Love in a Cold Climate

Vita and Harold: The Letters of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson

edited by Nigel Nicolson
Putnam, 452 pp., $29.95

Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson
Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson; drawing by David Levine

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…

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