No one knows what the body can do. -Spinoza

Monday, June 27, 2011

Iconic Photo: Photo 29

Vita Sackville-West

A flowerless room is a soulless room, to my way of thinking; but even one solitary little vase of a living flower may redeem it.

The life of Vita Sackville-West offers a portrait of a woman passionately committed to love on her own terms, and to creatively demand equal rights for women at a time when doing so was both legally and financially impossible. She was able to make her way in aristocratic England as an author and poet, winning the Hawthorn prize both in 1927 and 1933. Sackville-West is also famously associated with two novels that both bear witness to her intriguing heart and unusual way of life.

The first novel, Sackville-West's own book CHALLENGE, was started in conjunction with her long term lover, Violet Trefussis, though Sackville-West would end up completing it on her own. Together the two conceived of a novel that would present a story of their affair with slightly altered personas. Having met as teenagers, Trefussis and Sackville-West formed a bond with each other--neither was allowed to have sexual liason with their own husbands. Within the duration of their affair the two would travel abroad together with Sackville-West dressing the part of a young man, the consort of Trefussis. In this way, the two were able to feel free to be intimately involved at large in the world. Their novel CHALLENGE presents their love affair through the guise of two primary characters, the part of Sackville-West represented through a male character, Julian. Sackville-West's father, however, read the book before its publication and instantly recognized the portrayal of his daughter in Julian. He found the tale too embarassing to allow it be sold to the general public and insisted it not be printed in England. Of the rendition, however, Sackville-West's own son stated the following.

She fought for the right to love, men and women, rejecting the conventions that marriage demands exclusive love, and that women should love only men, and men only women. For this she was prepared to give up everything… How could she regret that the knowledge of it should now reach the ears of a new generation, one so infinitely more compassionate than her own?
-Nigel Nicolson (son of Vita Sackville-West)

The affair with Pertussis ended badly but the two remained loving towards each other. Though they would never again return to the original commitment of their bond, the two would meet on occasion over the years for brief liaisons and confessed to remaining in love with each other through the rest of their lives.

The second novel associated with Sackville-West is Virginia Woolfe's ORLANDO. The two women shared a passionate affair in the late 1920's that Woolfe freely claimed changed her life. The novel ORLANDO is written as a kind of exploration of Sackville-West offering Woolfe the chance to revel in the nuances and character of her lover by exploring her possibilities across three different centuries and as both man and woman. In this way, ORLANDO was meant to offer Sackville-West a kind of freedom unavailable to women, even aristocratic class women, early in the 1900s. Sackville-West though too is seen as a person that could readily inspire such profound imagination in an adept writer such as Woolfe--Sackville-West had already proven herself willing to play the part of a man to suit her own desires, and was seen as a woman that demanded her life fulfill her own goals in as much as she was able.
Woolfe also explained that the novel was meant to cheer Sackville-West after the loss of her ancestral home due to legal entitlement of a male heir only. The story of ORLANDO includes a woman losing her family property because she is not a man, and yet continuing on in a happy life. ORLANDO is also considered to be Woolfe's most light-hearted writing in that it explores the idea of historical biography in a satirical manner. Many have thought that such light-hearted writing in Woolfe reveals too the extra happiness that Sackville-West brought into Woolfe's life, though Woolfe remained committed to the claim that her own husband brought her the greatest happiness. In these ways, Sackville-West's son Nigel describes the book ORLANDO as the "longest and most exciting love letter in literature."

Though Sackville-West is associated with the above two novels, her own two best known pieces of fiction are THE EDWARDIANS and ALL PASSION SPENT. Interestingly, the second novel explores the story of a woman that later in life gives up her life of convention to fully explore her own sense of freedom. Sackville-West also wrote what is considered an early written (for a woman writer) science-fantasy. The novel GRAND CANYON, published in 1942, warns against the possibility of a Nazi invasion in the United States. It is considered an unusual story for its time offering an atypical story for a woman writer and a surprising twist on the idea of invasion.

Sackville-West is the only writer to win the Hawthorne Prize for poetry twice--first for her long form poem, "The Land" (remarkably, it is possible to find a recording of Sackville-West herself reading this poem on youtube), and then for her collected poems. She was also an established biographer writing a novel on Joan of Arc, and another of Saint Teresa of Avila, among others. She was bestowed the title Companion of Honour for her services to English literature.

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