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Archive for July 31st, 2020


Knole, Kent, the house, begun in 1456, greatly extended c.1603, on a frosty December day

Winter. Blackout.

Quiet. The tick of clock
Shall bring you peace,
To your uncertain soul
Give slow increase.

The blackened windows shut
This inward room
Where you may be alone
As in the tomb.

A tomb of life not death,
Life inward, true,
Where the world vanishes
And you are you.

War brings this seal of peace,
This queer exclusion,
This novel solitude,
This rare illusion

As to the private heart
All separate pain
Brings loss of friendly light
But deeper, darker gain ….
— from The Land

Friends and readers,

It is truly hard to know by what image to represent Vita Sackville-West. If popular culture is our lens, she’s the wealthy gardener of Sissinghurst,


Sissinghurst Gardens

thrown out of Knole (above), after a long bitter fight to hold onto it; a lesbian about whom bad movies are made (Vita & Virginia, and The Portrait of a Marriage, not much better — except, and it’s an important except Janet McTeer intuitively and with probably study does manage to capture the inner better qualities of Sackville-West).  Despite the best efforts of lesbian and feminist scholars to help us appreciate the lesbian motifs of her art (see Lisa Moore’s Lesbian Arts, the Erotics of Landscape), and lip-service paid to acceptance of LGBTQ people, in fact lesbians in the public mind (if movies be any criteria) are seen as ludicrous somehow.  She loved Nicholson, her children, wrote poetry, explored earlier women, aspired to be trusted and respected by Woolf, but was an outsider:


Janet McTeer (Portrait of a Marriage)

The woman-in-the world, promiscuous self-indulgent aristocrat with the scandalous grandparents, parents, vehement liaisons, glamorous enough at age 26:

is at the center of Victoria Glendinning’s biography, which, in my view because she omits the literary part of Vita’s life (!), on the grounds the book would get too long, produces a thoroughly unlikable, not to say obnoxious, deeply reactionary woman.

But if the lens be what she wrote seriously, what she built (renovated) and gardened away on, her identity emerges quite differently; at a minimum caring for others she imaginatively identified with.  She is not primarily or just a novelist.  As with Woolf, there are big diaries, much travel writing, the book about Knole and the Sackvilles (before abridgement), and a book about country house, another on her garden and the land (in verse this time). She goes over the courtyard of Knole, showing how each element was functional at the time it was built, how beautifully appropriate the shapes, angles, and how they fit into another, into the earth’s landscape around them, and then carried on functioning across time. There are the remarkable non-fiction biographies, from Joan of Arc (long with a firmly built up world of 15th century France),

I was startled to realize what the point was. I tried to read it years ago in a mind-blind (?) heteronormative way. Sackville-West is drawn to this girl as a transvestite, as a lesbian, probably somewhat butch. Having watched the film Carrington (see my blog on the artist) the other night I am persuaded the way Emma Thompson looks early in the film – chunky, boyish, dense, determined — would be perfect for Sackville-West conception of Joan of Arc too. It is as a absolute underminer of female sexual conventions that Sackville-West is writing with sympathy and admiration. Similarly her portrait of Anne Clifford, the superpower Duchess in the 17th century. Maybe S-W would have loved Thatcher — for she is also politically profoundly reactionary.

to Aphra Behn, and Lady Anne Clifford (here I’m thinking of her edition of the diary and her unearthing of this woman who controlled and renovated castles in Northern England), Pepita (a biography, half fantasy, half hard headed of her grandmother). Among the best of this non-fiction work, her books on houses, and her literary criticism (particularly her defense of rhyme and formality in poetry, of the use of deeply personal felt material in a poem — contemporary poetry is too afraid of ridicule –, and the odd unusual angle or focus).

I particularly admired her analysis of what’s wrong with contemporary poetry: it was a Bloomsbury perspective: modern poetry (1928, a lecture she delivered) is inhibiting people from from producing the raw inward feelings that drive them — by its demand for balance, its strong embarrassment, so critics ridicule what distresses them about humanity. I know one complaint about the Bloomsbury people at the time is who wants to read about cripples, people mentally distressed &c. Beyond the fear of ridicule, the focus of contemporary read poetry and critics is too central, mainstream. What is wanted is a new angle, something oblique and truer to the inward material itself. Last there is too much worship of free verse; free verse itself uses rhythm, word assonance, all sorts of subdued patterns. She is justifying her own poetry but this manifesto reminds me of others by other Bloomsbury people. Last I love her call for “the dignity of pessimism.”

Then there are her literary biographies (shorter, one on Andrew Marvel), and fiction, and Georgic poetry of the seasons (her Virgilian book-length Land and Garden, once a best seller) .  She is a compelling, deeply appealing, strong artist, a major woman writer of the first into the second half of the 20th century. Worthy to study alongside her lover-friend, and sometime admirer, Virginia Woolf, and definitely belonging in the circles of Bloomsbury people.


Virginia as photographed by Ottoline Morrell, 1926 — caught as glamorously as Morrell could manage

To suggest how to get to know about the Sackville-West who matters in a blog, I’ll put the matter this way: first read Suzanne Raitt’s Vita and Virginia: The Work and Friendship, then Louise DeSalvo’s study of their writing in terms of one another’s aims, outlook, style, then the literal books by Woolf (Vita gave Virginia the dog, Flush, about whom Virginia wrote her marvelous biography; and Virginia wrote her fantastical biography Orlando, an experimental novel, as a way of expressing the complex realities of Vita’s life and art (“Lighting the Cave”). Then read all of Mary Ann Caws’s Selected Writings of Vita Sackville-West: she has picked out the highest moments of genius in the best works and beautifully described many others.

As a pair in life, they met in the early 1920s, became lovers for a while, 1925-28, traveled together. Vita made money for Hogarth Press, wrote best-sellers in not only fiction but life-writing – about herself, the famous ancient house she lived in (thought she should have inherited but excluded as a girl, quite like Austen’s Bennett sisters) and her grandmother. As of 1970, The Land and the Garden sold 100,000 copies (alas not printed by Hogarth Press as too big & complicated a book). In both their books we see their love of animals, and immersion in the natural world, deep respect for the past, deep past, architectural, geologic (Virginia), geographic (Vita)

Vita’s books are as central to the diptych. Sackvlle-West’s biographies and scholarly editions of the work of earlier women, beyond those I’ve mentioned, a life of the first successful female playwright, Aphra Behn, two of whose plays are still done — The Rover and The Widow Ranter (about a woman who lived in the colonies) – with the first truly readable novel about an enslaved man, Oroonoko. What Virginia called for in her Room of One’s Own, what her Memoirs of a Novelist asked for (what Virginia’s Miss Rosamond Merridew wanted to do for her brilliant memoirist, Mistress Joan Martyn), Sackville-West did for several early modern women. She brought them back from oblivion.  On her Anne Clifford and Woolf, see Nicky Hallett’s Ann Clifford as Orlando: Virginia Woolf’s historiology and women’s biography,” Women’s History Review, 4:4 (1995):505-23/

The subjective style, tri-partite structure, themes of Sackville-West’s gem novella, All Passion Spent are pure Woolfian, especially the central section, part two where we get these anguished memories of Lady Slane of how she came to marry Henry, what her life was like, that she loved him, but was defrauded of the life she wanted to lead. She was one who lived her life as a category: great man’s wife, she came with the luggage, was there to manage house, have children, and look good at dinners. Could not escape. So let me concentrate however briefly on this novel, offer another poem and then have done.


Wendy Hiller as Lady Slane, on her own at last – she plays the part of the gradually frailer woman impeccably

The novel is about someone who is suddenly (as it were unexpectedly, almost with surprise) feeling emancipated at age 88. As with Maurice, there is this gap between the outward life imposed on Lady Shane (that she lived) and the one we find ourselves in in her mind. How was it that she led the life she did? How as she led into it? Why did she stay? he was coerced, made to feel that her deepest desires were absurd, utterly unsuitable for a life’s quest; by her husband, not even given a studio to work at painting as an art (perhaps watercolors, he says, thinking perhaps of a kit on a table?). Funny how Henry never had to give up any of his hobbies – any of the things he enjoyed most. All Passion Spent is a strongly feminist book. In the case of Forster’s Maurice, the deeply troubled childhood and early manhood dramatized before us is something that could happen to a heterosexual male; it can be felt by any girl or women growing up who cannot conform, cannot understand she is (to paraphrase Alec Scudder) being “taught what is not the case” in order to get her to behave certain ways — performatively I’d call it. In the case of All Passion Spent, what happened to Lady Slane and also Genoux is particular to women. Men are coerced into doing things but often they lead to power, and positions in public life. Deborah, Lady Slane was made into a man’s instrument – she was lucky he was rich and powerful but everything was owned by him. Her body was his, where she lived, how she spent her time. No one ever gave a thought of any kind to Genoux; she was to be a servant of her siblings, and live a life of hard work, filled with trauma. She escapes to Lady Slane. Genoux loves her lady because we are shown Lady Slane was all kindness. It has flaws. It’s pastoral, an idyll, a kind of courtly entertainment in which there is no threat but the ultimate death. (Et in Arcadia Ego.) All the people Lady Slane meets are all courtesy and truth. There is a kind of dripping condescension towards Genoux. The attitude towards money is improbable (a function of S-W having been so rich).

From Winter once again

What have they,
The bookish townsmen in their dry retreats,
Known to December dawns, before the sun
Reddened the earth, and fields were wet and grey?
When have they gone, another day begun,
By tracks into quagmire trodden,
With sacks about their shoulders and the damp
Soaking until their very souls were sodden,
To help a sick beast, by a flickering lamp,
With rough words and kind hands?
Or felt their boots so heavy and so swere
With trudging over cledgy lands,
Held fast by earth, being to earth so near?

Book-learning they have known.
They meet together, talk and grow most wise,
But they have lost, in losing solitude,
Something — an inward grace, the seeing eyes,
The power of being alone;
The power of being alone with earth and skies,
Of going about a task with quietude,
Aware at once of earth’s surrounding mood
And of an insect crawling on a stone …

Nocturne:

Now die the sounds. No whisper stirs the trees.
Her patten merged into the general web
The shriven day accepts her obsequies
With humble ebb.

Now are the noiseless stars made visible
That hidden by the day pursued the track,
And this one planet that we know too well
Mantles in black.

Then, from the thicket, sang the nightingale,
So wildly sweet, so sudden, and so true,
It seemed a herald from beyond the veil
Had broken through.

The common earth’s confusion all unseen,
But worlds revealed in broad magnificence, —
That unembodied music third between
Sprang hence, or thence?

Nothing remained of the familiar round,
Only the soul ecstatic and released
Founted towards the spheres in jets of sound,
And died, and ceased.

But plangent from the thickets of the thorn
Broke other voices, taking up the choir,
While Cancer interlaced with Capricorn
In silent fire,

And all the harmonies were joined and whole,
Silence was music, music silence made,
Till each was both or either, and the soul
Was not afraid.

It was produced as a beautiful book with illustrations redolent of medieval woodcuts (subtly modernized).

                               Duncan Grant — Parrot Tulips (this image fits Lisa Moore’s ideas on erotic lesbian art ….

For my part, there is nothing I love more than to read for hours books by and on early modern to later 18th century women.  So I here support all Woolf’s efforts in the area of retrieving women’s lives and texts and Vita’s successes.

Ellen

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