Aspects of Sexuality in Vita Sackville-West's Life and Writing

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004

27 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Content



1 About the life and works of Vita Sackville-West

2 Summaries of Novels
2.1 All Passion Spent
2.2 The Dark Island
2.3 No Signposts in the Sea

3 Analysis of Different Aspects of Sexuality in the Novels
3.1 Position of Women
3.2 Marriage
3.3 New Concept of Love
3.4 Sadomasochism
3.5 Secret Loves: Female Relationships
3.5.1 General Situation of Lesbianism at Vita Sackville-West’s Lifetime
3.5.2 Homosexuality in Sackville-West’s Novels

4 Conclusion



Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten


This paper aims to analyse some aspects of sexuality in three of Vita Sackville-West’s novels in close connection with the author’s own attitudes towards the topics. The question was whether or not Sackville-West’s ideas and experiences are reflected in her writing. By comparing biographical material about Sackville-West with the contents of her novels, it was possible to find some similarities and common ground. I chose the following three novels in order to discuss the position of women, marriage in general, sadomasochism and female relationships: All Passion Spent (1931), The Dark Island (1934) and No Signposts in the Sea (1961).

Vita did not need to write because of economic pressure, she was highly privileged and therefore did not have to write anything she did not want to, however, the restrictions social and political principles imposed on her did not allow Vita to use everything she might have imagined to write about.

Although Sackville-West is not representative due to her aristocratic status, she shares the fate of having to live a married life despite being homosexual with most of the lesbians at the beginning of the 20th century. This apparent contradiction arouses the question of how she coped with this duality and whether writing did help her in dealing with the different aspects of her personality.

1 About the life and works of Vita Sackville-West

Victoria Mary Sackville-West was born 9 March in 1892 to Victoria and Lionel Sackville, 3rd Lord Sackville. Vita, as she was called, grew up as an only-child in the famous castle of Knole. Queen Elisabeth I gave the castle to one of Vita’s ancestors as a thank-you present. Vita loved strolling through the corridors and imagining scenes of former life in the 365 rooms of the house. Stimulated by her wild imagination, she started to write poetry and plays when she was only thirteen years old. All her life she did not overcome the fact that she could not – as a girl (because of “a technical fault over which we have no control”[1], as she once called it on the radio) – inherit Knole. For the first time in 1908, she travelled to Italy together with her childhood friend and first female lover Rosamund Grosvenor and Violet Keppel, who she had first met four years before. Italy was to become one of Vita’s favourite destinations. She went back there regularly, usually with Rosamund and Violet. Vita’s mother and her boyfriend Sir John Murray Scott, called Seery, took Vita also on a trip to Russia. Lady and Lord Sackville had lost their interest in one another when their daughter was about seven years old. They both found pleasure in other people, but still appeared together in public, at balls and dinners. Lady Sackville left her husband and Knole for good in 1919. Since Vita as a child had “a fiercely ardent, romantic temperament”, the muddle her parents were in “made her cynical” and the conflicts that arose out of the relationships “caused her to withdraw into herself”.[2]

In 1910 Vita was introduced into society and met Harold Nicolson for the first time at a dinner party. He, five years older than her, was described by Vita as “very young and alive and charming and the first remark I heard him make was ‘What fun!’”[3] The two of them did not become close friends until one year later, when Harold frequently visited Vita in Knole. Vita saw him as a companion, a playmate and loved his common sense and his youth, but, as she wrote later in her autobiographical manuscript of 1920, she was very much in love with Rosamund at that time.[4]

Harold proposed to Vita at a ball in Hatfield. Vita knew that he would and was convinced to accept. Their engagement was announced in August 1913 and they married 1 October in Knole. A line in a manuscript of Vita’s poem ‘Marian Strangways’ written only some time after her wedding might express the thoughts Vita and Harold had on their wedding day: “[…] in the chapel their eyes met ‘and it flashed into their minds simultaneously that this was the most tremendous lark out of which they must get the most fun possible.’”[5]

Vita and Harold stayed in Constantinople for a while, since Harold had to work there as a diplomat. Their first son, Benedict, was born in August 1914 back in England. Vita and Harold bought Long Barn, where they were to stay until they moved to Sissinghurst Castle in 1932. Their second son, Nigel, was born in January 1917.

Vita was emotionally still involved with Rosamund and Violet. But only when Harold told Vita that he had sexual relationships with other men (He had to tell her because he had contracted a venereal infection.), Vita admitted to herself that she also had this duality of feelings. Recognizing her husband’s other side was a shock for her, but also a turning point in her life. From then on Vita and Harold’s marriage seemed to be more a contract (in so far as it set limits defined by mutual consent where one could overstep those limits) than a love relationship, however they managed to build up a deep friendship, which gave each other moral and emotional support for the rest of their lives. The letters they regularly wrote show their feelings and dependence on each other.

Vita began a passionate love relationship with her childhood friend Violet Keppel, maybe as a reaction to what had happened. Vita and Violet eloped together to Cornwall, France and Monte Carlo for several times. Harold and Vita’s mother, fearing scandal, tried to convince Vita to come back home and, in the end, she returned, after some years of struggling with her feelings for Harold and Violet. Although the marriage remained stable, Vita always had women friends who she slept with, amongst them Virginia Woolf. She met Virginia in 1922. Their relationship was not as adventurous as the one with Violet, but they led an unusual, tender and more spiritual friendship, which included intense exchange about their work as writers, partly because the Woolfs published many of Vita’s books in their Hogarth Press.

After the Nicolson family had moved to Sissinghurst in 1932, Vita’s interest in gardening was growing and her life began concentrating on a smaller circle of friends, on the restoration of Sissinghurst Castle and on her writing. She went less to London than she used to and felt less comfortable when people, even close friends, came to visit. This remained so until Vita died of cancer in June 1962.

Vita was well-know as a writer already during her life time. She wrote in a wide range of genres: She published poems, (Her long poem The Land won the Hawthornden Prize in 1927.) novels, short stories, travel books, biographies, a history of her family and Knole, she translated Rilke and wrote for the National Trust. Vita was also a popular public personality, as she wrote newspaper articles on gardening for the Observer and gave interviews on the BBC.

2 Summaries of Novels

The three novels discussed in this paper deal with many themes. In the foreground there is the topic of love and rather complicated relationships. The books are more about types of people and about attitudes rather than clearly defined individuals. Apart from writing about sexual matters, Sackville-West devotes parts of her novels to topics such as politics, power and ambition, as well as technology and environmental problems. A topic that appears in all three novels is solitude.

2.1 All Passion Spent

-All Passion Spent was first published in 1931 and dedicated to Vita’s sons Benedict and Nigel.-

When her husband dies, Lady Slane, a gentle 88-year old woman, has to decide where and how she wants to live for the last years of her life. Her children, who suggested to her to live in turns at their houses, are amazed by Lady Slane’s decision to live on her own (together with her French maid) in a tranquil old house in Hampstead. She fell in love with it many years before. Lady Slane manages to achieve a drastic simplification of her life by renouncing any material values. Achievement is not important to her. She rejects the expectations of society as she slightly angers her conventional, ageing children by not showing any further interest in them. She accepts visits only by some eccentrics, who include her landlord, Mr. Bucktrout, the builder, Mr. Gosheron, and Mr. FitzGeorge, whom Lady Slane knows from her former life as a diplomat’s wife and who turns out to be a secret admirer.

As a young woman, Lady Slane had a strong desire to become a painter, but convention did not allow her to do as she wanted and so she became “only” a housewife and a mother and committed herself to charity work. Although she always was “appendage” to her husband, Lady Slane on the whole did not regret her married life, but very much enjoys her newly acquired freedom in Hampstead that enables her to live “according to her own beliefs, and to be true to herself at last.”[6]

Vita’s witty, gentle and sometimes ironic tone of writing well transfers her opinion on what “distorting effects marriage and the expectations of society have on the individual”.[7]


[1] Victoria Glendinning. Vita. The Life of Vita Sackville-West. (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1984), p. 359

[2] Gendinning, p. 20

[3] Gendinning, p. 37

[4] Nigel Nicolson. Portrait einer Ehe. Vita Sackville-West und Harold Nicolson. (Frankfurt: Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt, 1992),p. 44

[5] Gendinning, p. 62

[6] Gendinning, p. 236

[7] Gendinning, p 236

Excerpt out of 27 pages


Aspects of Sexuality in Vita Sackville-West's Life and Writing
Dresden Technical University  (Fakultät für Sprach- und Literaturwissenschaften Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
'Sexuality in Britain from Victorian Times to the 1960s'
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This paper analyses the position of women, views on marriage and female relationships in three of Sackville-West's novels - All Passion Spent, The Dark Island, No Signposts in the Sea - in close connection with the author's own attitudes towards the topics and in comparison to the general situation of women in the first half of the 20th century.
Aspects, Sexuality, Vita, Sackville-West, Life, Writing, Britain, Victorian, Times
Quote paper
Susanne Busch (Author), 2004, Aspects of Sexuality in Vita Sackville-West's Life and Writing, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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