Today as I was driving down Oxford Street I saw a woman on a refuge, carrying the Lighthouse.* She was an unknown woman, – up from the country, I should think, and just been to Mudie’s or the Times, – and as the policeman held me up with his white glove I saw your name staring at me, Virginia Woolf, against the moving red buses, in Vanessa’s paraph of lettering. Then as I stayed there (with my foot pressing down the clutch and my hand on the brake, as you will appreciate,) I got an intense dizzying vision of you: you in your basement, writing; you in your shed at Rodmell, writing; writing those words which that woman was carrying home to read. How had she got the book? Had she stalked in, purposeful, and said “I want To the Lighthouse”? or had she strayed idly up to the counter and said “I want a novel please, to read in the train,-a new novel,-anything’ll do”?
Anyhow there it was, one of the eight thousand, in the hands of the Public.
July 27th, 1927
The Letters of Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf
*To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf was published in 1927
For a moment let us take a break from the garden. Like our beloved plants, we too need winter’s snooze to renew our energies. Let us shed some old leaves in order to gain new, healthier ones- read some garden books. For me, this includes books involving one of the greatest gardeners I know: Vita Sackville-West.
As this blog is also about Vita Sackville-West I thought I would dive into her personal life a moment…
I’m reading the letters of Vita to Virginia Woolf. The letters themselves are interesting but do not pay much attention to the introduction. Written by Mitchell A. Leaska, it rambles for forty pages, and is nothing short of nonsense. It is not my style to criticize other writers. His writing is fine. There is some valuable, straight information – but I think some of his content is…unfair. Mostly, it feels as though the editor struggles to make sense of their relationship (whether he does or not)- it is in his tone. Written in 1984, homosexual love wasn’t commonplace or openly acceptable. The tone of his writing is as though he felt they were drawn to each other because each had something for which the other yearned-not mere attraction, but rather control and perhaps a little competition on Vita’s end, and a certain neediness on Virginia’s. In my experience, twenty-year relationships are not usually built on egotistical motives.
Perhaps the editor would not have spent so much time trying to analyze the dynamics of a man and a woman? Must the reader be tortured for forty pages while he tries to roll it around on the end of his pen? He seemed himself quite confused to say the lest-which is odd because upon researching his work, it seems he spent nearly a lifetime on the relationship between these two woman. For example, he makes assumptions that seemed a bit lazy in explanation:
“With the same pen she used to write her letters to Virginia, Vita would in a few years write a novel in which her sadistic hero would say to his lover: “I should like to chain you up … naked and beat you and beat you till you screamed.””
Then he goes on to explain that this must have been a fantasy to Vita (who did have an aggressive personality), that she would have liked to do this to Virginia. What! An author does not tell its character what to do, it is quite the opposite. The character tells the author what to write, it has nothing to do with the author personally – at least it shouldn’t, not literally anyway. If this man were a novelist, he would have been able to imagine that was the case-unless I have misunderstood him which I hope I have.
So while my eyes scanned the pages of this introduction, my mind rambled with objections. Rather than being on a sort of aggressive competition, which the editor insinuates-I would argue these two women (1) Were physically, mentally and emotionally attracted to one another. (2) Felt deep respect and admiration for the other’s accomplishments. (3) Acted as muse for one another (Virginia would write Orlando in which Vita represents the protagonist and the story represents her life). (4) They were also each other’s sounding board. It is quite a thing for one to be admired for one’s talent by a friend in the same field, and yet feel safe to feed off that person’s knowledge at the same time because neither is preparing for a competitive rift.
Both were open about their flaws in writing and in life. Virginia, ill much of the time, did not like to write long letters, but the little she wrote is to the point and entertaining to read. She was a keen observer of people, a quality which made her writing so superb. She pinpoints Vita’s secret flaw almost immediately when she writes,
“…And isn’t there something obscure in you? There’s something that doesn’t vibrate in you: It may be purposely-you don’t let it: but I see it with other people, as well as with me: something reserved, muted- God knows what… It’s in your writing too, by the bye. The thing I call central transparency- sometimes fails you there too…” -Virginia Woolf; November 19, 1926
I would say this translates to Vita’s aloofness. She seemed present but only giving half of herself- thinking of other things, never focused on present life- mind always floating back to her little desk and her pen…then later her garden…perhaps? Like an over-energetic squirrel- secretly pining over their nuts while they look you in the eye and “listen” to conversation. I’ve met many of them. From what I gather, she did not feel she belonged to the tribal, communal world of the human race- rather, she would have liked to have peace and quiet alone in the woods or her garden. However, that image paints her as soft and angelic-she could play that part, yes. But she was also aggressive and raw. She was incredibly independent and loved her solitude (she would go on to write an expansive poem about it.)
Vita is very open about her disinterest in the human condition and human relationships which is perhaps why she was so good a gardener. She examines this flaw in herself, calling Virginia a sort of witch for figuring her out so correctly in the quote above. This is one, I think, major difference between them. The editor points this out in his intro and I agree with him here, that it is perhaps the difference which drew them together.
Photo taken from The New Yorker.
In 1930 Vita moved to Sissinghurst and began creating the gardens which would one day be world famous and stamp her name solidly onto history’s plate. Virginia and she continued writing and seeing each other despite the petrol rationing of World War II. Then suddenly at fifty-nine years old in 1941, six days after Vita had seen her healthy and fine, Virginia killed herself. Fearful of going mad again and putting her husband through the hell of it, Virginia drowned herself in the River Ouse.
For the rest of her life Vita wondered if she could have saved her friend’s life had she been there. It was a pang of unending regret that coiled itself into the very soil at Sissinghurst. It is where Vita dug out all the suppressed hurt and pain of the past and planted instead not only a garden, but the best version of herself.