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Vita Sackville-West (March 9, 1892 – June 2, 1962), was a British poet, novelist, and garden designer. Born at Knole Park, a 365-room ancestral home, her writing career was launched with the publication of Poems of East and West.
She’s known for her private life and as a master gardener perhaps as much as her literature. She was bisexual and had many affairs with women, including Virginia Woolf. It’s believed that she was the inspiration for the title character of Woolf’s novel, Orlando.
Vita was part of the literary Bloomsbury circle, which included Woolf and her husband, Leonard, as well as E.M. Forster, Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes, and others.
Now in the care of the National Trust, Vita Sackville-West grew up at Knole in Kent, the famous “calendar house” with its 365 rooms, 52 staircases, 12 entrances, and 7 courtyards. Born to Lionel Sackville-West and his Spanish wife, Victoria, (his first cousin and the daughter of his uncle’s mistress), the couple split when Vita was young.
She was educated at home during her early childhood, and later attended, Helen Wolff’s school for girls. Not one to befriend her peers easily, her biographies paint her childhood as lonely. While attending the school for girls, Vita met Violet Keppel and Rosamund Grosvenor, with whom she’d later develop intimate affairs.
Vita’s mother, Victoria, was courted by many men, most notably financier J.P. Morgan and Sir John Murray Scott. Vita spent a great deal of time with the latter during her childhood at his home in Paris, perfecting her French. Vita’s father, Lionel, had a relationship with an opera singer, moving her into Knole. The Sackville family inheritance custom disallowed for females to inherit the estate, and as the only child born to her parents, Knole was bequeathed to her father’s younger brother, the fourth Baron Sackville.
Vita had written prolifically at Knole, penning eight novels (unpublished), ballads, and plays while living there. The loss of Knole haunted Vita, especially in 1947 when signing the property over to the National Trust. She wrote that “the signing… nearly broke my heart, putting my signature to what I regarded as a betrayal of all the tradition of my ancestors and the house I loved.”
You might also like: Quotes by Vita Sackville-West
At age 21, Vita married Harold George Nicolson, a wealthy writer, politician, and diplomat who was also bisexual. The couple engaged in an open marriage, courting many same-sex affairs, fashioning a relationship structure ahead of its time. The couple had two sons, Nigel and Benedict. Nigel would later combine his mother’s diaries with his own observations in Portrait of a Marriage, the confessional autobiography Vita had written during her relationship with Violet Keppel.
One of the most notable of Vita’s affairs was with childhood friend Violet Keppel, which began before Vita’s marriage to Harold. By the age of sixteen, Vita and Violet had developed a strong emotional bond, and by their twenties were romantically involved. The relationship continued through Vita’s eventual marriage to Harold in 1913.
Later, Vita would become deeply infatuated with Virginia Woolf. The connection began in 1922, when Virginia Woolf was forty years old, ten years Vita’s senior. Upon meeting, Vita was instantly attracted. After meeting Woolf, she wrote in a letter to Harold dated in December 1922,
“I simply adore Virginia Woolf, and so would you. You would fall quite flat before her charm and personality… Mrs. Woolf is so simple: she does give the impression of something big. She is utterly unaffected: there are no outward adornments — she dresses quite atrociously. At first you think she is plain, then a sort of spiritual beauty imposes itself on you, and you find a fascination in watching her. She was smarter last night, that is to say, the woolen orange stockings were replaced by yellow silk ones, but she still wore the pumps. She is both detached and human, silent till she wants to say something, and then says it supremely well. I’ve rarely taken such a fancy to anyone, and I think she likes me. At least, she asked me to Richmond where she lives. Darling, I have quite lost my heart.”
Vita became Virginia’s lover and muse, inspiring the groundbreaking 1928 novel Orlando.
Career and legacy
Vita chose the Hogarth Press (the publishing house run by Virginia Woolf and her husband, Leonard) to be her publisher for Seducers in Ecuador in 1924. The novel wasn’t as successful as she’d hoped, selling just 1,500 copies in its first year. The Edwardians, her second novel published with Hogarth Press in 1930, on the other hand, was a huge success. It sold 30,000 copies in its first six months, arguably remaining one of her best-known works. In 1932, Vita published Family History, boldly tackling the subject of lesbianism.
Vita focused mainly on fiction and also parlayed her passion for gardening into many essays and columns on the subject. In 1947, Vita was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and Companion of Honour. Her distinguished body of work includes twelve poetry collections, seventeen novels, and nine works of non-fiction and biographies.
Vita died at Sissinghurst at age seventy from abdominal cancer. She was cremated and her ashes buried in the family crypt in eastern Sussex. Her son Nigel lived at Sissinghurst after her death, and after his own passing in 2004, his son moved in with his family. The gardens Vita and Harold designed at Sissinghurst Castle are still visited and admired today.
More about Vita on this site
- Quotes by Vita Sackville-West
- Quotes by Vita Sackville-West on Gardens and Gardening
- Dear Literary Ladies: Is it better to be a modest success than to risk failure?
- The Edwardians
- All Passion Spent
- Saint Joan of Arc
- Twelve Days in Persia
- In Your Garden
- Passenger to Teheran
- No Signposts in the Sea
- Violet to Vita: The Letters of Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West, 1910-1921
- The Letters of Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf
Biographies about Vita Sackville-West
- Portrait of a Marriage: Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson by Nigel Nicolson
- Vita: The Life of V. Sackville by Victoria Glendinning
Visit Vita Sackville-West’s home
- Sissinghurst Castle – Weald of Kent, UK
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