Society seductress who slept with both her bridesmaids: An erotic poem that lay hidden for 95 years casts new light on the love life of novelist Vita Sackville-West. Here her grandson unlocks the family secrets…
PUBLISHED: 16:13 EST, 3 May 2013 | UPDATED: 18:37 EST, 3 May 2013
A hundred years ago this year, on October 1, 1913, my grandparents, Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, were married. It was quite a to-do, at Knole in Kent, the great house where Vita had been brought up and where the Sackvilles had been in residence since the early 17th century.
Six hundred wedding presents were laid out on tables in the Great Hall. Only 26 people could fit in the little private chapel but hundreds, including four duchesses, came to the party afterwards. Vita wore a golden wedding dress. She had two bridesmaids, one of whom she was having an affair with at the time. The other, her new husband’s sister, she would have a long affair with 15 years later.
It was not to be a conventional marriage. Both Vita and Harold had many love affairs with other people during it, hers almost always with women, his invariably with men. Yet, despite this near constant infidelity — or perhaps because of it — their marriage was undoubtedly one of the deepest possible love for each other.
When they were engaged, early in 1912, each of them knew they were homosexual, but neither told the other. Homosexual acts were illegal at the time, but their marriage was not an act of concealment or conventionality. They had quite simply fallen in love with each other.
Harold was 25, the son of a diplomat who had been Ambassador in St Petersburg, and who had joined the diplomatic service himself. He had first met Vita at a small dinner party in London 18 months before.
‘He arrived late,’ she remembered, ‘very young and alive and charming, and the first remark I ever heard him make was “what fun!” when he was asked by his hostess to act the host.
The buoyant delight in life spread on in his attitude to sex. His affairs with men, as his biographer (and one-time lover) James Lees-Milne wrote, were ‘conducted on a high-spirited, physical and casual level’ and were quickly forgotten. Handsome, intelligent, cultivated young men were one of the delights of life, to be enjoyed, as so many other aspects of life were to be enjoyed.
Philandering with men was always to be a ‘jolly vice’. As soon as anyone started to take it too seriously — let alone to boast about it — the affair should come to an end.
And sex should never be what he called ‘squalid’. He was a snob and he once told another of his lovers, the literary critic Raymond Mortimer, that ‘the idea of a gentleman of birth and education sleeping with a guardsman is repugnant to me’.
‘Lust is a fine thing, a noble thing,’ he wrote. ‘It should not be allowed to get down at heel.’ Lust, in fact, was to him a symptom of our basic life force. Suppress lust and you would suppress the well-springs of vitality and creativity. ‘One’s mind will sag,’ he told Mortimer. ‘And if interest goes, brain goes.’
Four years after he married Vita, by which time she had already given birth to two sons, my uncle Ben and my father Nigel, Harold was forced to admit to Vita that he had been having sex with other men.
At a house party at the great estate of Knebworth in Hertfordshire in October 1917, he had contracted a venereal infection and the doctor said he must tell his wife about it. Her reaction was to go away for a short time to stay with a friend in Oxford, but within a few days she had forgiven him and was back home, reading to him the draft of the novel she was writing.
For Vita, the whole question of her sexuality was far more difficult. Harold thought of his life as centrally engaged with his work at the Foreign Office, his own writing of biographies and novels, and later his job as a Member of Parliament and junior minister in Churchill’s wartime coalition.
To him, sex was a diversion on the side, not very different from skiing. Yet to Vita, what she was sexually was all-important to her idea of herself as a person.
Earlier this year, Harvey James, a book conservator working in the Long Library at Sissinghurst — the house in Kent where Harold and Vita went to live in 1930 — came across a small manuscript poem, in French, written by Vita in 1918.
It hasn’t seen the light of day until it was published this week, 95 years later.
The poem contrasts two ways of loving someone: as a friend, strolling together in the daytime through flowery fields, in easy companionship, arm in arm; or later, surrounded by ‘the heavy scents of intoxicating night’, when she searches on what is now her mistress’s lip for ‘a madder caress’, ‘tearing its secrets from your yielding flesh’.
The poem throws a sudden sharp light on Vita’s nature and her own idea of herself.
She knew she was in many ways a deeply conventional member of the English ruling class, attached to land, tradition, the English landscape, the grandeur of her own background as one of the Sackvilles of Knole; but at the same time she thought of herself as ‘a Bedouin in corduroy’, impatient with tedious social convention, passionate and in need of a more vivid life than an ordinary married existence might provide.
What was she? Mother or adventurer? Seducer or nurturer? A sweet, gentle and kind person — as she could certainly be — or the ruthless user of other people’s bodies and hearts?
‘This is the life for me,’ she had written to Harold during their engagement, while he was plodding away at his work in the Foreign Office and she was off in Andalusia with Rosamund Grosvenor, her first girlfriend.
Vita’s own grandmother had been a Spanish gipsy from Malaga and Andalusia became a fantasy zone for Vita in which her ruthless self could find fulfilment: ‘gipsies, dancing, disreputable artists, bullfights. Oh Harold I can’t paint to you the state of mind I am in now. I feel can never go back to that humdrum existence.’
By which of course she meant her engagement to him — the rather nice, polite, kind, clever, funny and friendly Englishman waiting for her in London.
Rosamund Grosvenor, one of the bridesmaids at the wedding, was soon got rid of.
But her place was taken in Vita’s heart by the far more threatening presence of Violet Keppel, the daughter of the King’s mistress Alice Keppel (the current Duchess of Cornwall’s great-grandmother), and someone with a far more sophisticated armoury with which to attack and manipulate Vita’s heart.
It was to Violet that Vita wrote that divided poem in 1918.
This love affair became the great crisis of the marriage. Violet, who married a handsome officer and war hero, Denys Trefusis, in 1919, threw down a challenge to Vita to be true to the more ferocious version of herself.
Harold might think of himself as ‘a sunny harbour’ but, as Violet knew, Vita hated nothing more than to be referred to as ‘Mrs Nicolson’.
Harold might be having affairs with French couturiers or aristocrats or enjoying a crush on the composer Ivor Novello, but Vita wanted grand passion. ‘I wish I were more violent and less affectionate,’ Harold wrote to his wife, but it was not enough.
Vita began to dress as a man, calling herself ‘Julian’, and walking the streets of London and Paris as a wounded soldier arm in arm with her lover, Violet. ‘You could do anything with me,’ Violet wrote to her, ‘or rather Julian could. I love Julian overwhelmingly, devastatingly, possessively, incoherently, insatiably, passionately, despairingly — also coquettishly, flirtatiously and frivolously.’
Violet, and for long periods Vita, too, wanted them to run away together, to escape the humdrum Harold and home. For his part, Harold wrote to Vita: ‘I wish Violet was dead. She has poisoned one of the most sunny things that ever happened.’
Only in 1920 did the heat finally go out of the women’s affair, after reaching a hysterical climax in a hotel in Amiens in Northern France where the women had fled, and to which the abandoned husbands had rushed in a hired aeroplane (high glamour for 1920) to get them back.
Never again was the marriage threatened, and Violet sank from view. ‘I think the secret of a successful marriage,’ Harold said a little complacently, ‘is the capacity to treat disasters as if they were incidents and not to magnify incidents into disasters.’
That was scarcely going to set the pulse racing, but Vita managed to integrate her double existence as a deeply loving wife — no marriage can have more written avowals of love surviving in its archive — and as a woman with an inveterate appetite for new love affairs: with her sister-in-law Gwen St Levan, by then the mother of five children; with the poet Dotty Wellesley; with Hilda Matheson, who was in charge of arranging talks on the BBC; with the dazzlingly beautiful Mary Campbell, to whom at the height of that affair she wrote erotic sonnets all night; and others less well known, but whose often sad letters of abandonment and regret remained in Vita’s files.
Her appetite for love was real, and her cruelty to those she had rejected just as real. In the mid-1920s, she fell in love with and was slightly overawed by the novelist Virginia Woolf, with whom she became romantically involved. Their affair was undoubtedly passionate, but not overwhelmingly physical.
Vita was amazed by Woolf’s brilliance. Woolf half-admired, half-teased her in return: ‘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.’
Virginia told a friend rather disobligingly that Vita wrote with ‘a pen of brass’, 15 pages a day, too many. ‘Why she writes is a puzzle to me. If I were she, I should merely stride, with 11 Elk hounds behind me, through my ancestral woods.’
After the war, as Harold and Vita perfected the garden at Sissinghurst, the pace of life slowed, although Vita even in her 60s could still amaze and seduce otherwise entirely heterosexual married women in the county, perhaps because she seemed, as Virginia Woolf’s husband Leonard described her, ‘an animal at the height of its powers, a beautiful flower in full bloom’.
And it seems to be true that Harold and Vita loved each other more deeply with every passing year.
Here on my desk I have a letter written from her to him on Wednesday November 23, 1960. It is her own coda to this story. She was already ill with cancer when she wrote it and would die 18 months later.
‘Isn’t life odd?’ she asked him. ‘There once was a time when Violet and I were so madly in love, and I hurt you dreadfully, and now how dead that is. Passion completely spent. And the true love that has survived is mine for you and yours for me.
‘Oh what a very unexpected letter to write to you suddenly. You won’t like it, because you never like to face facts. ‘Anyhow, I love you, much more than I loved you on October 1, 1913, and that is something more than most people can say after 45 years of marriage.’
The newly-discovered poem and many other documents, photographs and drawings are part of a new exhibition at Sissinghurst Castle, Cranbrook, Kent TN17 2AB, open every day.
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2319182/Society-seductress-slept-bridesmaids-An-erotic-poem-lay-hidden-95-years-casts-scandalous-new-light-love-life-novelist-Vita-Sackville-West-Here-grandson-unlocks-family-secrets-.html#ixzz2SIEMMZX3
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