When Virginia Woolf met Vita Sackville-West in December 1922, she had just published, at the age of forty, the first of her distinctive novels, Jacob’s Room, which followed the more traditional The Voyage Out (1915) and Night and Day (1919). Most of her published writing consisted of unsigned book reviews, so she was known to very few people.
Virginia belonged by descent and marriage to Britain’s elite of arts and letters: her father, Leslie Stephen, had been a distinguished intellectual whose first wife was Thackeray’s daughter. Julia Margaret Cameron, the great Victorian photographer, was her aunt. Her sister, the painter Vanessa Bell, was married to a prominent art critic, Clive Bell, though she lived with another painter, Duncan Grant. Their intimate circle included Lytton Strachey, E.M. Forster, John Maynard Keynes, and Roger Fry. Virginia’s husband, Leonard, was a political journalist and editor. This was the Bloomsbury group, named after the unpretentious area of London where many of them lived; it was a world of plain living and high thinking—“Gloomsbury,” the high-living, plain-thinking Vita would call it.
Treasured by her family and friends as a brilliant, witty, and original presence, Virginia also had enormous mood swings and terrible headaches, was sociable until she collapsed, was depressed until she was writing, then depressed again as a book was finished and publication loomed. The doctors in charge of her treatment had nothing to recommend but bed rest and cessation of mental activity.
Her husband had become a dedicated caregiver, and, partly as occupational therapy for Virginia, they ran a publishing house, the Hogarth Press, with the printing press in their basement. That, along with her reviewing, kept her in touch with the leading writers and critics of the day. Their life was austere but full, their house in London always lively, and for rest they had a cottage in the country. In 1922 Virginia was at the beginning of the most fruitful part of her career, although she felt herself to be behind where she should be: she ought to be considered, she said, thirty-five, not forty, at least five years having been wasted in bed.
Most of the year preceding her meeting Vita was lost to repeated bouts of flu, which left her heart so weakened that doctors warned Leonard she might not live much longer. A sickroom-bound invalid in 1922 could not pick up the phone and chat with friends. Letters provided the only relief from isolation, and even that writing drained Virginia’s energy. Still, she loved hearing from friends and, when she could manage it, answering. Her letters, along with her diary, offer unusual access to the private life of a great writer. So what was it like when she finally fell in love with Vita, after living in a stable but sexless marriage with Leonard for so many years, when her imagination was more aroused by women? To find out, we turn eagerly to Love Letters: Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, which tells the story through their letters to each other, supplemented by extracts from both women’s diaries and Vita’s letters to her husband. And who exactly is telling the story? We do not know, as no editor is cited on the title page. Buried on the copyright page we find “selection by Lily Lindon,” but Alison Bechdel’s introduction sheds no light on how this selection was made or what it offers that cannot be found in the letters as masterfully edited in 1985 by Louise DeSalvo and Mitchell A. Leaska.
Vita, now the less celebrated of the couple and known primarily as the cocreator of the magnificent gardens at Sissinghurst, was in the early 1920s by far the more famous writer. Although ten years younger than Woolf, she was an established literary figure in London. Rich, aristocratic, sensual, free-living, polyamorous, commanding, self-confident, boisterously healthy, she was Woolf’s opposite in many ways, and not the least of her appeal lay in her family history.
Her father, the 3rd Baron Sackville of Knole, belonged to the de la Warr family (as in Delaware), whose titles dated back to the fourteenth century. Knole, the family seat in Kent, a manor house as large as an entire village, had been gifted to Thomas Sackville, the 1st Earl of Dorset, by Queen Elizabeth I. Vita grew up at Knole without siblings, with a beautiful, eccentric mother, who had been born illegitimate but nonetheless a Sackville. Since Vita’s grandfather had no legitimate offspring, the house and title passed to Vita’s father. Had Vita been born male, she would have inherited Knole, with its four hundred rooms. As it was, on her father’s death, it passed to his brother.
When she chose to marry Harold Nicolson, a diplomat from a family of diplomats, Vita’s family was not pleased. They considered him a disreputable intellectual, not at all a good match, without even the saving grace of money. But compared to most men Vita had met, Harold had a lively mind and tremendous vitality. It was a love match. Neither of them seemed to realize at the time of their marriage how deeply they were attracted to people of their own sex. After producing two sons, they constructed what in later days would be called an open marriage. Unshakably committed to each other, they were free to have other sexual partners. They wrote to each other every day they were apart, sharing everything, even accounts of their love affairs.
In general, Vita proved to be good at keeping her affairs relatively short and unthreatening to Harold. But at about the time he was in Paris working on the Treaty of Versailles, she got caught up in the most passionate affair of her life, with Violet Keppel (later Trefusis), whose allure and lack of discipline threatened the Nicolsons’ alliance. The details are to be found in their son Nigel Nicolson’s enthralling book Portrait of a Marriage (1973), an elegant melding of autobiographical writing by Vita and parental biography by her son, which should be required reading for anyone who thinks that marriage of any kind is effortless.
Both in London and in Paris, Vita and Violet went out together in public with Vita cross-dressed as a recently repatriated soldier with a head wound requiring a bandage. She had never known such freedom. But eventually Violet’s fiancé and Vita’s husband retrieved the two runaways from France, and Vita’s passions were subsumed into the pleasant regularities of country life. Fundamentally upbeat, she got enormous pleasure from her house, household, garden, and dogs.
And she wrote constantly. By the time she met Virginia, Vita had published five volumes of poetry and two novels, one of which, The Dragon in Shallow Waters, was a best seller. She had written an account of her family and its estate, Knole and the Sackvilles, and had found her great theme in the connection between real estate and a person’s sense of identity, explored first in a novella, The Heir. She had also written a fictionalized account of her affair with Violet, Challenge, which her mother convinced her was too scandalous to publish in the UK. She was still only thirty.
Virginia’s first impulse on meeting Vita at a dinner party at Clive Bell’s was to look down on her as a facile writer: “She writes fifteen pages a day—has finished another book—publishes with Heinemanns.” What attracted her was above all Vita the aristocrat. “The aristocratic manner is something like an actress’s—no false shyness or modesty—makes me feel virgin, shy, and schoolgirlish,” she wrote. Vita’s long, languid face, which Virginia later found so beautiful, did not at first appeal to her, but “all these ancestors and centuries, silver and gold, have bred a perfect body.” In Virginia’s imagination, Vita was often striding—through fields, across plains, in Turkish pants, in emeralds—the supremely competent and self-assured woman, managing children, nannies, gardeners, butchers, dukes, duchesses, and motorcars with equal ease.
Vita’s feelings about Virginia were clear from the start and not quite so fanciful. “I simply adore Virginia Woolf, and so would you,” she wrote to her husband after their first meeting.
You would fall quite flat before her charm and personality…. She is utterly unaffected: there is no outward adornments—she dresses quite atrociously. At first you think she is plain; then a sort of spiritual beauty imposes itself on you…. She is both detached and human, silent till she wants to say something, and then says it supremely well…. Darling, I have quite lost my heart.
Not many pages of Love Letters go by between their meeting in 1922 and their becoming lovers in late 1925. But, of course, that is three years—three years in which they were hardly focused on each other. Three years in which Vita had a love affair with a man, Geoffrey Scott, author of The Architecture of Humanism (1914), which resulted in the breakup of his marriage. Three years in which Virginia published both a fiction masterpiece, Mrs. Dalloway, and a nonfiction masterpiece, The Common Reader, began to make some money from her work, and became famous.
They became friends before they were lovers. Vita took Virginia to lunch with her father, Lord Sackville, in the family home: “His Lordship lives in the kernel of a vast nut. You perambulate miles of galleries; skip endless treasures—chairs that Shakespeare might have sat on…. Then there is Mary Stuart’s altar, where she prayed before execution.” Virginia asked Vita to write something for Hogarth, and Vita tossed off the novella Seducers in Ecuador while on a walking trip in Italy with her husband. Who was doing whom a favor in this case is unclear. Vita had a good commercial publisher, Heinemann, but being published by the Hogarth Press represented a different kind of prestige, and in return she brought with her a large fan base. Seducers in Ecuador sold well, and the two women, now with an editorial relationship, became closer. Vita was a guest at Monk’s House, the Woolfs’ place in Sussex; Virginia was a guest at Long Barn, the Nicolsons’ country house in Kent.
In December 1925 Vita and Virginia spent three days together at Long Barn. Harold had been posted to the British Legation in Tehran, where Vita was to join him later that winter. It was the first time they had been alone overnight, and something happened that marked a turning point. Vita’s references to this night suggest that Virginia declared herself or threw herself at Vita, but Virginia did not see it that way. “These Sapphists love women,” she wrote in her diary upon returning home.
Friendship is never untinged with amorosity. I like her and being with her, and the splendour—she shines in the grocer’s shop in Sevenoaks with a candle-lit radiance, stalking on legs like beech trees, pink glowing, grape clustered, pearl hung…. In brain and insight she is not as highly organised as I am. But then she is aware of this, and so lavishes on me the maternal protection which, for some reason, is what I have always most wished from everyone.
Whatever happened changed their relationship forever, deepening it, allowing Virginia to think of Vita as her lover and to be jealous of all the other women with whom she continued, over the years, to have affairs, while Vita had to reassure an increasingly nervous and jealous Harold that she would not be swept away by Virginia as she had been by Violet Trefusis.
Their feelings for each other became even more intense when Vita left to join Harold in Persia and they were in merely epistolary contact. I say “merely,” but there is nothing negligible about the arousal capacity of letters from distant friends, the traveler treasuring the connection to home with the desperation of a drowning swimmer, and the stay-at-home living on the traveler’s passion. On the long voyage through the Mediterranean and Red Seas and across the Indian Ocean to Bombay, Vita had time to contemplate, with characteristic generosity, her beloved’s talents and difficulties, telling her, “I don’t know whether to be dejected or encouraged when I read the works of Virginia Woolf. Dejected because I shall never be able to write like that, or encouraged because somebody else can?”
Three days later she wrote:
You are the only person I have ever known properly who was aloof from the more vulgarly jolly sides of life. And I wonder whether you lose or gain? I fancy that you gain,—you, Virginia,—because you are so constituted and have a sufficient fund of excitement within yourself, though I don’t fancy it would be to the advantage of anybody else.
Once arrived in Tehran, after the overland journey from Baghdad, Vita wrote letters that later helped Virginia create the fabulous shape-shifting adventurer Orlando:
I have been stuck in a river, crawled between ramparts of snow, been attacked by a bandit, been baked and frozen alternatively, travelled alone with ten men (all strangers), slept in odd places, eaten wayside meals, crossed high passes, seen Kurds and Medes and caravans, and running streams, and black lambs skipping under blossom, seen hills of porphyry stained with copper sulfate, snow-mountains in a great circle, endless plains, with flocks on the slopes. Dead camels pecked by vultures, a dying donkey, a dying man. Came to mud towns at nightfall, stayed with odd gruff Scotchmen, drunk Persian wine. Worn a silk dress one day, and a sheepskin and fur cap the next.
The grueling journey and the austere, otherworldly beauty of Persia produced Vita’s wonderful Passenger to Teheran and vivid letters to Virginia. Virginia responded with childlike devotion. Vita’s departure seems to have set off a kind of panic in her, and she clung to the letters for reassurance.
Their reunion, after months apart, was awkward. Expected physical passion did not immediately materialize. Still, the period of their greatest intimacy followed. Vita had to reassure Harold again that she was not having a love affair with Virginia, and this time she was more explicit. Yes, they had been to bed together twice, but Vita did not consider their relationship sexual. To have sex with Virginia, she said, would be playing with fire. She was “scared to death of arousing physical feelings in her, because of the madness.” In any case, Virginia was not the kind of woman she was sexually attracted to. There was something “incongruous and almost indecent in the idea.”
Vita had every reason to pull her punches with Harold, downplaying her passion for and with Virginia. Still, there was a difference between her protective love for Virginia and her phosphorescent love for Violet Trefusis. She adored Virginia for her brilliance, beyond any she had ever known, and for the touching contrast between her intellectual power and her physical fragility, but that cerebral appeal did not provoke the same kind of passion as Violet’s wildness and flamboyance. Vita and Virginia loved each other’s company. They looked forward to the precious times they had alone, which certainly included physical intimacy. They sympathized with each other’s problems, encouraged each other’s work. Reading the proofs of Passenger to Teheran, Virginia reports to Vita, “I kept saying ‘How I should like to know this woman’ and then thinking ‘But I do,’ and then ‘No, I don’t—not altogether the woman who writes this.’ I don’t know the extent of your subtleties.”
Fittingly, their relationship was consummated in a work of the imagination—Orlando, a wholly original account of Vita’s lineage embodied in the title character, who begins as a male aristocrat, in the Renaissance, lives through centuries, and becomes at some point a female aristocrat—to no one’s surprise, least of all her own. When the idea for the book came to Virginia, she immediately wrote to Vita to ask if she minded. Vita was thrilled. She sat for photographs of Orlando in modern times, which were included in the design of the first edition. Dedicated to Vita, in every sense, Orlando was a monument to their relationship, almost a brag, claiming Vita for Virginia while Vita fell repeatedly for other women and Virginia experienced jealousy, the most easily recognized form of love.
Nigel Nicolson described Orlando as a charming love letter to his mother, but it can be seen more precisely as a love letter to Vita’s inherited certainty about who she was, a dazzlingly imaginative and enjoyable transformation of Vita’s dutiful book on the same subject, Knole and the Sackvilles. The change of gender is one among many magic tricks the novel performs, the greatest of which is the protagonist’s endurance in time. Tilda Swinton’s performance as Orlando in the 1992 film directed by Sally Potter captures this perfectly: nothing surprises her. She is the same person no matter what. That certainty about continuity of self is what Vita had that Virginia most wanted, and in writing Orlando she momentarily, imaginatively acquired it.
By 1934, the friendship was tapering off. Virginia’s closest friend became Ethel Smyth, and Vita’s her sister-in-law Gwen St. Aubyn. Besides, Vita, upon Harold’s retirement from the Foreign Office and commencing work as a journalist, had bought the property at Sissinghurst, and the couple embarked on their joint project of turning it into one of England’s most beloved locales, famous the world over for its gardens. Vita, now less interested in social life than Virginia was, spent most of her time in the country, and Virginia found her less exciting. “My friendship with Vita is over,” Virginia wrote in her diary in 1935. “Not with a quarrel, not with a bang, but as ripe fruit falls.”
Like any selection, this volume is partial, and different readers, from the same mass of correspondence and diary entries, would construct a different story. I did not find the title Love Letters justified. The volume might better have been called Portrait of a Friendship, showing how many different forms intimacy might take, how it can change with time and circumstance, how even the most intense and satisfying friendships may end. The emphasis on a love story seems forced, and somehow prurient.
Woolf is one of the great letter writers of all time, full of wit and kindness, crafting her letters as personal responses to each friend and never sending out blanket recaps of events in her life. Teasing, flirtatious, charming, sophisticated, fun to spend time with even if you don’t know half the people she talks about or refers to, for sheer liveliness and joie de vivre, she can be compared as a letter writer in English only to Byron and Keats. Her descriptions of the people she sees in the course of her day are offhandedly novelistic, and her constant socializing gave her lots of material: “She [her cousin, Dorothea Stephen] said how d’y do in her condescending way, and began to eat like a poor woman at a charity tea, fast, stealthily, every crumb, thanking me with insincere sweetness.” And all of a sudden you hear her speaking voice: “What a bore it must be to be a painter, and need light and landscape, instead of a fire and a book!”
Her best, fullest letters, the most like conversation polished by a master stylist, were written to her sister throughout her life and to Vita in the time of their great intimacy. The letters twist and turn, from lively reports of Virginia’s own doings to vivid imaginings of Vita’s, wherever she happens to be, surrounded by animals and flowers at her country home or traveling in Persia. They throw off sparks of observations about life and art:
I had wanted to go into the matter of profound natural happiness; as revealed to me yesterday at a family party of an English Banker; where the passion and joys of sons and daughters in their own society struck me almost to tears with self-pity and amazement. Nothing of that sort do we any of us know—profound emotions, which are yet natural and taken for granted, so that nothing inhibits or restrains—How deep these are, and unself conscious. There is a book called Father and Son, by [Edmund] Gosse, which says that all the coast of England was fringed with little sea anemones and lovely tassels of seaweed and sprays of emerald moss and so on, from the beginning of time till Jan 1858, when, for some reason, hordes of clergy and spinsters in mushroom hats and goggles began collecting, and so scraped and rifled the coast that this accumulation was destroyed forever—A parable this, of what we have done to the deposits of family happiness.
The phrase “family happiness” makes her think of Anna Karenina, so she pivots from the thought of how sophistication has destroyed simple emotion, embodied in the metaphor of the lost sea anemones of the English coast, as described by Gosse, to an observation about the Russian novel:
Its growing unreality to us who have no real condemnation in our hearts any longer for adultery as such. But Tolstoy hoists all his book on that support. Take it away, say, no it doesn’t offend me that AK. should copulate with Vronsky, and what remains?
The version I just quoted is from Woolf’s complete correspondence, and all that gets quoted in Love Letters from this delicious and revealing letter about bourgeois happiness and Virginia’s private moral code is this:
How odd it is—the effect geography has on the mind! I write to you differently now you’re coming back. The pathos is melting. I felt it pathetic when you were going away; as if you were sinking below the verge. Now that you are rising, I’m jolly again.
By focusing so relentlessly on their relationship, Love Letters narrows our sense of who Vita and Virginia are to each other, as though a person on a beautiful hike, instead of sending pictures of the landscape, merely sent a string of GPS coordinates. The helter-skelter of style, which is to say, their full selves, is edited out, and each letter tends to be used as a marker on the path of intimacy.
“The accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there,” Woolf wrote in her essay “Modern Fiction.” What makes her original in both fiction and nonfiction is that the accent falls not here but there. Love Letters tries to make the accents fall squarely where we would expect them to be—two people meet, they fall in love, they become lovers—and sends one back to the original material to make up a love story of one’s own.