Vita Sackville-West archly prefaced her best-selling novel The Edwardians (1930) with an author’s note: “No character in this book is wholly fictitious.” Victoria Glendinning may at some point have been tempted to introduce her fine biography of Vita with the caveat, “No character in this book is wholly actual,” because this passionate woman’s engrossing life was continually out-distancing mundane probability.
Her father was the third Lord Sackville; her stunning mother, his cousin, was illegitimate, the product of a long liaison between the second Lord Sackville and a Spanish gypsy dancer known professionally as Pepita. (Lady Sackville delighted in saying that her own life had been like a novel.) Vita was raised at Knole, the magnificent English country house originally bestowed on the Sackvilles by Queen Elizabeth I; its rooms, alleged to number 365, included one with furniture of solid silver. Among her parents’ hordes of guests were members of royalty, domestic and foreign.
As a statuesquely handsome, extremely eligible young woman, she was besieged with proposals from wealthy, titled suitors but chose to wed in 1913 a relatively inconspicuous young diplomat, Harold Nicolson, by whom she would have two sons. Six years later, after her husband was forced to reveal his homosexuality to her because of a venereal infection, she embarked on a series of intense, often complicated lesbian relationships. Her marriage nevertheless survived these strains, remaining remarkably stable and emotionally satisfying for nearly a half century.
Precluded from inheriting her beloved Knole because she was female, Vita and her husband successively restored two nearby estates, Long Barn and Sissinghurst Castle, as their own homes, creating splendid gardens; the one at Sissinghurst greatly influenced English landscape design and is now part of Great Britain’s National Trust. Meanwhile, she wrote prodigiously. Her first work, a play, was privately printed when she was seventeen. By her death at seventy, she had produced more than fifty books of poetry, fiction, and biography; hundreds of articles, BBC broadcasts, and public lectures; and literally thousands of private letters. (In a 1927 diary entry, she exclaims, “God damn this energy, thank God for it.”)
Now, however, most of Vita’s published work languishes out of print and unread; she is probably best known today as the model for the title figure in her friend Virginia Woolf’s fantasy novel Orlando (1928). In 1973, Vita’s unconventional relationship with her husband was movingly detailed in her son Nigel Nicolson’s Portrait of a Marriage. A short study by Michael Stevens, V. Sackville-West: A Critical Biography, appeared the following year but was by Stevens’ own admission exploratory and incomplete. Thus, Glendinning’s book, undertaken at Nigel Nicolson’s invitation, represents the first full-scale life. As author of two well-received biographies of Vita’s contemporaries, the poet Edith Sitwell (1887-1964) and the novelist Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973), Glendinning is qualified for such a task; still, to impose plausible order on such a profusion of sensational material must have been challenging.
Glendinning emphasizes as an important key to Vita’s character the divided heritage exemplified in her parents. Her father—reticent, withdrawn, fond of the child he considered to be like him—represented the conservative, aristocratic English tradition of Knole and the Sackvilles. Her mother—charming, mercurial, supremely egocentric, given to theatrical gestures that later took bizarre, sometimes litigious forms (she even sued her own butler)—embodied the flamboyant strain of Spanish gypsies. Predictably, her parents proved incompatible, eventually separating. Vita’s alienated father had open affairs with other women, one of whom he installed on the grounds of Knole while Lady Sackville was still in residence. Vita’s mother retaliated through a succession of relationships with the likes of William Waldorf Astor, J. P. Morgan, and the architect Edwin Lutyens; she shored up the Sackville fortunes by inheriting nearly a half-million...
(The entire section is 1713 words.)