All Because Of You
On 18th December 1922, four days after their first meeting, Vita Sackville-West invited Virginia Woolf to dinner at her chic house in Ebury Street. Vita’s husband Harold was away at the time. Next day, she couldn’t wait to write to him: “I simply adore Virginia Woolf, and so would you. She is utterly unaffected: 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 woollen orange stockings were replaced by yellow silk ones, but she still wore the pumps.”
After describing Virginia as “quite old” — Woolf was forty, ten years older than her — Vita adds with a flutter of giddiness: “I’ve rarely taken such a fancy to anyone, and I think she likes me. Darling, I have quite lost my heart.” You might be shocked by a married woman saying that so openly to her husband, but you really needn’t be. Vita and Harold were utterly devoted to each other for almost fifty years, from their marriage in 1913 to her death in 1962. Nevertheless, Harold had plenty of affairs with men during those decades — and Virginia certainly wasn’t the first (or last) woman Vita fell for, either.
Years earlier, she began a protracted affair with the writer and socialite Violet Trefusis (a distant relation of both Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall and of Judith Keppel, the first big winner on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and now one of the Eggheads.) They met as schoolgirls in 1904 and their relationship persisted through both women getting engaged and married, climaxing in their elopement to France in 1920, hotly pursued by their husbands in a biplane.
The two women made a bond to remain faithful to one another, insofar as neither of them should have sex with their husband — and ironically, it was suspicion of marital fidelity which finally drove a wedge between them. The normally permissive Harold grew increasingly uncomfortable with the intensity of Vita’s attachment to Violet and told her that Violet had slept with her husband Denys. Despite Violet’s protestations, Vita chose to believe him.
Violet’s mother Alice Keppel had been the mistress of King Edward VII and she knew a thing or two about how to manage a society sex scandal. Sensing trouble, she shipped Violet abroad to keep her out of the way. Violet and Vita reunited for one last trip to France together in January 1921, but faced with an ultimatum from Harold, Vita called time on their affair and refused even to allow Violet to write to her again.
Denying Violet’s desire to write was Vita’s most decisive way of showing that things were all over between them. Appropriately, then, Vita’s own urge to write was the force which brought her and Virginia closer together. Keen to support Vita’s literary ambitions, Virginia published her magnificently titled novella Seducers in Ecuador through Hogarth Press, the publishing house she had founded with her husband Leonard in their Richmond home.
Vita and Harold dropped in on the Woolfs in February 1923, and Virginia’s corresponding diary entry gives a hint that their connection was developing beyond merely being a professional one: “We had a surprise visit from the Nicholsons. She [Vita] is a pronounced sapphist, & may, thinks Ethel Sands, have an eye on me, old though I am.”
In his biography of his parents’ life together, Portrait of a Marriage, Nigel Nicolson indicates how the women’s “friendship developed affectionately, starting with the small tendernesses by the fireside — (Vita liked to sit on the floor by Virginia’s chair) — that gradually, so gradually, led to something a little more.” By 1926, Vita had become an increasingly frequent visitor to the Woolfs: “rather a bore for Leonard, but not enough to worry him,” Virginia wrote, before adding, “the truth is one has room for a good many relationships.”
That last sentence makes a good summary of the novel Vita inspired Virginia to write. Woolf noted the moment of its conception on 5th October 1927: “And instantly the usual exciting devices enter my mind: a biography beginning in the year 1500 and continuing to the present day, called Orlando,” noting that her protagonist would be “Vita; only with a change about from one sex to the other.” Four days later, she wrote to Vita, bashful and brimming with excitement: “Suppose Orlando turns out to be Vita; and its [sic] all about you and the lusts of your flesh and the lure of your mind… Shall you mind? Say yes, or No…”
Far from minding, Vita revelled in being the muse for what Nigel Nicolson has described as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature.” She wrote back with great urgency: “If ever I was thrilled and terrified, it is at the prospect of being projected into the shape of Orlando! What fun for you; what fun for me… You have my full permission.”
Flushed with inspiration, Virginia wrote furiously, “dipped my pen in the ink, and wrote these words as if automatically, on a clean sheet: Orlando: a Biography. No sooner had I done this than my body was flooded with rapture and my brain with ideas.” A year and two days later, she laid down her pen, having written the date — 11th October 1928 — as the book’s very final words. And almost exactly a year since the arrival of that teasing, tremulous letter, Vita received a pristine copy of the book along with Virginia’s original manuscript. (A copy of the manuscript, inscribed “Vita from Virginia,” is still on display at Knole, the Sackvilles’ ancestral estate in Kent, now managed by The National Trust.)
Vita read it voraciously and tried to capture her emotional response to the novel in a letter to Virginia: “I can’t say anything except I am completely dazzled, bewitched, enchanted, under a spell. It seems to me the loveliest, wisest, richest book that I have ever read, Darling, I don’t know and scarcely like to write, so overwhelmed am I, how you could have hung so splendid a garment on so poor a peg.”
Vita’s mother, Lady Sackville, was moved in a rather different way. She pasted a photograph of Virginia into her copy of Orlando and wrote beside it: “The awful face of a mad woman whose successful mad desire is to separate people who care for each other. I loathe this woman for having changed my Vita and taken her away from me.”
Writing in 1973, Nigel Nicolson praised his mother for the way 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… How could she regret that the knowledge of it should now reach the ears of a new generation, one so infinitely more compassionate than her own?”
As Virginia’s own letters show, however, Vita’s influence was making itself strongly felt through Orlando long before the permissive 1970s reappraised either the woman or the book for their progressive sexuality. In 1929, she contacted Vita to share a fan letter she had received: “A woman writes that she has to stop and kiss the page when she reads O. The percentage of Lesbians is rising in the States, all because of you.”