Virginia Woolf And Vita Sackville-West – The Love Story of Two Formidable Writers

Join me this episode as we delve into the true love story behind the iconic novel Orlando between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West…

Holly: Hello darlings and welcome back to Past Loves – the history podcast that explores affection, infatuation and attachment across time to add a touch of romance to daily life. I’m Holly, your true romantic host, and I very much hope that you are well. I think it’s safe to say that we’re all fans of historical romances here – personally I love a fictional romance almost as much as delving into the love stories of real couples so my quick tip of the week as it were to start today’s episode: I have recently being loving, weirdly fascinated recently by The Courtship which is a regency dating show – it’s essentially The Bachelor mixed with Bridgerton – and it is completely bizarre at times but just the most fun so if you can catch up with the series, I would recommend it. I have become weirdly invested in it! But mainly it is just pure escapism.

Anyway, back to this week’s new episode, if you listened to the last episode about Edy Craig, Chris St. John and Tony Atwood, (and if not why not?) you will know that I dropped quite a hint at the end of the episode, that today’s couple had actually been mentioned in that episode. I also posted a picture of the novel Orlando on my Instagram page @pastlovespodcast (again if you’re not following why not?!) which was a very very very big clue as to today’s couple – that is to say Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf.

I love to think that Vita and Virginia ran in the same circles as Edy, Chris and Tony so it is an absolute pleasure to be staying in this creative milieu for another episode. It was also a great pleasure to speak about Vita and Virginia with best-selling biographer, historian and broadcaster, Sarah Gristwood. Sarah wrote Vita & Virginia: The Lives and Love of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West which roots their love story in the (now National Trust) properties which acted as the backdrop to their lives. It is a rich and reflective double biography of Vita and Virginia, of the friendship and love affair between these formidable writers. 

They are both absolutely fascinating women with undeniably powerful creative legacies, Virginia’s Orlando being just one example and we can explore their lives through the letters they wrote and the diary entries they kept and because we’re delving deep into their live and relationships, we do talk about Virginia’s mental health problems. The relationship between Vita and Virginia is as complex and heart-breaking as it was intensely passionate. 

Sarah and I started though by discussing the one and only Vita Sackville-West…

Holly: Could you describe Vita as a person?

Sarah: Okay, well, really, I think her son and biographer, Nigel Nicholson, put it best that Vita Sackville-West, Vita Nicholson, was a mixture of a ‘Gypsy and a grandee’ and I think that’s really the key and that’s what fascinated Virginia, in a way. She was born, of course, into a deeply aristocratic household, the granddaughter of Lord Sackville of Knole. Her parents were first cousins, so that her father was  Lord Sackville’s heir. Her mother was Lord Sackville’s illegitimate daughter by a Spanish dancer and that aristocratic thing was important to Vita. I mean, she adored Knole, but it was also, oddly enough, important to Virginia. Virginia wrote how she actually greatly relished this kind of sense of the past of aristocracy and glamour coming off Vita. But at the same time, of course, from the beginning, really, Vita was a rule breaker. I mean, as a child, she was the tomboy who used to beat other children’s legs with nettles and stuff putty up their noses and had a pet bear cub which she walked on a lead in Knole. And, of course, quite early in her career, she began breaking the rules of the day sexually as well. But it’s that combine that, I think, is the key.

Holly: Yeah. And it’s why she’s so fascinating, because there’s so much to unpick about her. you mentioned her parents and you mentioned Knole. Could you describe that setting, an environment of what that must have been like for her as a child?

Sarah: Totally. Because Vita wrote extensively about growing up in Knole. About how. And of course, anyone who’s been there, this great National Trust house, Knole Park in Kent with the deer all around it. Anyone who’s been there will remember the grandeur of it. There’s this amazing kind of King’s bedroom with a complete set of silver furniture and so on. But Vita used to ramble the corridors and the long galleries at night as a child by the light of a candle (which, when one thinks about the amount of wood at Knole, seems something of a fire hazard). But clearly she survived and she wrote how many would have found that terrifying – the portraits looming out of the walls, the ghostly feeling. But she wrote,’ I was never afraid. I loved Knole. And I took it for granted that Knole loved me.’ The tragedy of her life, of course, as it would prove, and one that Virginia tried to ameliorate for her, is that as a girl, she could never inherit Knole. The laws governing an entailed estate meant that instead of going to her, the only daughter, it would go to a distant male cousin.

Holly: It must have been heart-breaking.

Sarah: Yes, utterly. I mean, it really hit her later in life. But, yes, I think absolutely. Vita was obviously in love with the romance of her own past. She did write several books about it. 

Holly: Yeah, you can totally sense the deep love she had for Knole. But if we moved to people, perhaps – who was Harold Nicholson? What was their marriage like in those early years?

Sarah: Okay, well, Harold Nicholson was a young, rising diplomat from not quite the same aristocratic background as Vita, but nonetheless someone she met on the normal circuit. Because growing up, Vita, even Vita, had the debutante season, assumed that, as was absolutely standard for an aristocratic young girl before World War I, she had to marry. And the man on whom her well, I won’t say her choice fell because she had already by then began to develop more passionate relationships – not with men, but with women, with other young girls – but the one with whom she felt she could make a life was Harold. So she married him, 1913. They did indeed travel together. He was posted Constantinople and so on and they had two sons together. And she utterly loved him, I mean, never ceased loving him, whatever and thought he was good. He was an utterly loving part of her life. But she wrote once, men did not excite me in what is known as that way, women did. And she also wrote, we spoke earlier about ‘the Gypsy and the grandee’ but she self said that she was two characters, Jekyll and Hyde, and that Harold knew nothing about the Hyde side, the wild side, the bad side, and that if he did, it would utterly crush him. It would roll over him like Boudica’s chariot.

Holly: Yeah. And she did have relationships. She continued relationships with women.

Sarah: Very notably one instance, of course. violet.

Holly: Let’s talk about Violet because she is quite important.

Sarah: Yes, she certainly is. And, of course, that’s the subject of Nigel Nicholson’s book about his parents Portrait of a Marriage. Vita had known, Violet Trefusis, as a child, as a girl and a schoolgirl, and been deeply impressed by her. But while she also had, let’s say passionate friendships, who knows how physical with other girls, Violet was something else. Harold Nicholson wrote that under Violet’s influence, Vita became like a ‘jellyfish addicted to cocaine,’ which I think is really memorable. And he saw Violet as something evil, as sort of this ‘vivid fungus’, he said, ‘stinking in the dark recesses of life.’ She was beautiful. There’s a portrait of her in Sissinghurst now. She was a very compelling personality. And in 1918, so Vita was married. She had the two young children. She and Violet went away on holiday to France together. That, at least, was the theory, a three week holiday. In fact, they stayed away for, I think, four months and planned never to return. Together, they developed this kind of fantasy life. They had nicknames for each other, Russian nicknames. Vita would also take on the identity of a young man called Julian and, as such, escort Violet out around Paris in male dress. And they really did plan just to make a new life together. What brought them back in the end? Their husbands, because Violet was also married, got together, hired a plane, pursued them and persuaded them to come home.

Holly: I mean, if it was fictional, you’d think it was a bit farfetched?

Sarah: You absolutely would. I couldn’t agree more.

Holly: It’s very interesting to explore the intensity of her passion in that relationship, because you can see it so clearly with what happened with Violet.

Sarah: Yes, you can. And as you say, I mean, she continued all her life having relationships with women. And, of course, her husband was, to some degree accepting of that because he himself also had relationships with men. I mean, it did not affect the intensity, the warmth of their feeling for each other. Vita once later wrote to Harold, ‘I don’t mind whatever you do with or feel for Mr. Jeb [I think it was Jeb – yes it was] I don’t mind who you sleep with so long as I have your heart.’ She called his  relationships with men ‘his fun.’ He called her relationships with women ‘her muddles.’ That indeed is how he would come come to speak of, ‘I do hope with Virginia, it won’t be a muddle.’

From left to right: Harold Nicolson, Vita Sackville-West, Rosamund Grosvenor, Lionel Sackville-West

Holly: Yes, quite the muddle. So, how did she meet Virginia? How and where and when?

Sarah: Well, the other thing that we slightly forget about Vita is that she was also well known as a writer, not just a gardening writer. Indeed, she became a massively, well-known novelist, far more of a best seller than Virginia Woolf at the time. And it was in August 1922 that Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary that after meeting her at a dinner party – a dinner party given by Virginia’s in laws – that she was ‘muzzy headed after meeting the lovely, gifted, aristocratic Sackville West.’ I mean, she described Vita in terms that weren’t altogether flattering – ‘mustachioed’, ‘all the supple ease of the aristocracy, but not the wit of the artist’ and queried ‘Who knows? Could we ever really be friends?’ Vita, for her part, was writing to her husband, to Harold, that she’d met Virginia Woolf and she’d quite lost her heart and Harold would, too, when he met her. That at first, Virginia seemed plain, very badly dressed. But then a kind of inner beauty shone through. And that you really did get the feeling of encountering something, someone big.

Holly: Yeah. I mean, what a dinner party to attend?

Sarah: I know. You’re right actually, goodness I know. And of course, by this time, Virginia had long been central to the so-called Bloomsbury set. What Dorothy Parker said about them ‘living in squares, loving in triangles.’ So she, in a sense, and her husband, Leonard, were already quite attuned to the idea of many complex relationships. At one point, she would write that her friendship with Vita ‘might be something to annoy Leonard, but it was nothing to worry him. There’s space for many relationships in one’s life.’ And, of course, Vita’s aristocratic world was also, in a different way, very tolerant of infidelity. So, in a sense, I think they must both have had open minds as to just where this friendship could take them.

Holly: Yeah, I’m interested what you think may have attracted them to each other?

Sarah: Well, Virginia wrote once that ‘relationships in many ways were almost like lights on a carriage, that they showed her the way into another world.’ And here was another world opening up to her. One that she was quite fascinated by. Vita, for her part, I think, had all her life a dread of the ordinary, of being just another well-born diplomat’s wife and mother. And in a sense, you couldn’t get much more extraordinary than Virginia Woolf, much more beyond the ordinary. I mean, Virginia hadn’t yet attained anything like the height of her fame as a writer. But nonetheless, it was already sufficiently apparent that she was something pretty extraordinary. I think at that first meeting, Vita described her as sort of the greatest woman writer.

Holly: How would you describe Virginia as a person?

Sarah: Well, in a sense, unlike Vita, Virginia is so well known that we all think we know her. And of course, really, I guess we know three things: we know her Fame as a writer. We know that kind of image of her with the hair drawn back and the long cardigans – the kind of archetypal blue stocking look. And we know, or think we know, the fact that she was intermittently mad, as it’s usually described. And that, of course, was a big factor in her life and her death, in all her relationships. She came from a different world, off course. She was ten years older than Vita. Virginia, too, was born into its own kind of aristocracy, sort of intellectual aristocracy. There were great many well known names in her immediate family and her extended circle. But it was a different sort of world and Virginia’s life, while Vita’s life was early marked by eccentricity and controversy – I mean, her mother had had one very famous affair which wound up as a great court case and that kind of thing – but Virginia’s early life was marked by tragedy. The death when she was 13 of her mother closely followed by that of the half-sister, the elder half-sister who’d almost taken a mother’s place for her. And, of course, marked, as she later suggested, by the question of sexual harassment by one of her or even two of her half-brothers. So Virginia, at the moment she met Vita, was approaching middle age (I think she was around 40) but she was already marked. She’d had these tragedies in her life. She’d had the great experiments in living, forming the Bloomsbury set and so on and the ups and downs, the difficulties and the successes of her marriage to Leonard. She had, of course, already also had several bouts of madness. So I think she must have struck Vita as well as a deeply interesting figure in the strongest possible sense of the word.

Holly: Absolutely. And perhaps if we go back to her, childhood a little. I was interested by how had the death of her mother affected her at such young age. And how the relationship with her father and his approach to her mental health problems affected kind of the way she would work.

Sarah: Well, I think her mother’s death affected her hugely. There’s no coming at that particularly sensitive age. Her relationship with her father was, of course, a difficult one. He was himself a famous man, Leslie Stephen, the founder of the Dictionary of National Biography. And quite a sort of famous thinker but Virginia wrote later in her diaries, ‘X many years since my father died. Good heavens, what if he hadn’t died? What if he’d lived? There’d have been no writing.’ So clearly she thought him, and particularly perhaps his attitude to her writing and to her mental health, had been a real barrier. Because in a way, none of us today can disentangle the relationship between Virginia Woolf’s genius and her madness. Sometimes we’re inclined to see the two as different sides of the same coin. But that may be a bit of a romantic fallacy. No one now can really ever, I think, disentangle what did produce her bouts of what were really major mental disturbance. I mean, she thought that the King was lurking in the bushes outside the window using foul language and the birds were talking to her in Greek. It was real delusion. But certainly her family and to some degree, Leonard, her husband, also at times, were inclined to see it as in some sense the result of her writing. And at times, when she was fragile, she should be kept away from the pen which many now might feel was the very worst thing to do.

Holly: Someone she was particularly close with was her sister Vanessa. And her and Vanessa were key to the creation of the Bloomsbury Group. Can you just describe a little bit, actually, who the Bloomsbury Group were and how Vanessa and Virginia were intertwined with them?

Sarah: Right. The Bloomsbury Group came into being and took its name from the household that, after their father’s death, Virginia and Vanessa and their two brothers set up together in indeed well, actually, at first it was more like Fitzrovia, just next door to Bloomsbury. But basically those lovely, though at the time, very scruffy and unfashionable squares of North London. And a group of the brothers’ Cambridge friends particularly – Leonard Woolf among them – used to come and visit and they sort of discussed freely. They were determined to set themselves to achieve a kind of higher intellectual plane and a greater kind of honesty than they saw in much of the world around them. I think the Virginia once said that it was like going from the Victorian world of stuffy red, Crimson velvet and heavy drapes to a world of a light, airy world of white painted rooms and so on. I think the idea was that the mind could roam free, that relations between men and women could be freer. And what began as some kind of talking shop, they did indeed begin forming this group so many complicated relationships with each other. I think Bloomsbury group was once described as ‘a group of men and women, all of whom were in love with Duncan Grant.’ You know, the young painter who would become one of Vanessa Bell’s. Vanessa, although she married Clive Bell, also had very significant extramarital relationships, centring, of course, around her great house of Charleston.

Holly: So you mentioned that Leonard Woolf was part of this social circle. Who was he?

Sarah: Okay, Leonard Woolf – well, yes, he was part of this social circle. But perhaps he wasn’t quite absolutely key in it because he was a civil servant, which was a bit more straight-laced than the kind of usual Bloomsbury job. He was Jewish of course. He didn’t come from exactly the same background as all the others. And his work as a civil servant saw him sent abroad for long periods. This was, of course, still the days of the Empire and the colonial service. So, uh, he was someone who was appreciative and admiring of this world. But not perhaps who was in it entirely.

Holly: When he was thinking of marrying Virginia, I enjoyed the story that you had in your book that he was away working and he heard that maybe she might agree.

Sarah: Yeah, I know. It was all pretty tentative on her part. I think it was Lytton whom I suggested that perhaps Leonard might marry Virginia. And he was saying, ‘Good heavens, how amazing. But would she ever think of it?’ And so on. Indeed, she had to do a lot of thinking before she brought herself to it. She wrote, ‘well, on the one hand, I say to myself, you get on very well. He’ll give you the life you want, children. He was obviously sympathetic to her desire to live an artistic life, to write. Then she said, but on the other hand, I’d never wanted to think of marriage as a career.’ And she was concerned about the physical side of the relationship. On the one hand, she did want to have children or expected to have children. But she wrote to Leonard that when he was kissing her the other day, it left her as unmoved as a rock. as a stone. And she was worried about that – perhaps rightly worried, because apparently on their honeymoon, something went wrong, and we don’t know. But we could take a certain guess that possibly the physical side of marriage was not one for her.

Holly: Yeah. So how did they build a life together? What did that look like?

Sarah: Well, their early life together was perhaps dominated by two things. One was Virginia’s recurrent bouts of mental breakdown. The other was the press that they were building together, the publishing company. Because Leonard moved Virginia out of what we think of central London, down sort of Richmond area, and was thinking that this would be better for her mental health and there she was very much involved with his work as a publisher, actually practically laying out the typeface and all that kind of thing. So that work played a large part in it and, of course, Virginia’s writing and also Leonard also was a published author, though we tend not to think of that today. 

Holly: So I think maybe we should return to Vita and Virginia together. How did the beginning of their relationship develop after this pivotal evening?

Sarah: Yeah, well, there were other meetings, obviously. Quite quickly. Virginia was invited to dine. And I think it went fairly quickly into quite a sort of a high emotional level. It broken off by the fact that Harold Nicholson was being posted abroad over to Persia as then it was, and that Vita was going with him. So there was a kind of swift, dizzying, plunge into intimacy, broken off, but then resumed again. And perhaps we should say here that the physical side of their relationship, which we know there was but was really pretty brief in terms of the whole thing. But there was nonetheless this extraordinary emotional bond and also, of course, just plain professionally, Virginia and Leonard were anxious to get the best selling Vita as an author for their press.

Holly: Yeah. And so we see a lot of the intensity of their relationship in their letters. Yes, they were prolific, weren’t they?

Sarah: They were very prolific. Encouraged, of course, by the fact that they weren’t always physically together in London or even in England. And I think there was a sort of certain measure…the letters reflect a certain measure of doubt, of concern on both sides, perhaps even more so on Virginia’s. But also when Vita was going abroad, I think. I think there were three letters before she even reached Dover.

Holly: Do you have any favourite letters or in diary experts?

Sarah: Okay, let’s see if I can think. I think, in a way, it’s almost things besides writing to each other, they were also writing about each other very, very extensively. I mean, quite early on both their husbands, of course, were aware of the relationship and both accepting of it, but concerned. I mean Vita wrote to Harold, her husband, ‘one’s love for Virginia is a mental thing, a spiritual thing, if you like, an intellectual thing. And she inspires a feeling of tenderness, which I suppose is because of her funny mixture of hardness and softness, the hardness of her mind and the terror of going mad again.’ She also writes, ‘I’m scared to death of arousing physical feelings in her because of the madness. I don’t know what effect it would have, you see. And that is a fire with which I had no wish to play.’ Harold had written to Vita saying, ‘I do hope this isn’t going to be a muddle’ flirting with Virginia seems, his words were, ‘like smoking over a petrol tank.’ But Harold wrote to Virginia, ‘I’m glad that Vita has come under an influence so stimulating and so sane.’ His word. ‘You need never worry about my having any feelings except a longing that Vita’s life should be as rich and as sincere as possible. I loathe jealousy as I loathe all forms of disease.’ This relationship, or indeed the others after Violet Trefusis’, never seem to threaten the marriages. That’s one thing that fascinates me. Virginia had written to Vita ‘in all of London, you and I alone like being married.’ And I think the thing that impresses me most, really, is the four people here – Vita and Harold, Virginia and Leonard – how kindly they all treated each other under other circumstances could have been a staggeringly difficult situation.

Holly: Yeah. They did seem to have a very warm understanding of what each other gave to the other person and that didn’t detract from what the other person gave to them.

Sarah: Yes, that’s right. That is quite extraordinary. I think, in a way, that is one of the great legacies of that relationship and why these relationships are still worth exploring today. That and of course, the magic of the way that they wrote about each other. I mean, Virginia wrote about Vita:

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. That is the secret of her glamour, I suppose…There is her maturity and full breastedness; her being so much in full sail on the high tides, where I am coasting down backwaters”

Holly: I mean Vita’s legs get a lot of airtime from Virginia.

Sarah: They absolutely do. You’re quite right. And of course, Vita’s passion for wearing breeches rather than skirts fostered it no doubt.

Holly: And obviously, another thing that we have from their relationship is all of these places that are now a lot of National Trust properties. And one of them, that was Virginia, is the Monk’s House. Can you describe Monk’s House and kind of explain what it was like for Virginia and when Vita went and visited them there?

Sarah: Monk’s House is a sort of weekend home, as it were, that Virginia brought quite early on not far away from Vanessa Bell’s much larger place at Charleston. It’s a sort of, for the day, an unconventional house, I always think rather an uncomfortable house perhaps. By the upmarket standards of the day, nothing huge or impressive in the way that, say, Vita was used to. I think Virginia had some qualms about Vita coming down said how extraordinary it was seeing Vita’s kind of Rolls Royce trundling down this tiny little lane. And of course, it’s set in the flat river country. But as you say, there are the other houses as well. I mean there’s Knole which, of course, would feature very largely when we get on to Orlando and then there would be Sissinghurst. So, no, we really have a fairly unparalleled set of places to go and visit.

Holly: I know we’re very lucky. Maybe we should talk a little bit about them as authors, because we should definitely get onto Orlando. But first, I was wondering if you could explain to me the trajectories of their careers at this time and how they affected each other in their sense of self as a writer.

Sarah: Interesting. Yes. Very different trajectories, in a way, because Vita did become quite early on a best-selling novelist. Now, Virginia didn’t have a huge amount of time for her novels, certainly not before her personal affection for Vita intervened. She described them as these sleepwalking servant girl novels. And she said, that why Vita, being who she is, bothers to write, which she does with great capability and something like that. And a pen of brass is beyond her, Virginia. If she were Virginia, she’d merely spend her days stalking through her aristocratic galleries with a chain of elkhounds at her heels. Now, I mean, Virginia never compromised, of course, in what she thought about writing. I think Vita respected that in her. I think Virginia had more respect for Vita’s poetry, which was also an aspect of her writing life. Later, of course, Vita would become known as a gardening writer and that perhaps is the element of her writing that survived today. Virginia, by contrast, was obviously from the very first set on herself. And was set on a high literary plane, trying actually to reinvent the form of the English novel. With, at first meeting with a mixture of both admiration and criticism. When she met Vita, although she wasn’t young, she hadn’t really come into her full acceptance as a writer, I think. And – I mean, she was doing a lot of reviewing and things, obviously, as well as the novel writing – but also, Virginia herself hadn’t yet taken some of her great leaps. So, yes we may like to think that the expansion of her horizons that came with Vita helped with that.

Holly: Yeah. And Vita was surely a big fan of Virginia’s work and very self-deprecating about her own talent in comparison.

Sarah: Yes, absolutely. Vita said once that she didn’t know whether to be more delighted or abashed by the existence of Virginia Woolf. Abashed that she herself could never write in that way or delighted that somebody could.

Holly: Yeah. And of course, in the kind of most greatest honour Virginia wrote Orlando, which I love the idea that I think it was Nigel who said it was ‘the longest love letter in English language.’ What does Orlando reveal about their relationship?

Sarah: I think the first thing to say is that really Orlando signalled almost the end of the most active phase of their relationship. Because Virginia began writing it in the middle of 1927. So that’s five years after she met Vita, after their very brief physical relationship had flowered on perhaps only a fairly few occasions. They went on being a kind of element of sexual badinage and so on. And perhaps by this point, they were moving apart the wrong way to put it…but Vita perhaps would always have other more actively sexual interests. At a moment in 1927, Virginia wrote to Vita that she’d been feeling stuck as a writer. She couldn’t get going until, suddenly she sat down and the words came out of her pen Orlando: A Biography. And she wrote to Vita, but ‘What if Orlando were you? If he proved to be you? The lusts of your body and the lure of your mind, how would you feel? Would you mind, say yes or no?’ And of course, there was only one answer. But there was a backstory here because we’ve spoken about how Vita adored Knole, but how she could never inherit it. At the time Orlando came up, it was the time of the death of Vita’s father which meant that Knole would be moving away from her, that it would go to a distant male relative. And she felt utterly bereft. Orlando was, in a sense, Virginia’s way of giving Knole back to Vita. Because Orlando is all about this young Elizabethan nobleman as he’s born, who inherits a great house which, guess what is very like Knole. Just as Orlando, whose wonderful legs are much remarked on, is very very like Vita. And quick, spoiler alert: but effectively, as I’m sure we all know, Orlando magically almost lives through four centuries. In the course of which he changes from a man into a woman without, however, losing his great house as Vita had lost hers. So it was indeed Virginia’s love letter to Vita. And, I mean, Vita, in various costumes, posed for the illustrations to it. Vita told Virginia that she’d invented a new kind of narcissism because she, Vits, was now in love with Orlando, who was herself. So Vita was utterly thrilled by this. She had no qualms about it at all.

Holly: I mean, it’s a good job, really.

Sarah: Yeah, well, quite. But it really was an extraordinary gift, I think. And it did see a change in the relationship, I believe. Perhaps as Virginia felt Vita moving away from her, in the sense that she was having other affairs and so on, this was a way to draw Vita back in again. To kind of put Virginia’s mark on Vita and Vita’s life and history forever.

Holly: So you mentioned that it’s kind of a shifting in their relationship. How did the last decade that the Virginia was still alive develop for them?

Sarah: Well, of course, not that long after Orlando came out in 1928, things were happening for both women. I mean, apart from any romantic relationships. Virginia was moving into a new phase of her writing – not only as a novelist, but as a feminist thinker. She was about to produce the extraordinary A Room of One’s Own which, to me, is always my favourite, almost more than Orlando of her books. Vita was moving into a new, well, mental and also physical phase because she was buying Sissinghurst. They’d had troubles with the house where they’d lived and Vita had made one great garden. But they were looking for somewhere else. She found this wreck, this piece of land, ruins of a garden, with only with a sort of a great Elizabethan tower – what would become Vita’s writing tower – and a great wall left. But the odd cottage here and there – hardly a house at all to most people. But Vita fell in love with it. Harold and her sons were persuaded into the move. And, of course, that achievement of Vita’s that we remember and celebrate today far more than her as a poet or a novelist. So Vita was developing a whole new interest and at first, it seems if you look at their letters as if they weren’t quite sure whether their relationship would survive it. Virginia wrote in those early days of the thirties that “friendship with Vita is over. Not with a quarrel, not with a bang, but as ripe fruit falls. Her voice saying ‘Virginia’ outside the tower room of Sissinghurst was as enchanting as ever. Only then nothing happened. And she’s grown very fat, very much the indolent country lady, run to seed, incurious now about books; has written no poetry; only kindles about dogs, flowers and new buildings.” But nonetheless, they cared about each other enough that they would find a way back if they weren’t as close as they would be. Virginia again wrote – she was the more vocal about this now I think – that ‘just because you choose to sit in the mud in Kent and I on the flags of London, there’s no reason why love should fade is it? Why the pearls and the paupers should vanish?’ Those have been love names, that they’d use, elements of their affection and they were very clearly feeling their way into a new aspect of their relationship.

Holly: And I think that clear, enduring affection is clear with what Leonard writes to Vita after Virginia dies. When he says, “I know what you will feel and what you felt for her, she was very fond of you.” I just think that’s so touching.

Sarah: Absolutely. I agree. It’s another aspect of that kindness. In fact, fairly shortly before her death, Virginia had written that, apart from Leonard and Vanessa, perhaps Vita was the only person that she really loved. So clearly at rock bottom, the feeling there remained. And of course, they were both, in a sense, living out the wartime horror together. We tend to forget now, almost, but both Sissinghurst and Monk’s Cottage, where Virginia had retired, were South Coast – invasion actually expected. I mean, all four were writing both the husbands and wives who are writing to each other about, extraordinary as it now sounds, whether it wouldn’t be better to make, quote, “surrender in advance to the Germans,” i.e. suicide in case of a German invasion. I think that there was that closeness then, that awareness of going through a similar horror in what would prove to be the very last years, months of Virginia’s life.

Holly: Yeah. And then what was life like in the decades after Virginia died for Vita?

Sarah: Well, Vita’s life, Vita and Harold’s became, of course, very much centred around Sissinghurst. At first, that wasn’t so clear. Vita had found the experience of war at Sissinghurst and what happened to the place deeply traumatic. And right after the war, she wrote that everything, the woods, the gardens, all spoiled forever. But of course, happily, she began to come back from that and really, the creation of Sissinghurst would be the Vita and Harold’s great life’s work for the next decade for more than a decade, actually. For what? After Virginia’s death, Vita survived for more than 20 years, and Sissinghurst dominated those and Sissinghurst was a shared love with Harold. That relationship never faltered.

Holly: So what do you see as Vita’s legacy, Virginia’s legacy, and then their legacy as a couple?

Sarah: Right. Virginia’s legacy has firstly to be her books, of course, and what she did to and for English literature. I guess Vita’s legacy, to many of us does have to be Sissinghurst and her work on gardens and the love of gardens in general. But obviously her family and she, of course, left children and grandchildren would find a more personal legacy. Their legacy as a couple, I think it is what we mentioned before in relationship to them and to their husbands. The kindness with which they never failed to treat each other, even after the first hot flush of infatuation had faded. I mean, Virginia could write some very spiky, as we’ve just heard, some spiky things about Vita. But nonetheless – and perhaps Vita has a lot should be given a lot of credit for this – they did the two women, the two women and their husbands, and indeed the four maintain this warmth and I won’t say friendship, because I don’t know if Leonard Woolf, in his second marriage, necessarily saw much of the Nicholsons. But as you say, he wrote to her immediately on Virginia’s death, not wanting her to have to hear it from the press or the on radio. And even in that great distress, he nonetheless was humane enough, strong enough, and made the effort to say, I know how much you meant to her and how much she meant to you. And I think that’s the legacy that the love between the two women never faltered and extended into perhaps a broader example of enduring affection and goodwill, which can get a little lost in the kind of one-to-one sense of romance and of passion.

Holly: Absolutely. I think that’s the perfect place to end. Thank you so much for talking to me today about their relationship. I have loved every second.

Sarah: Not at all. I enjoyed it. 

Holly: And thank you for listening! I hope you enjoyed listening to the love story of Vita and Virginia. I think I agree with Sarah that what I find most interesting about their relationship is the interaction between Vita, Harold, Virginia and Leonard. The way that Leonard wrote to Vita upon Virginia’s death is a testament to the great tenderness that seems to have existed as they negotiated their ever-changing relationships. And Vita and Virginia’s relationship was of course itself ever-changing with moments of intoxicating romantic intensity and softer moments of friendship. I just think theirs is a love story which is so uniquely special. In fact, it has been made into a film, unsurprisingly called Vita & Virginia which I did enjoy with Gemma Arterton as Vita and Elizabeth Debick (of course soon to be Diana in The Crown) as Virginia. 

But for this episode, I absolutely loved speaking to Sarah about the love affair between Vita and Virginia. Her book Vita & Virginia: The Lives and Love of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West is the most beautiful coffee table book which vividly depicts the lives of these two incredible women, their intense relationship, iconic works and beloved homes. In many ways, it is a book about national treasures. But, at its heart, it is a double biography about a love that bound two women together in life and legacy. Sarah has also written some books that I want on my bookshelf, such as Game of Queens: The Women Who Made Sixteenth-Century EuropeArbella: England’s Lost Queen and, recently, The Tudors in Love: The Courtly Code Behind the Last Medieval Dynasty. Plus she contributed to The Ring and the Crown: A History of Royal Weddings, the definitive compilation of royal weddings through the ages which I think definitely is the first one I want to get my hands on. 

You can find find out more about Sarah on her website or you can follow her over on social media. I will leave all of her links in the show notes.

If you have enjoyed this episode, please rate, review and subscribe to the podcast wherever you are listening to it now. I absolutely love hearing what you think and it will help other true romantics with a love of history to find the podcast.

And then, if Past Loves has become your current love, you can also follow me over on Instagram @pastlovespodcast where the conversation continues – Until soon!

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