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Lighting the Cave: The Relationship between Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf

Author(s): Louise A. DeSalvo


Source: Signs, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Winter, 1982), pp. 195-214
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3173896 .
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Lighting the Cave: The Relationship


between Vita Sackville-West and
Virginia Woolf

Louise A. DeSalvo

On January 16, 1923, a week after the death of Katherine Mansfield,


Virginia Woolf wrotean entryin her diary,attestingto Mansfield'simportance to her work:
Katherine has been dead a week, & how far am I obeying her "do
not quite forgetKatherine"which I read in one of her old letters?
Am I already forgettingher? It is strange to trace the progress of
one's feelings. Nelly said in her sensational way at breakfaston
Friday "Mrs Murray's dead! It says so in the paper!" At that one
feels-what? A shock of relief?-a rival the less? Then confusionat
feelingso little-then, gradually,blankness& disappointment;then
a depression whichI could not rouse myselffromall thatday. When
I began to write,it seemed to me there was no point in writing.
Katherine wont read it. Katherine'smy rival no longer.1
I wsouldliketo thankBlanche Wiesen Cook, ErnestJ. DeSalvo, MitchellA. Leaska, Jane
Lilienfeld,Jane Marcus, and Sara Ruddick fordiscussionswhich led to manyof the ideas
expressed in thisarticle.Nigel Nicolson generouslyread and responded to an earlierdraft
and provided much valuable information.I would also like to thank two unnamed Signs
readers for their carefulcommentson an earlier version of this article,wvhich
prompted
Sackville-Westand
many revisions.My studentsin a seminaron the relationshipbetxween
Woolf provided many valuable insights: Mary Lou Conway, June Doyle, Billie Huber,
Bernice Mitchell,and MarilynSchuffler.
1. Virgiia
T Di
Diar of
oo 1920-1924, ed. Anne Olivier Bell,
loolfIThe
irginiaWoof,
gn
assisted by Andrew McNeillie (New York: Harcou-t Brace Jovanovich,1978), 2:225-26
(hereaftercited as Diary,1920-1924). The followingworks have been importantto the
genesis of this article: Blanche Wiesen Cook, " 'Women Alone Stir My Imagination': Lesbianismand the Cultural Tradition,"Signs:Journalof WIomen
in Cultureand Society4, no. 4
(Summer 1979): 718-39, and ll'omenand SupportNetworks
(New York: Out & Out Books,
1979); Barbara Fassler, "Theories of Homosexuality as Sources of Bloomsbury's Anin Cultureand Society5, no. 2 (Winter 1979): 237-51;
clrogyny,"Signs:Journalof WIomen
Nigel Nicolson,Portraitofa Marriage(New York: Bantam Books, 1974); Sonya Rudikoff,
i lan Society1982. vol. 8, no. 2]
l of W'omenin Culture
[Sigs: Jourlna

1? 1982byThe University
ofChicago.Allrights
reserved.
0097-9740/83/0802-0003$01.00

195

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196

DeSalvo

and Woolf
Sackville-West

"Katherine wont read it. Katherine's my rival no longer." In this diary


entry,Woolf revealed that a part of her motivein writingwas both to
connectand to compete withanotherwoman writerwhom she perceived
to be her coequal and rival-one whose high standardsurged Woolf to
set equivalentlyhigh ones for herself.Thus, as she wrote,she posited
Mansfieldas her ideal reader; Mansfield'simagined reactionserved as a
check against Woolf's impressions.When Katherine Mansfield was in
actual factcritical,as she was of Nightand Day-suggesting that it was a
safer novel than Woolf's firstwork, The VoyageOut-Woolf suffered
agonies.2
At the time of Katherine Mansfield's death, there was no other
woman whom Woolf respected in quite the same way. But there was a
woman on the peripheryof her lifewho would come, in time,to fitinto
the gap created by Mansfield'sdeath: Vita Sackville-West,"the new apparition,"3whom Woolf had met earlier in 1922 at a dinner partygiven
by Clive Bell.4 Sackville-Westwould be, in many ways,much more importantto Woolf than Mansfieldever was. It is unlikelythatWoolf ever
gave her the same criticalrespectthatshe accorded Mansfield;nonetheless, when Woolf described Seducersin Ecuador to Sackville-Westas "the
sort of thing I should like to write myself,"she wrote perhaps with
truth-as well as witha desire to flatter.5
In a letter to Woolf about the sources of her own inspiration,
Sackville-Westwrote,"I knowjust what to pick out of the shelfin order
in one?
to strikesparksoffmyself,don't you? Or are you tinder-and-flint

"How Many Lovers Had Vii-giniaWoolf?"HudsonReview32, no. 4 (Winter 1979): 540-66;


Joanne Trautmann, The JessamyBrides (UniversityPark: PennsylvaniaState University
and Its Genesis: Venturingand Experimentingin Art,
Press, 1973); Jean 0. Love, "Or-lando
ed. Ralph Freedman (Berkeley
Love, and Sex," in VirginialVoolf:Revaluationand Continuity,
and Los Angeles: Universityof California Press, 1980); Michael Stevens,V. Sackville-l1'est
(New York: Charles Scribner'sSons, 1974). Ellen Hawkes, "Woolf's 'Magical Garden of
Women,' " in NewFeminist
Essayson Virginia11'0oolfed. Jane Marcus (Lincoln: Universityof
Nebraska Press, 1981), pp. 31-60, is a geiminal essay, firstpresented as a lecture at the
1976 Princeton UniversityConference on Wooolfand her cultural setting,o-ganized by
Joanna Lipking.
2. Ann L. McLaughlin, "The Same Job: Notes on the Relationshipbetween Virginia
no. 9 (Winter 1977), p. 11, and
Woolf and KatherineMansfield,"Virginia WIoolf
;liscellany,
"An Uneasy Sisterhood,"New FeministEssayson Virginia
WlIoof,ed. Jane Marcus (Lincoln:
Universityof Nebraska Press, 1983), vol. 2, in press; Louise A. DeSalvo, "Katherine
no.
Mansfieldand Vil-giniaWoolf's Revisionsof The VoyageOut,"VirginiaWoolf/iMiscellany,
11 (Fall 1978), pp. 5-6.
3. V. Woolf,Diary,1920-1924, January7, 1923, 2:225.
4. Virginia Woolf, The Lettersof VirginiaWIloolJ,
1912-1922, vol. 2, The Questiotof
ThingsHappening,ed. Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann (London: Hogarth Press,
1976), p. 600, n. 2.
5. Virginia Woolf,The Letters
ofVirginia11'oolf1923-1928, vol. 3, A ChangeofPerspective,ed. Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,
1923-1928.
1978), letterno. 1497. Hereaftercited as Letters,

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Signs

Winter1982

197

I suspect so."6 VirginiaWoolf and Vita Sackville-Westwould become, in


time,as tinderand flintto one another,strikingin each other and from
one another the sparksof love, sexuality,support,friendship,and literary inspiration,and togethertheywould lightthe cave of darkness that
each held withinherself.
AlthoughWoolf and Sackville-Westwere importantto one another
from 1923 until Woolf's death in 1941, theirlove affairwas at its peak
between 1925 and 1928, and a strongfriendshiplasted as late as 1934.7
Their lettersto one another when theywere separated were filledwith
the language of lovers,withtalkof theirworkin progress,withdescriptionsof the triviaof theirdays thatloversneed when theyare separated,
withconcern for theirhusbands, withadmonishmentsfromone to the
other to take verygood care of themselves,with agony at the fact that
theywere apart.
During the ten-yearperiod of theirfriendship,Sackville-Westpublished Seducersin Ecuador,Passengerto Teheran,The Land, AphraBehn,
TwelveDays, "King's Daughter,"AndrewMarvell,TheEdwardians,All PasClocksStriketheHour, ColsionSpent,FamilyHistory,"Sissinghurst,"Thirty
lectedPoems,and TheDark Island.8Woolf in thattimewrote"Mr Bennett
and Mrs Brown," Mrs. Dalloway,To theLighthouse,
Orlando,A Room of
One's Own, The Waves,Flush,and A Letterto a YoungPoet; published The
CommonReader and The CommonReader: SecondSeries; and began The
Years,while workingas usual on scoresof reviewsand essays.9It was the
most productive period of each of their lives; neitherhad ever before
writtenso much so well,and neitherwould ever again reach thispeak of

accomplishment.
The beginningof theirrelationshipwas filledwithmutual curiosity
about each other'spast history.Soon afterWoolf metSackville-West,she
wroteto ask her fora copy of the recentlypublished book entitledKnole
and theSackvillesthat traced the historyfromthe thirteenthto the twentiethcenturyof Vita's ancestralhome in Kent: "There is nothingI enjoy
more than familyhistories,so I am fallingupon Knole the firstmomentI
get."'0 In their conversations,in their letters,and ultimatelyin their
6. Vita Sackville-Westto Virginia Woolf [August/September1925], Berg Collection,
NexwYork Public Library,New York, folder 2. Sackville-West'slettersto Woolf and her
diary (cited in n. 15 below) are quoted withthe kind permissionof Nigel Nicolson and the
Henry W. and AlbertA. Berg Collection of English and American Literatureof the New
York Public Library,Astor,Lenox and Tilden Foundations. I xvouldlike to thank Lola L.
Szladits, curator, for her continuing interestin this project. Mitchell Leaska and I are
preparing an edition of Vita Sackville-West'slettersto Virginia Woolf,to be published by
William Morrow in 1984.
7. Love, "Orlanldo... " (n. 1 above), pp. 189-218.
8. The listis draw-nfromStevens,pp. 154-57.
2 vols. (New York:
9. The listis drawn fromQuentin Bell, VirginiaWoolf.A Biography,
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,1972), 2:236-52. For a listingof the essays that Woolf published, see B. J. Kirkpatrick,A Bibliography
of VirginiaWoolf(Oxford: Clarendon Press,
1980), pp. 157-74.
10. V. Woolf,Letters,
1923-1928, vol. 3, letterno. 1341.

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198

DeSalvo

and Woolf
Sackville-West

novels, theywould explore during the course of their friendshiptheir


own and each other's familyhistory.Woolf wroteTo theLighthouse,
The
and
and
which
own
she
wrote
examined
her
The
childhood,
Waves,
Years,
Orlando,which examined Vita's; Sackville-Westwrote The Edwardians,
which examined her own familyhistory,and FamilyHistory,which, to
somneextent,examined Virginia's.
In Leonard Woolf's opinion no one could have been more different
fromhis wifethan Vita Sackville-West:"She belonged indeed to a world
which was completelydifferentfromours, and the long line of Sackvilles,Dorsets, De La Warrs,and Knole withits 365 rooms had put into
her mind and heartan ingredientwhichwas alien to us and at firstmade
intimacydifficult."1What Leonard Woolf did not see, however, was
how verysimilarVirginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-Westfelttheywere
because theirchildhoods were in factmuch alike despite the overt difference of class. When Sackville-Westwas on one of her tripsto Teheran, Woolf tried explaining her own character: "Then there's my
character (you see howvegotisticI am, for I answeeronly questions that
are about myself)I agree about the lack ofjolly vulgarity.But thenthink
howrI was brought up! No school; mooning about alone among my
father's books; never any chance to pick up all that goes on in
schools-throwing balls; ragging; slang; vulgarity;scenes; jealousiesonly rages with my half brothers,and being walked off my legs round
the Serpentine by my father."'2 And Sackville-Westresponded: "But
indeed my bringing-upwasn't so very differentfrom yours: I moved
about too, at Knole mostly,and hadn't even a brotheror a sisterto knock
the cornersoffme. And I never wentto school. If I am jolly and vulgar,
you can cryquits on anothercount,foryou have thatinterestin humanitywhich I never can manage,-at least, I have the interest,but not the
diabolical skillin its practicewhichis yours.And as I get older ... I find
I get more and more disagreeablysolitary."'3They both had been emotionallyabandoned at significant
pointsin theirchildhood: Woolf,byher
mother's death and her father'sself-absorbedgrief after it; SackvilleWest, by the separation of her parents and her mother's infantilism.
They both were denied free and easy access to children theirown age:
Woolf, because of the illness that she was thought to have; SackvilleWest,because Knole was situatedso farfromany otherhousehold. They
both had to deal with parents who were mercurial,difficultto please,
lovable, and yetextraordinarilymaddening: in Woolf's case, it wvasher
Au
All theIIa.y:,n .tobiogtaphy
o' theYears1919 to 1939
11. Leonard Woolf,Downthill
(New York: Harcourt, B-ace & \World, 1967), p. 112.
12. V. Woolf, Letters,1923-1928, vol. 3, letterno. 1624. For discussions of Woolf's
childhood, see Bell; Jean ). Love, Virgi'tila
WToot'lSourcesoJMadnessandArt(Ber-keleyand
Los Angeles: Universityof California Press, 1977); Louise A. DeSalvo, "1897: Virginia
Woolf at 15: The Fir-st
Really Livec Year of myLife,'" in Marcus, ed. (n. 2 above), vol. 2.
13. Sackville-Westto V. kWoolf,
April 8 [1926], Berg Collection, folder6.

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Winter1982

199

father; in Sackville-West's,her mother. They each had lived through


childhood withconstantremindersof historyand the weightysense of
theirown family'splace in it: Woolf,because of her father'sworkon the
Dictionaryof NationalBiography;Sackville-West,because of Knole. They
both feltconflictedby the separate strainsin theircharacter: SackvilleWest, by the contrastof her Spanish heritage and her exalted English
past; Woolf, by the tug between the Pattles's flamboyance and the
Stephens's sobriety.14
The love that they developed provided a solid, central base from
which they could each look anew at their childhoods, at their family
histories,at how each had become the woman that she now was. This
reexaminationresulted in profound changes for both. Virginia Woolf
discussed with Vita the fact that she had been molested by her halfbrother; there is an entryin Sackville-West'sdiary from their trip to
France which reads, "After dinner V. read me her memoir of 'Old
Bloomsbury,'and talked alot about her brother."15Aftercoming to at
least temporarytermswiththisincident,Woolf was able to enter into an
erotic relationshipforthe firsttime in her maturity.Vita Sackville-West
was freed into an enrichingrather than a self-destructive
relationship,
one that tapped both her intellectand her emotions. An index of its
positive effectfor Virginia Woolf is that she, who so detested mirrors
throughouther life,bought herselfan antique mirrorwhen she went to
France withVita. WithVita she could take a look at her old self,and she
could look anew at the self she now was.
Vita Sackville-Westprovided Woolf withan alternativeappraisal of
her characterto the one thatshe had lived withforyears-the reclusive
semi-invalidwho had to watchherselfat all timesand at all costs. Instead
of emphasizing Woolf's sickliness, Sackville-Westdwelled upon her
health, her energy,her vitality,her accomplishments,her generosityin
dealing withothers,her gregariousness."You are," she wrote to Woolf
in 1925, "a very,veryremarkable person":
You see, you accomplish so much. You are one perpetual Achievement; yet you give the impression of having infiniteleisure. One
comes to see you: you are prepared to spend two hours of Time in
talk.One may not, for reasons of health,come to see you: you write
divine letters,four pages long. You read bulky manuscripts.You
advise grocers. You support mothers, vicariously.You produce
books which occupy a permanentplace on one's bedside shelfnext
to Gerard MANLY Hopkins and the Bible. You cast a beam across
14. Bell, 1:18.
15. Diary of Vita Sackville-Weston a journey to France withVirginiaWoolf,September 24-30, 1928, entrydated September 26, Berg Collection. For a descriptionof the
relationshipbetweenViolet Dickinsonand VirginiaWoolf,whichoccurred during Woolf's
adolescence and young adulthood, see Cook, "'Women Alone ...'" (n. 1 above).

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200

DeSalvo

and Woolf
Sackville-West

the dingylandscape of the Times LiterarySupplement. You change


people's lives. You set up type.You offerto read and criticiseone's
poems,-criticise, [in the sense which you have given to the word,]
meaningillumination,not the completedisheartenmentwhichis the
legacy of other critics.How is it done?16
This alternativeview helped Woolf arriveat a more realisticappraisal of
the breadth of her accomplishments,not despite the faults of her
character but because of its strengths,and gave her the verificationof
self-worthprerequisiteforaccomplishingeven more. Yet Sackville-West
also saw veryclearlythat Woolf often pushed herselftoo hard, that she
was not selfishenough in the interestsof her art. She recognized that
although Woolf had accomplished an enormous amount in her lifetime,
she was not always altogether wise in how she used the considerable
energythatshe had; she would not allow herselfto relax and recoup her
energies, but pushed herselfuntil illness became the only way to take,
withoutguilt,the restthatshe required. Sackville-Westreminded Woolf
again and again thatshe wore herselfout in the care of others,much as
her mother and her half-sisterStella Duckworthhad done. In a 1925
letter,she chided her friend:"Whydo you give so much of yourenergies
to the manuscriptsof other people? You told me in London thatyou had
at least six novels in your head but were being severe withyourselfuntil
you should get to Rodmell. Now you are at Rodmell, and what of the six
novels? Between Ottoline, Gertrude Stein, and bridal parties which
make you faint,what time is leftfor Virginia?"17Another time,on receivinga card addressed in Woolf's handwritingand findingthatit was
reallyan advertisementfromthe Hogarth Press,Sackville-Westberated
Woolf for frittering
her time away on such trivialwork: "Why do you
address advertisements?Has it a hypnoticeffecton you? I can thinkof
no other reason whyyou should do it."18
One of the notionsthatWoolf had lived withsince her adolescence
was that she needed routinework to keep her nervous systemfunctionyear, her fatherand her physiing as it should. In fact,in her fifteenth
cian required her to spend time making a garden to counteractwhat
theybelieved to be the adverse effectsof intellectualpursuitsupon her
hypersensitivenature. The idea that she was, at times,too sensitivefor
intellectualpursuits (reading, writing)but not too delicate for manual
labor persisted into her adulthood. Sackville-Westsuggested that this
notion was probablyno longer appropriate, if indeed it had ever been
appropriate,19and that the clerical and manual labor performed on
behalf of the Hogarth Press mightbe robbingher of energyneeded for
16.
17.
18.
19.

Sackville-Westto V. Woolf, September 18 [1925?], Berg Collection,folder 2.


Sackville-Westto V. Woolf, August 25 [1925?], Berg Collection,folder 1.
Sackville-Westto V. Woolf, December 8, 1925, Berg Collection,folder 3.
See DeSalvo, "1897 .. ." (n. 12 above).

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201

her writing.If she needed a respite from intellectualwork,she might


choose a less enervating,more invigoratingformof relaxation.In short,
Sackville-Westhelped Woolf take another and more realistic look at
herself,at her resources,and at her resilience.Woolf and her husband
began to travelsomewhat more in the years followingher relationship
with Vita; Woolf also learned at this time to switchfrom one kind of
intellectualtaskto another,fromcriticismto fiction,to make the best use
of her time and of her faculties.
Meanwhile, the Hogarth Press's publication of Sackville-West's
novels helped the Woolfs achieve a measure of economic securitythat
they never had before. AlthoughSeducersin Ecuador,the firstnovel of
hers published by them, sold only 1,500 copies, The Edwardianswas a
huge commercial success-30,000 copies were sold in the firstsix
months.20Woolf was well aware that Vita's novels helped the press. On
September 7, 1930, she wrote her friend:"What about your novel and
your poems? I ask in no idle curiosity;I look upon you now as the Woolf
breadwinner,since it'smore and more certainthatmynovel wontwin us
even a penny bun."21 At thattimeWoolf was writingThe Waves,and it is
possible that this new economic securityhelped Woolf become even
more audaciously experimentalin her evolvingnovel than she had been
in the past-although her earlier workscertainlywere experimentalin
theirown way.22The uniqueness of The Wavesmightthusbe considered
as an outgrowthof thisextraordinaryrelationship.23It is thereforedisturbingto read Virginia Woolf's comment to Ottoline Morrell in 1933
that Vita "came with her sons, one Eton, one Oxford, which explains
why she has to spin those sleepwalking servant girl novels."24Those
"sleepwalkingservantgirl" novels provided the Woolfs themselveswith
economic security.
What in turn did Virginia Woolf do for Sackville-West'ssense of
herselfas a writer?Sackville-Westloved VirginiaWoolf,not only forher
intrinsicself,but also forher literaryachievement.In 1925, she began a
letterwiththe words "My darling" and continued:
20. L. Woolf, p. 158.
21. Virginia Woolf,The Lettersof VirginiaWoolf,1929-1931, vol. 4, A Reflection
ofthe
OtherPerson, ed. Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann (New York: Harcourt Brace
Jovanovich,1978), letterno. 2233. Hereaftercited as Letters,1929-31.
22. See Louise A. DeSalvo, "A View of One's Own: VirginiaWoolfand the Making of
in Melymbrosia:
AnEarlyVersion
of"TheVoyageOut,"ed. Louise A. DeSalvo (New
MIelymbrosia,"
York: New York Public Library, 1982); Jane Marcus, "Enchanted Organs, Magic Bells:
Nightand Day as Comic Opera," in Freedman, ed. (n. 1 above).
23. Jane Marcus is in the process of investigatingthe relationshipbetween Ethel
of The Waves.
Smythand Virginia Woolf and the swriting
24. VirginiaWoolf,TheLetters
ofVirginiaWoolf,1932-1935, vol. 5, TheSickleSide ofthe
Moon,ed. Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,
1979), letterno. 2841.

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202

and Woolf
Sackville-West

DeSalvo

Last nightI wentto bed veryearlyand read Mrs Dalloway-It was a

very curious sensation: I thought you were in the room. ..

I was

veryunhappy because I had had a row withmy mother,and very


happy because of you; so itwas likebeing twodifferentpeople at the

same time....

I felt quite light, as though I were falling through my

bed, like when one has fever.Today I am quite solid again, and my
boots are muddy. They weightme down. Yet I am not as solid as
usual,-not quitesuch an oaf,-because there is at the back of my
mind all the time . .a

glow, a sort of nebula, which only when I

examine it hardens into a shape; as soon as I thinkof somethingelse


it dissolvesagain, remainingtherelike the sun througha fog,and I
have to reach out to it again, take it in myhands & feel itscontours:
then it hardens, "Virginia is coming on Saturday."25
But this sun was not always altogethereasy to live with. Woolf's
influence,in the long run, helped Sackville-Westdevelop herselfas a
writerin ways that pushed her talentsto their utmost,but when comparing their work, Sackville-Westoften felt her own achievement diminished: "I contrastmy illiteratewritingwithyour scholarlyone, and
am ashamed."26She had been similarlyawed by Woolf's Common
Reader.
Vita
to
and
in
continued
write
criticism
1928
Nonetheless,
literary
published a book on Aphra Behn, in 1929 one on Andrew Marvell.
When Woolf read Passengerto Teheran,she wrote,in her diary,that
the work was not carefullyrevised,not carefullyconsidered, too hasty,
too lightlytossed off.
Vita's prose is too fluent.I've been reading it, & it makes my pen
run. When I've read a classic,I am curbed &-not castrated:no, the
opposite; I cant thinkof the word at the moment.
Had I been writingP[assenger] to T[eheran] I should have run
off whole pools of thiscoloured water; & then (I think)found my
own method of attack.It is mydistinctionas a writerI thinkto get
thisclear & myexpressionexact. Were I writingtravelsI should wait
till some angle emerged: & go for that. The method of writing
smooth narrativecant be right;thingsdont happen in one's mind
like that. But she is veryskilful& golden voiced.27
There is, perhaps, a hint of envy at Vita's abilityto toss off books as
as she tossed offher muddyboots aftera walk
quicklyand as effortlessly
with her dogs. While Woolf revised torturously,Sackville-Westseemed
contentwithgettingthe workdone, and Woolf appears to have resented
this. She had also criticizedSeducersin Ecuador when she wrote of it to
25. Sackville-Westto V. Woolf, Wednesday [1925?], Be-g Collection,fiocler1.
26. Sackville-Westto V. \Woolf,
December 8 [1925], Be-g Collection,folder 3.
27. Saturday, February 12, 1927, ViriginiaW'oolf,The Diaryof I'irgi,ia l1'oo,lf19251930, ed. Anne Olivier Bell, assisted bv Andrew McNeillie (NexwYork and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,1980), 3:126-27. He-eafter cited as Diary,1925-1930.

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Signs

Winter1982

203

Vita, telling her that the work was not "of course, altogether thrust
through; I think it could be tightened up, and aimed straighter,but
there is nothing to spoil it in this."28And she often wrote her friend
descriptionsof her own process. On February 18, 1927, she discussed
as if to teach, by virtue of her own
her revision of To theLighthouse,
what
meticulous
the
process was all about: "I'm dazed, I'm
example,
I
I'm
sick
to
death:
on
bored,
crossingout commas and puttingin
go
in
a
marmoreal
stateof
semi-colons
despair. I suppose theremaybe half
a paragraph somewhere worth reading: but I doubt it."29But Woolf's
advice had itseffect.On January29, 1927, afterseeing Woolf forthe last
time before her second trip to Persia, Sackville-Westwrote (with some
irony):
I shall work so hard, partlyto please you, partlyto please myself,
partly to make the time go & have something to show for it-I
treasureyoursudden discourseon literatureyesterdaymorning,-a
send-off,to me, ratherlike Polonius to Laertes. It is quite true that
you have had infinitelymore influenceon me intellectuallythan
anyone, and for this alone I love you.... Yes, my very dear Virginia: I was at a crossways just about the time I first met
you, ... You do like me to writewell, don't you? And I do hate
writingbadly-and havingwrittenso badly in the past. But now, like
Queen Victoria,I will be good.30
What Sackville-Westfeltshe needed, and what she got fromWoolf,was
an unflinchingcriticwho would set new and high standardsto whichshe
would aspire. Aftershe gave Seducersin Ecuador to the Hogarth Press to
publishin 1924, Sackville-Westdid not publishanothernovel until 1930,
when TheEdwardiansappeared. Sackville-Westsaw thissix-yearhiatusas
the resultin part of the inhibitingeffectof Woolf's criticismand in part
of her own desire to improve. She was, in addition, preoccupied at this
time withthe writingof TheLand and her twvo
books about her travelsin
Persia.31But Sackville-Westdid not see the hiatusas altogetherbad: "At
least I feel confidentthat the rank growthof my early years has been
prettyseverelypruned by now, and I hope has made nice strongwoody
growthinstead. We shall see."32
She probablybegan writingfictionagain because the familyneeded
the money realized from the sales of her novels: Nigel and Ben were
28. V. Woolf,Letters,
1923-1928, vol. 3, letterno. 1497.
29. Ibid., letterno. 1718.
30. Sackville-Westto V. Woolf,January29, 1927, Berg Collection,folder 10. In the
original letter,Vita draws a signpostshowing a crossroads,with"bad novels" on one sign
and "good poetry"on the other.
31. I am indebted to Nigel Nicolson for pointingthisout (letterto the author from
Nigel Nicolson, SissinghurstCastle, November 1, 1980).
32. Sackville-Westto V. Woolf, August 21, 1928, Berg Collection,folder 21.

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DeSalvo

and Woolf
Sackville-West

attending expensive schools; Sissinghurstwas just purchased; Harold


was not employed; and there was the garden at Sissinghurstto deal
with.33Shortlybefore she started,Sackville-Westasked Woolf to make
out "a synopsisof solid reading" that would help prepare her for the
writingof fiction,as she believed Woolf prepared herself.34"I have
recentlybeen appalled by my own ignorance. You see, you know all
about people like Sterne,and I don't. I go worryingon, withouthaving
enough backgroundof good standardsto use for purposes of comparison."35Between the years 1930 and 1934, Sackville-Westpublished what
in my judgment are the four most importantnovels of her literary
career: The Edwardians,All Passion Spent,FamilyHistory,
TheDark Island.
The respitefromfictionhad indeed made "nice strongwvoody
growth."
Although Virginia Woolf's friendshipwithVita Sackville-Westwas
mosteloquentlycelebrated in her writingof Orlando,Woolf's love affair
with Sackville-West probably provided the emotional climate that
allowed To theLighthouseto come into being, as Jane Lilienfeld has so
astutelyobserved.36 Like Woolf's mother,Julia Stephen, Vita was at
timesinaccessibleto her, particularlyduring her frequenttripsabroad.
The love affairmay thus have stirredup the feelingsof separation that
Woolf had experienced as a child and that are so poignantlyexplored
through the responses of several charactersin To theLighthouseto the
figureof Mrs. Ramsay. Once Woolf had writtenthroughthe historyof
her separation fromher mother,she mayhave needed to writea book in
which she would possess Vita utterly:Orlando.As soon as she finished
she conceived Orlando,as if the record of her early life and
Lighthouse,
the record of her friend'sheritage wrerecompanion books explaining
how each of them had become the women theynow were.
Orlandoowed a great deal to Sackville-West'sown0historicalaccount
which Woolf had read
of her family'shistory,Knole and theSackvilles,37
in
their friendship.Many of the ideas that Woolf developed in
early
Orlandoabout time passing, about history,about impermanence,about
the relationship of people to historical processes are suggested in
Sackville-West'sowvnKnoleand theSackvilles,but transformedfromhistoryintoart throughthe magic of VirginiaWoolf's prose. And, Woolf's
more overtlypoliticalA Room of One's Own might also be, in part, a
response to seeing at firsthand the inequitiesof English society.Knowing Vita and seeing Knole certainlyled to the quasi-fantasy,Orlando,but
33. Nigel Nicolson to authot, Sissinghuiirst
Castle, November 1, 1980.
34. See Brenda Silver'sIirgilia I'oolf
's ReadingNotebooks
(Pirinceton,N.J.: Pirinceton
UniversityPress, in press).
35. Sackville-Westto V. WVoolf,
February 13, 1929, Beig Collection,folder 29.
36. Jane Lilienfeld, personal communication. See also Jane Lilienfeld," 'The DeTlwentieth
ceptiveness of Beauty': Mother Love and Mother Hate in To theLighthouse,"
CenturtLiterature23, no. 3 (October 1977): 345-76.
Allu37. See BeverlyAnn Schlack,Contilnuing
Presences:Virginina
ltoolJ'sUse ofLiteraysion (UniversityPark: PennsylvaniaState UniversityPress, 1979), pp. 77-100.

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may also have helped form the polemical works-A Roomof One's Own
and even ThreeGuineas.On July5, 1924, Woolf visitedKnole and wrote
about it in her diary:
His lordshiplivesin the kernelof a vast nut. You perambulatemiles
of galleries; skip endless treasures-chairs that Shakespeare might
have sat on-tapestries, pictures,floorsmade of the halves of oaks;
& penetrate at length to a round shinytable with a cover laid for
one. A dozen glasses forma circle each witha red rose in it. What
can one human being do to decorate itselfin such a setting?One
feels that one ought to be an elephant able to consume flocks& be
hung about withwhole blossomingtrees-whereas one solitarypeer
sitslunchingbyhimselfin the centre,withhis napkin folded intothe
shape of a lotus flower.... There is Knole, capable of housing all
the desperate poor ofJudd Street,& withonly thatone solitaryearl
in the kernel.38
For even if Vita had had a grand past, she was now, because of English
law, a workingwoman just like Virginia Woolf herself-a woman who
needed to writeto help provide money for the familycoffer.
Orlando,in another sense, was a fictionalrewritingof English history.Through the power of her pen, Woolf reversed the centuries'old
Kentish inheritance law which had prevented Vita from inheriting
Knole. In the pages of her Orlando,Vita Sackville-Westowned Knole in a
way that she never could own it in reality.Ironically,what Woolf did
throughthe act of her fictionwas to identifythe futurehistoryof Knole
with two women and with their love for one another. Although Vita
could not legallyinheritKnole, VirginiaWoolfgave itto her memoryfor
as long as there will be readers of Orlando.39
But Vita Sackville-Westrealized the enigmaticquality of this gift.
Woolf was not above using her workin progressto thrleatenher lover,to
tryto compel her fidelity.On October 14, 1927, she wrote:
Never do I leave you withoutthinking,its forthe last time.And the
truthis, we gain as much as we lose by this.Since I am alwayscertain
you'll be off and on withanother next Thursday week (you say so
yourself,bad creature,at the end of your last letter,whichis where
the viper carriesits sting)since all our intercourseis tingedwiththis
melancholyon my part and desire to be white nosed and so keep
you halfan instantlonger,perhaps,as I say we gain in intensitywhat
we lack in the sober comfortablevirtuesof prolonged and safe and
respectable and chaste and cold blooded friendship.... If you've
given yourselfto Campbell, I'll have no more to do withyou, and so
it shall be written,plainly,for all the world to read in Orlando.40
38. V. Woolf,Diary,1920-1924, 2:306-7.
39. N. Nicolson (n. 1 above), p. 208.
40. V. Woolf,Letters,
1923-1928, vol. 3, letterno. 1821.

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206

DeSalvo

and Woolf
Sackville-West

Sackville-Westrealized that Woolf was now more comfortable with


writinga work of fancyabout her than she was about returningVita's
gesturesof affectionin the real worldand expressingher love forVita in
a physicalway. Woolf herselfeven acknowledged as much. On March
20, 1928, afterfinishingOrlando,she wrote:"Did you feela sortof tug,as
if your neck was being broken on Saturday last at 5 minutes to
one? ... The question now is, will my feelingsfor you be changed? I've
lived in you all these months-coming out, what are you reallylike? Do
you exist?Have I made you up?"' And on April 3, 1928, Sackville-West
wrote Woolf: "I won'tbe fictitious.I won't be loved solely in an astral
body, or in Virginia'sworld."42
It was the eroticismof the real Vita that began to give Woolf her
greatestdifficulty.And although their friendshipoutlasted their love
affair,Sackville-Westnow and again made referenceto theirearlier and
more erotic momentstogetherwitha certainnostalgia,even though she
had many other outlets for her physicalaffections,and Woolf herself
often looked back to the days of their lovemaking:"There was once a
woman called Virginia,and she had a small hairy animal called Potto.
Does thisbringanythingback to mind?The sound of your lovelybalmy
voice coming across the marshes last night... stirred the embers of
desire."43As a trulygood friend,Sackville-Westunderstood that Woolf
had difficulty
actingon her eroticimpulses,althoughshe also chided her
on that account. After Woolf's trip to Berlin to see Vita and Harold,
Woolf became ill. Leonard Woolf believed thathis wifehad overexerted
herselfwith Vita.44But Vita had her own view of what ailed Virginia:
"Do you know what I believe it was, apart from the 'flu? it was SUPPRESSED RANDINESS. So there-you rememberyour admissions as
the searchlightwent round and round?"45
The necessityfor a differentbut related suppression may offer
another reason, besides those mentionedearlier,forSackville-West'snot
writingfictionduringa six-yearperiod: it was not possibleto deal overtly
withlesbian love at thistimein Englishhistory,as the RadclyffeHall case
proved. One of the mostcompellingexperiences in Sackville-West'slife
during these yearscould not findexpressionin fiction.Woolfhad solved
the problem by creating the form of Orlando to contain her love for
Sackville-West.In Sackville-West'searliernovelChallenge,about her love
affairwithVioletTrefusis,she had come to an answerbycreatinga male
character to represent a womnan-no true solution, for it falsifiedthe
41. Ibid., lettei no. 1873.
42. Sackville-Westto V. W(oolf,April 3, 1928, Berg Collection,foldel 20.
43. Decemtber29 [1931], V. Woolf,Letters,1929-1931, vol. 4, letternio.2497.
44. W\hatcaused thisillness\
was cliscussedc
to one another.See
at lengthin theirletteirs
V. W(oolfto Sackville-West[.January 30, 1929], Letter,21929-1931, 4:10: "Leonard and the
dr. savs its mntracketvlife in Berlin."
45. Sackville-Westto V. W(oolf,Febluart 7, 1929, Beig Collection,folder 28.

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experiencesof women who loved women. It is easy,therefore,to see why


the RadclyffeHall case was extremelyimportantto Sackville-West.46
On
August 31, 1928, Sackville-Westwrote to Woolf that she felt
veryviolentlyabout the Well of Loneliness. Not on account of what
you call my proclivities;not because I thinkit is a good book; but
really on principle. [I think of writingto Jix suggesting that he
should suppress Shakespeare's Sonnets.] Because, you see, even if
the W. of L. had been a good book,-even if it had been a great
book, a real masterpiece,-the result would have been the same.
And thatis intolerable.I reallyhave no words to say how indignantI
am. Is Leonard really going to get up a protest?or is it fizzling
out? . .. Don't let it fizzle out.47

It was not until Sackville-WestwroteFamilyHistory,whichwas published in 1932, and The Dark Island, which was published in 1934, that
she was able to approach overtlythe issue of lesbianismin her novels,48
and even then the issue was somewhatsubmerged.FamilyHistoryis interesting in lightof Sackville-West'srelationshipwith Woolf because in it
she discusses the fateof women who suppress theirlesbianism.In some
sense, EvelynJarrold,the centralcharacter,may be a portraitof certain
tendencies Sackville-Westfound in Virginia Woolf and a criticismof
Woolf's continuing inabilityto give full acknowledgmentto her own
lesbianism.
has
EvelynJarrold,whose husband died when she was twenty-four,
been raised in a societywhich encourages a passionate reserve in its
women and whichfindsthe idea of women lovingwomen so repugnant
that it must be suppressed-primarily, Sackville-Westsuggests,because
it challenges the primacyof men. Thinking of a partyshe will attend,
EvelynJarrold realizes that there is "no one she wanted to see except
perhaps her niece Ruth, who was fresh and young, and who idolised
her."49 Their encounter is filled with emotion, and we see Evelyn
through Ruth's point of view:
Ruth was always strangelyelated when she had been with Evelyn.
She always came away, her head swimmingwith unusual, suggestive, dangerous notions. What was Evelyn's life, apart from what
anybody could see of it? Outwardly, she led the ordinary, semidecorous, semi-frivolouslifeof a woman dividingher timebetween
her family connections and her personal amusement.... Ruth
46. See Cook, "'Women Alone...'";
and Fassler (n. 1 above).
47. Sackville-Westto V. Woolf, August 31, 1928, Berg Collection, folder 21.
48. See Fassler, who observes that Sackville-Westdeals with "the lesbian passions
which she [Sackville-West]both glorifiedin and feared" in The Land, the poem that Vita
published in 1928 (p. 245).
49. V. Sackville-West,FamilyHistory(New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1932), p. 26.

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208

DeSalvo

and Woolf
Sackville-West

could not reconcile thisideallydomesticatedEvelynwiththe spoilt,


luxurious Evelyn ... who gave you the impression of a life lived
behind a life;who was, in short,apparentlya model of the domestic
virtuesand who yetsuggestedall the . . . passion of Shakespeare.50
Ruth is absolutelycorrect; Evelyn is seething with subterranean emotions that,given her upbringing,she cannot acknowledge even to herself. But Ruth trustsher love for Evelyn, and, although she does not
attach a name to it, knows that she would prefer to see Evelyn over
anyone else: "Her heart would turnover, as it alwaysdid, when she first
caught sightof Evelyn in the room."51
Ruth's longing for Evelyn haunts the rest of the book. For what
EvelynJarroldcannot acknowledge,because it is a prospecttoo dangerous forher even to contemplate,is the factthathad she loved Ruth,she
mighthave been farhappier. Instead, she torturesherselfforthe love of
a man. She falls in love with Miles Vane-Merrickand he with her, but
she demands more and more of him and
findinghis love insufficient,
then refuses to see him. In self-ignoranceshe transmutes her unacknowledged love for Ruth into a love thatwill destroyher.
Sackville-Westis commonly considered to be a representativeof
conservative,if not reactionary,political and social views. Part of the
reason for this is that only two of her novels,Challengeand The Edwarare readilyavailable,whilethe mostpoliticallyradicalof her novels,
diants,
FamilyHistoryand All Passion Spent,are out of print. An indicationof
the extentto which Sackville-West'spoliticaland feministattitudeswere
affected-at least temporarily-by her relationship with Woolf is indicated by comparing The Heir, firstprivatelyprinted in 1922, withAll
Passion Spent and Family History,published in 1931 and 1932, respectively.The Heir, subtitled"A Love Story,"records how a Mr. Peregrine Chase, manager of a small insurance officein Wolverhampton,a
"sandy, weakly-lookinglittleman, with thin reddish hair, freckles,and
washy blue eyes,"52comes to love Blackboys, an Elizabethan manor
house left to him by an aunt whom he never met. Although initially
persuaded by solicitorsto sell the house, Mr. Chase graduallydevelops a
sense of the importanceboth of privateownershipand of tradition.He
walks through the manor house, feeling its wood, smelling its smells,
hearing its peacocks screeching,walkingacross its polished oak floorsand acquiring a verynew sense of himself.
Chase has grownup in a verydifferentworld fromthatof his aunt,
who passed all her days among the amenitiesof Blackboys. Chase, by
contrast,is poor and has spent all his life up to this point in factory
towns. Although Sackville-Westdescribes the cheerless drudgery of
50. Ibid., pp. 32-33.
51. Ibid., p. 36.
52. V. Sackville-West,The Heir: A Love Story(London: Richards Press, 1949), p. 12.

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209

Chase's work,and the dispiritinglife in factorytowns,the solution that


she provides in TheHeir is reactionary:Chase fallsin love witha place as
well as with the very landholding traditionthat denied Vita SackvilleWest Knole House-her heritage.In one sense, TheHeir is an exercise in
wish fulfillment;Chase enjoys Blackboyseven if Sackville-Westwas denied Knole. She neithercriticizesthe systemthathad divestedher of her
own property nor investigates,as she would in later books, the relationshipbetweenprivateownershipand society'spatriarchalstructure.
In "A Cockney's Farming Experiences,"writtenwhen she was only
ten, VirginiaWoolf had dealt withtheseveryissues; she had returnedto
them in 1906 in "The Journalof MistressJoan Martyn"thatinvestigates
the land tenure systemof medieval England.53There Woolf establishes
that the tension between women and men is rooted in an inequitable
landholding systemthat denied virtuallyall women and a significant
number of men a peaceful and sociallyacceptable means of supporting
themselveswithdignity.As a result,women were nonpersons,while the
men excluded fromthe systemwere driven to lawlessness,ventingtheir
anger upon the bodies of women: the daughters and wives of landholders. Thus, when they met, Woolf and Sackville-Westwere as opposed as twowomen could be in theirresponsesto the privateownership
of property. Before her relationshipwith Woolf, Sackville-Westhad
never fully investigated the inequities in the landholding system,
although she had railed against the factthatshe was not born male and
thus by Kentishlaw could not inheritproperty.
During the years of their friendship,the two no doubt discussed
theirdifferences.Woolf's A RoomofOne's Own, published in 1929, took
up, among other subjects,the place of women in a societythat opposes
theirownershipof propertyas well as other inequitiesof the propertyholding system.Such views were extremelydifferentfromthe assumptions underpinningTheHeir. In A RoomofOne'sOwn,statementssuch as
the followingchallenged Sackville-West'spoint of view:
True, they [men] had money and power, but only at the cost of
harbouringin theirbreastsan eagle, a vulture,forever tearingthe
liverout and pluckingat the lungs-the instinctfor possession,the
rage foracquisitionwhichdrivesthemto desire otherpeople's fields
and goods perpetually;to make frontiersand flags;battleshipsand
poison gas; to offer up their own lives and their children's lives.
Walk throughthe AdmiraltyArch ... or any otheravenue givenup
to trophies and cannon, and reflectupon the kind of glory celebrated there. Or watch in the spring sunshine the stockbrokerand
the great barristergoing indoors to make money and more money
53. Louise A. DeSalvo, "Shakespeare's Other Sister,"in Marcus, ed. (n. 2 above), vol.
2; Susan Squier and Louise A. DeSalvo, eds., "'The Journal of MistressJoan Martyn,'by
Literature25, nos. 3/4 (Fall/Winter1979): 240-74.
Century
Virginia Woolf,"Twentieth

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210

DeSalvo

Sackville-West
and Woolf

and more money when it is a factthatfivehundred pounds a year


will keep one alive in the sunshine.54
It is likelythatWoolf's influencewas profound, for Vita SackvilleWest'sAll PassionSpent,published in 1931, is as astonishinglyfeminist,in
its own way, as VirginiaWoolf's A Roomof One's Own. It demonstrates
what life is like for a woman withouta room of her own. As the novel
opens, the body of Henry Holland, Earl of Slane, career diplomat,
formermember of Cabinet, formerPrime Minister,formerViceroy to
India, is awaiting burial. His widow, Lady Slane (her name is apt),
eighty-eightyears of age, has yet to live a life of her own. She has
followedhim to all the capital citieswhere his career has taken him; she
has cared fortheirchildren,whom she does not verymuch like; she has
received and worn the splendid giftsof jewels, given her by heads of
state,whichshe does not verymuch value. But she has never painted the
pictures she has dreamed of making: "Duty, charity,children, social
obligations,public appearances-with these had her days been filled;
and whenever her name was mentioned,the corollarycame quick and
slick,'Such a wonderfulhelp to her husband in his career!'"55 During
these years she has alvays been surrounded-by her husband and her
childrenand servantsand diplomats.She has, in fact,been made into an
island unto herself-taken care of, isolated,protectedfromthe invasion
of insidious influencesfromthe outside, as one would protectand care
for a crown colony. And, like a crown colony, Lady Slane does not like
what has happened to her under the dominion of her husband's influence,although she has kept her silence throughthese sixtylong years
of her life with him. (Imperialism,it would appear, begins at home.)
The opportunityto live a life trulyher own only comes to Lady
Slane with her husband's death, when she makes a life for herself in
Hampstead Heath: "She walked slowlybut happily,and withoutanxiety,
as in a friendlyretreat,no longer thinkingof Henry's opinion of his
children,or indeed of anythingbut the necessityof findingthe house,
her house."56
What Lady Slane learns is that the differencebetween trulyliving
and merely existingis the differencebetween acquisitivenessand the
renunciationof worldlygoods in excess of what is needed fora comfortable life.She concludes thatthe world is horrible:"It is horriblebecause
54. VirginiaWoolf,A RoomofOne'sOwn (New York: Harcourt,Brace & World, 1929,
1957), pp. 38-39.
55. V. Sackville-West,All PassionSpent(New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1931), p. 50.
at the
The poi-tionof thisessay devoted to All PassionSpentwas given, in diffei-ent
formn,
Modern Language Associationconventionin San Francisco, 1980. I w\ouldlike to thank
Susan Squier, who chaired the session, for helpful -remarksanctencour-agement.
56. Sackville-West,All Passiol Spent,p. 78.

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it is based upon competitivestruggle-and really one does not know


whetherto call the basis of thatstrugglea conventionor a necessity."57
In Hampstead Heath she is able to establishwithpeople outside her
social class equalitarian relationshipsthat come to mean more to her
than any relationsshe has ever had: with Mr. Bucktrout,owner of the
house, who understands the rhythmsof life; with Mr. Gosheron, fix-it
man, who understandsthat makingand fixingthingstakes a long time;
and withGenoux, her maid, who understandshow lonelyone can be in
the midstof people. She is now also able to establisha deeply feltequality
with a man, with Mr. FitzGeorge, who understands the life she has
chosen for herselfin her last year.
In the closing pages of the novel, Lady Slane gives her greatgranddaughter,Deborah, an aspiringmusician,thecourage to refusethe
marriage that is arranged for her and to embrace the life of an artist.
"This hour of union with the old woman soothed her like music, like
chords lightlytouched in the evening,withthe shadows closing and the
moths bruising beyond an open window. She leaned against the old
woman's knee as a support, a prop, drowned, enfolded, in warmth,
dimness, and soft harmonious sounds.... On some remote piano the
chords were struck,and they were chords which had no meaning, no
existence, in the world inhabited by her grandfather.. but in her
great-grandmother's world they had their value and their
Just as A Room of One's Own can be thought of as an
significance."58
of
outgrowth Orlando-after tracingthe historyof the traditionwhich
Sackville-West'sfamilyrepresented in Orlando,Woolf discussed its implicationsin A Roomof One's Own-so All Passion Spent,a fictionaltreatment of the themesin her friend'spolemical tract,can be thoughtof as
an outgrowthof A Room of One's Own. The image of Deborah leaning
against her great-grandmothercaptures Sackville-West'ssense that
courage to question the traditionsof her heritagecame to her fromher
too, the fictionalportrait
relationshipwithVirginiaWoolf. Interestingly,
of Lady Slane anticipatesthe mysticallife that Sackville-Westchose for
herselfas an older woman.
Sackville-Westexplored similar political themes in FamilyHistory.
Although she used EvelynJarrold to representthe nature of repressed
lesbianism,she also has her representthe conservativeview which must
be overcome if England is to change. And the novel uses the person of
Viola Anquetil,who is a socialistand a pacifist,to explore those facetsof
Virginia Woolf. The marriage of Viola and Leonard Anquetil presents
an interpretationof the Woolf marriageverydifferentfromrecentones
57. Ibid., p. 113.
58. Ibid., pp. 286-88.

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212

DeSalvo

and Woolf
Sackville-West

in which Leonard takes care of Virginia. In Sackville-West'sview, it is


Virginiawho givesLeonardpeace and serenity:
Viola Anquetilcame forwardto greether,a calm,tall,self-possessed
woman in a dress of Venetian red. She was a beautifulwoman in
early middle-age, statuesque, her dark hair lying sleekly in two
bands above her brows,and gathered into a knot at the back. Her
hand, when she gave it,was cool and slender; her manner peaceful.
Evelyn, who had heard that she was alarming, realised that this
woman had a verydeep lifeof her own. She realisedthatthestreamof
lifein thishouseflowedverydeep and strongand intense,and thatits
thewoman.It certainly
did notproceedfrom
proceeded
serenity
entirelyfrom
theman; anymanwiththattqueerscarred
to
face was bynaturea stranger
serenity.
Serenityhad been thewoman'sgiftto him,and their understandingenveloped them as witha radiance. Not thattheyspoke to
one another,or even glanced; thattwas unnecessary.But itwas clear
that theywere absolutelyunited.59
Viola and Leonard Anquetil have a relationshipas equalitarian as the
politicalviewsthattheyespouse. As Jane Marcus has observed,Virginia
Woolf believed thatthe originof fascismwas in the patriarchalfamily.60
Both All Passion Spent and FamilyHistorysuggest too that imperialism
begins in the patriarchalfamilyand thatsocialistsand pacifistslike Viola
and Leonard Anquetil have also rejected the microcosmof the patriarchal familyfor more equalitarian livingarrangements.
Anotherremarkablefeatureof FamilyHistoryis Sackville-West'sgift
there to VirginiaWoolf of fictionalchildren,just as Woolf had restored
Knole to Sackville-Westin Orlando.VirginiaWoolfoftenwondered what
life mighthave been if she and Leonard had had childrenand whether
she would have been a good mother.61(She seems to have feared
that she would not have been.) In FamilyHistory,the couple based on
Leonard and Virginia Woolf have two remarkable children: happy,
healthy,intelligent,politicallyactive,informed,capable of discussingthe
most heated issues of the day. Lesley Anquetil is a young woman who,
like her mother, knows her own mind and is filled with the spiritof
adventure.
Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-Westused the opportunityof
theirlovingfriendshipto explore firsttheirown and each other'sfamily
historiesand then the political and social ramificationsof their lives.
59. Sackville-West,
FamilyHistoo, pp. 161-62 (my italics).In thisnovel,Sackville-West
has spelled the word "that"in two diffelentways: "eitherwithone 't' or withtwo,in older
to differentiatebetween the conjunctionand the demonstrativeadjective and demonstrative or relativepronoun" (p. vii). I have retained this idiosyncracy.
60. Jane Marcus,"Thinking Back throughOur-Mothers,"in Malcus, ed. (n. 1 above),
pp. 1-11.
61. See, e.g., V. Woolf,Diarn,1925-1930, 3:107.

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Signs

Winter1982

213

Because of theirfriendship,Sackville-Westwas able to look more closely


at her rage over not being able to inheritKnole; at her loneliness as a
child growing up in a house that contained 365 rooms but very little
warmthand affection;at her continuingdependence upon the whimsof
an irrationalmother,whom she nonethelessadored; at her feelingsof
being inadequate, even stupid; at the impulsivenessin her that often
hurther and thosearound her; at the traditionsthathad deprived her of
Knole. For her part, Woolf was able to examine her childhood in a way
that she never had before; to look at her ambivalence toward Sir Leslie
Stephen, the fatherwhom she both detested and adored; to understand
that the motheringthat she required from women in her maturityresulted fromher mother'sand Stella Duckworth'sdeaths; to examine the
possibilitythat her sexual reticence had its source in her having been
molested by her half-brothersratherthan in some failingor lack of her
own; to look anew at her fears that she would not have been a good
mother had she and Leonard chosen to have children; to acknowledge
her strengthsas a woman.62
According to Quentin Bell, "On 10 March [1935] the Woolfs drove
in a snowstormfrom Rodmell to Sissinghurstto see Vita. As theytook
theirleave Virginiarealised thattheirpassionate friendshipwas over."63
What put the fire of their love affairout is hard to say. Virginia
Woolf often protestedagainst what she perceived as Vita's promiscuity.
AfterOrlandohad been published, Woolf wrote: "For Promiscuousyou
are, and thats all there is to be said of you. Look in the Index to
Orlando-after Pippin and see whatcomes next-Promiscuitypassim."64
What, in fact,comes after "Pippin" in the index to Orlando is "Pope,
Alexander." Woolf had given Vita a copy of Pope to carrywith her on
one of her trips,so whatactuallydoes come after"Pippin" is a reminder,
in code, of an earlier and more affectionatetime in theirrelationship.65
In a letterwrittento Vita in August 1931, VirginiaWoolfwritesof "Potto
expiring"-Potto being the name bywhichthe two referredto the sexual
experiences they had shared.66 And in 1934 Vita published The Dark
Island, dedicated to Gwen St. Aubyn,which is, in part, a historyof their
love, so that the centerof Sackville-West'saffectionhad shiftedby then.
There was a shiftas well in Sackville-West'spoliticalviews. In the
62. I have reached these conclusions as a resultof reading Vita's unpublished letters
in conjunctionwithVirginiaWoolf's published responses,whichprlovidesa verydifferent
view of them and theirrelationshipthan reading eitherside of the correspondence on its
own. Publishingcollectionsof one correspondent'sletterswithoutresponsesfromtheother
promotes a "great person" view of historyand makes it more difficultfor the reader to
thinkin termsof interrelationships.
63. Bell, 2:183.
64. V. Woolf,Letters,1923-1928, vol. 3, letterno. 1911.
65. Sackville-Westto V. Woolf [ January 1926?], Berg Collection, folder 4: "I have
your littlePope in my pocket."
66. V. Woolf,Letters,
1929-1931, vol. 4, letterno. 2417.

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214

DeSalvo

and Woolf
Sackville-West

letterin xvhichshe described"Pottoexpiring,"Woolfwrote,"What about


Harold and Mosley? But dont write if it hurts." Harold Nicolson was
about to leave the Evening Standardto edit Action,the journal of Sir
OswvaldMosley's New Party.The New Partydriftedin manydirections,
but it had become, in 1931, fascistin nature. Sackville-Westseems to
have regarded her husband's involvementwithMosleyas unfortunate.67
Nonetheless,she and Woolf may already have begun to separate on the
matterof pacifism.Although Vita Sackville-Westhad writtenpositively
of pacifismin both All PassionlSpentand FamilyHistory,she responded
negativelyto those same views when Woolf published ThreeGuineas.68
But they would not completelydisengage from one another until
the time of Virginia Woolf's death. Indeed, according to Mitchell A.
Leaska, the whole of BetweentheActs can be thought of as one long
"the longest suicide note in the Ensuicide note to Vita-in his wvords,
glish language."69

While the fireof theirlove flared,the abilitytheygave one another


to look inwTardand backward together,to reexamine a past that was
difficultforeach of themto deal withalone, was one of the most important aspects of their friendship.The record of that giftis preserved in
the score of literaryworks that they wrote while theywere lovers and
loving friends.
Department
ofEnglish
HunterCollegeoftheCityUniversity
of NezwYork
67. See Nigel Nicolson's introductoryremarksto "1931" in Harold Nicolson,Diaries
(andLetters,1930-1939 (New York: Atheneulll, 1966), pp. 65-67, and to the lettersand
diary entriesin 1931, ibid., pp. 67-100.
68. Bell, 2:205.
69. See MitchellA. Leaska's edition of Po?ltz Hall, in press.

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