious, dull book” that nevertheless cut close to the Bloomsbury (and the Nicolson) bone, dealing as it did with the subject that preoccupied them all but that none of them had or—as it turned out—ever would dare to write about openly. vita tried, twice—the first and only honest attempt being the hysterical and schoolgirlish account of her affair with Violet Trefusis she hid away in the Sissinghurst tower, where it was found by her son after her death; and the second her novel Challenge, withdrawn at the eleventh hour before publication at the insistence of Lady Sackville, her demented mother and the only human being who could have seen anything compromising in this insipid revision of the real story. In Challenge, Violet is “Eve,” Vita’s sex has been transposed to that of “Julian,” and their romance wouldn’t bring a blush to the cheek of a maiden aunt. Lady Sackville, however, already paranoid over her daughter’s escapade, foresaw a raging scandal; and Vita gave in.
Forster was another who made a half-hearted stab at the forbidden topic: his novel Maurice, written under the crippling assumption that publication was impossible and shown only to a few intimates in his lifetime. This may have been just as well, not on account of the subject but because (as he perhaps came to see when life caught up with art and provided him, at the advanced age of thirty-seven, with the actual experience of physical love) his treatment of it was sentimental and feeble. But if that is so, Bloomsbury’s collective fear of truth-telling must be partly to blame. As Eddy Sackville-West, Vita’s cousin and the inheritor of Knole, himself a writer and a homosexual, once said: “I like them all (especially Mrs. Woolf), but I mistrust their minds fundamentally…. They are terrified of committing themselves to a statement.”
No wonder, then, that when Bloomsbury did actually produce a homosexual novel it should have been so heavily disguised, so dressed up in high-camp prose that it sailed right past the censors who banned The Well of Loneliness, published in the same year. This was of course Orlando, Virginia’s timid response to Vita’s alarming courtship, which Nigel Nicolson has called “the longest and most charming love letter in literature.” That is his opinion. Another is that it is her silliest book after Flush, and that if she had written nothing else it would have gone down as an exercise in ancestor worship with vaguely lesbian overtones, not worth a second reading.
There remained the matter of The Well of Loneliness—haled into court while Orlando was selling briskly. But if anyone—Radclyffe Hall herself perhaps—expected more than the customary meetings and letters he was in for a disappointment. Virginia and Forster (who, interestingly enough, had told her that he “thought Sapphism disgusting”) did jointly write a letter to The Nation, noting that homosexuality “forms…an extremely small fraction of the sum-total of human emotions…enters personally into very few lives, and is uninteresting or repellent to the majority; nevertheless it exists, and novelists in England have now been forbidden to mention it….” And they went on with rather overdone sarcasm to inquire what other subjects “known to be more or less unpopular in Whitehall” must now be taboo: birth control, suicide, pacifism?
This letter was a cool performance, but not more so than Virginia’s notes in her diary, which radiate a sardonic detachment. At a protest meeting she concentrated on the sartorial dinginess usual on such occasions, and on Vita—“like a lamp or a torch in all this petty bourgeoisdom; a tribute to the breeding of the Sackvilles.” At the trial, she was impressed with the operations of British law, and relieved when the judge ruled that “we,” that is, the writers present, couldn’t be called upon to testify since evidence of literary merit would be inadmissible—a ruling that allowed him to order the book destroyed. “And I lost my little Roman brooch, and that is the end of this great day….” The end as well of her interest: the subject doesn’t recur.
Vita’s initial reaction was different. “Of course I simply itch to try the same thing myself,” she wrote to Harold, forgetting to say that she already had. (Harold was never told about the Trefusis manuscript, and had tended to take Lady Sackville’s side over Challenge.) And to Virginia: “I should like to renounce my nationality, as a gesture.” Later, when the judgment was handed down, she cried excitedly, “I hope they appeal. I hope there is a row.” There was a row. They did appeal. But by that time her enthusiasm had waned, and far from renouncing her nationality, or even offering to testify in behalf of artistic freedom, she was prepared to ignore a strong hint from Hall that help with legal expenses would be welcome. The final hearing was “very dull, so I came away and went shopping.”
Harold was en poste at the Berlin embassy at this time; but it goes without saying that he would have been horrified had she acted otherwise. Though not exactly in favor of legal censorship, he was all for what might be called prior restraint, not only of the kind he practiced in his own books, but on the part of publishers; and when, years later, this position was put to the test, he didn’t hesitate. His son Nigel, by then a partner in the firm of Weidenfeld & Nicolson, proposed to publish Lolita. Solemnly he addressed them in his own and Vita’s names:
We do not feel that its literary merits justify in any way the obscenity which underlies the whole book. Only one person in a million will feel that the book is really a moral or cautionary tale, or that it is anything but “corrupting” in the sense of the Obscene Publications Report. To the great mass of the public it will seem a salacious treatment of the very worst form of perversion….
Lees-Milne would have it that this out-burst was prompted by parental worry about Nigel’s parliamentary career, a concern that was also supposed to explain his opposition to Nigel’s support of the Wolfenden Report, which advocated the repeal of the laws against homosexuality between consenting adults. But as Nigel refused the advice in both cases, and with no ill effects in either, that won’t really do; and Lees-Milne is obliged to fall back on the further excuse that the caution of age had overcome the tolerance of youth. I doubt this, if only because tolerance wasn’t and never had been the issue with the Nicolsons, neither of whose private lives could, if looked at under the lens of the Obscene Publications Report, have passed examination. Still less could they, of all people, have opposed the recommendations of the Wolfenden Report. The motive had to be fear, fear of standing up to be counted, of guilt by association, and of being marked as in any way subversive or questioning of accepted standards. One did what one pleased in private life. That was one’s privilege. Beyond that one did not go.
“I would like her story to be read as an adventure story,” says Glendinning in her preface to Vita. Nigel went further in Portrait of a Marriage. Vita, he wrote,
was a rebel…and though she did not know it, she fought for more than Violet [Trefusis]. 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.
Allowing for a biographer’s advocacy and with due respect for filial loyalty, both are talking nonsense. There are no adventures here, no renunciations. Unlike the celebrated ladies of Llangollen who eloped to the wilds of Wales in the eighteenth century, Vita and Violet retreated to the safety of home and permissive husbands once their families applied the heat, and their adventure, such as it was, ended there. As for the convention that marriage demands exclusive love, it was unheard of in their world, where infidelity was taken for granted. Vita herself described (in The Edwardians) the sleeping arrangements at noble house parties where the thoughtful hostess saw to it that each chacun had his bedroom conveniently close to his chacune—not least the King of England. Homosexuality was perhaps a somewhat different matter. On the other hand, it was so common, at least among men, that it too was overlooked, always provided the iron rule against public disclosure was observed. And Vita, as we know, did observe it. In that sense, she was as conventional a wife as any other. There was no “fight.”
When she did break the rules it was in another sphere altogether. Having accompanied him to Constantinople, Harold’s first assignment after their marriage, she refused to play the role of diplomatic or political helpmeet ever again. Bored and impatient with the formalities of diplomatic life, she made him go alone to Persia and Berlin, where she visited him only occasionally; and when later he entered politics, she scoffed at the mere idea of appearing on platfors and chatting with his constituents. Her refusal to do any of these things could of course be construed as a form of feminist rebellion. It could also be the behavior of a spoiled and selfish woman who cares more for her own comfort than for her husband’s happiness, and in the context one can’t but feel it was the latter.
Harold was ambitious. It hurt him that she was indifferent to his career, just as he was hurt by the countless, messy affairs he called her “muddles.” He accepted her sexual nature, as he did everything else. He had no choice. It was that or give her up, which neither wanted, and moreover he was acutely conscious of being very much in the wrong himself. How wrong is revealed in an episode that Lees-Milne discreetly omits (as did Nigel in Portrait of a Marriage) but that Glendinning considers a turning point—as surely it must have been, for it involved nothing less than Harold’s picking up a venereal infection at a particularly grand house party, presumably from a fellow guest, unless it was a manservant. (Glendinning doesn’t specify, though she lists some prominent names among those present, including Sir Louis Mallett and Osbert Sitwell.) A confession to Vita necessarily followed, which Glendinning believes was Vita’s first inkling of Harold’s sexual activities. This may be true, unlikely as it seems after five years of marriage and two children; but in a letter written shortly before her death she did accuse him of having kept her in ignorance:
You were older than I, and far better informed. I was very young, and very innocent. I knew nothing about homosexuality. I didn’t even know that such a thing existed…. You should have told me. You should have warned me. You should have told me about yourself, and have warned me that the same sort of thing was likely to happen to myself. It would have saved us a lot of trouble and misunderstanding.
To me, this has a disingenuous ring. I find it hard to accept that, even in 1913, she knew nothing about homosexuality—not by name perhaps, but what did she think she had been doing with the besotted and jealous Rosamund Grosvenor before her marriage? And did she really have no suspicions about Harold’s friendships with young men? Be that as it may, the letter does most conveniently put the blame on him for what eventually happened: her affair with Violet and the virtual severance of their own sexual relations. And it could help to explain Harold’s extraordinary tolerance of her often monstrous conduct toward him.
They went their separate ways, Vita to bury herself in her country gardens, her writing, and her loves—all of them, with the famous exception of Virginia, deadly dull—and Harold to foreign parts or, after his resignation from the diplomatic service, to London, where he kept a flat and quickly became one of those men-about-town who know everybody, and are just important enough to be indispensable to politicians, hostesses, editors, yet not so important as to be intimidating or unable to dispose of their time—in short, the ideal diarist he became. He and Vita traveled together, and met every week-end, though not exactly in what could be called intimacy, owing to the odd arrangement of their houses, especially Sissinghurst, with its central tower where Vita lived and worked, and its dependent cottages, one of which was Harold’s, and another inhabited by their sons. Visitors noticed that the only room common to all the family was the dining room—a layout that accurately defined a precarious yet durable situation. But their real meeting place was the garden. Designed by Harold (who doesn’t get half the credit he deserves) and planted by Vita, this joint creation and focus for an intense mutual interest played in their troubled union a role very like that of the park in Goethe’s Elective Affinities, and more than anything else, more certainly than their children, served to bind them together.
And yet, when all this is said, the mystery remains. Glendinning maintains that many marriages are as “strangely and finely balanced as theirs.” Really? In England, perhaps. In the rest of the world, I think not. Because this wasn’t and never became one of those arrangements between civilized people who choose for various reasons to live together in spite of sexual and other incompatibilities. In some strange and inhibited way, these two loved each other with a love that didn’t cool. Their parting at the end of Vita’s two-month visit to him in Persia in 1926 was typical. They nearly died of it. “My own darling Viti,” wrote Harold. “When I closed the bedroom door at Resht, I stood for a moment on the landing with a giddy agony making the whole house swing and wobble. With a great effort I stopped myself bursting in again—to where I would find that dear dear head bowed in tears….” She felt the same. “We will not leave each other any more,” was her answer. “Everyone else must be sacrificed, there is no one in the world who counts for me but you.”
Yet these partings were entirely voluntary on her side; and at Resht, Harold’s sobs were calmed by his lover Raymond Mortimer. So what was it all about? Surely what we have here is the case history of a love distorted by conditions peculiar to English upper-class life. “All our chaps are queer until they are twenty-five, you know,” was a warning given me in the 1930s by an English friend who was sleeping with an ambiguously sexed writer at the time. A naive American, I didn’t know. Few outsiders did in those days, since the books that were to reveal the prevalence of sodomy in English public schools and universities hadn’t yet been written. We know from Cyril Connolly among others the effect of this all but universal experience wasn’t always permanent. With Harold it was. From what we know of them (and that isn’t much: the publication of his complete correspondence would be helpful here, as well as interesting in other ways), his homosexual affairs had a schoolboyish flavor and never threatened to carry him away. Or it may just be that he wasn’t very highly sexed.
Certainly Vita complained to her mother of his coldness, raising the possibility that if he had been a good lover, she wouldn’t so quickly have given in to her own inclinations. But that seems unlikely, because Vita’s only true and eternal love, if we except Harold, was Knole, the ancestral house the laws of England forbade her to inherit on account of her sex. It was the classic case of the girl who grows up knowing she should have been a boy—made a thousand times worse by the daily vision of the prize she was to lose. Had she, in the first Elizabeth’s words, been “crested and not cleft” all that would have been hers. The knowledge made her a tomboy in her youth, and from tomboy to female rake isn’t an enormous step.
Something like this is the point of Orlando with its coyly and rather clumsily depicted hero/heroine—a book that Vita, flattered though she was by its projection of her fantasies about herself, never quite “got.” Her literal mind balked, rightly for once, at the muzzy symbolism, and as she confided to Harold, “the general inference is too inconclusive.” harold disagreed. To him the mythic Orlando was Vita, and the Vita he loved. But to suppose that he didn’t love the flesh-and-blood woman would be a mistake. Quite literally, he adored her. Like many devoted couples, they often told each other that if one of them died the other wouldn’t survive—an assurance that many a quick remarriage has taught us to take with a grain of salt. But in their case it was the truth. Harold outlived her by six years—a broken old man, weeping aloud in the Sissinghurst gardens, longing to follow her to the grave.
Not, however, to the same grave, as they had planned. She was buried in the Sackville crypt, Harold according to his revised instructions, in Sissinghurst churchyard—“a final gesture,” says Lees-Milne, “of his good breeding, a determination not to intrude where he did not belong.” One gasps at such a conclusion, but perhaps this tale of inverted love, teeming snobbism, and arrested development could have had no other. Wasn’t it, after all, the raw material for the ultimate Bloomsbury novel, the one that none of them had had the courage to write?
March 29, 1984