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Vita Sackville-West


Article by Jennifer Ward

The creative life is composed of overlapping domains; the connection between the life of the pen and the life of the trowel for instance, is one that Vita Sackville-West made especially clear. Words and wandering vines alike flourished under her adept hand, and she is highly regarded today in both literary and gardening communities of the most elite and fruitful kind.

Victoria Mary Sackville-West was born in Knole House, Kent, to a family of aristocratic lineage. The magnificent estate, said to be the largest private home in all of England, had been in the family since 1566, when Queen Elizabeth gave it to Thomas Sackville. All of its 365 rooms, 52 staircases and seven courtyards charmed and haunted the young Victoria, eventually nicknamed "Vita." The grandeur of her surroundings instilled in her a deep aesthetic appreciation, but as a woman she knew she would never be heir to its all of its secrets. To be enshrined in so much beauty, yet to have it always just out of reach, may have set within her the desire that is the stuff of artistic genius.

Vita's predecessors made up a colourful nurturing environment. Her mother Victoria was the youngest child of a risqué union between the famous Spanish dancer Pepita and the 2nd Lord Sackville-West, Lionel. A dramatic and poised woman, Vita's mother attracted many marriage proposals in both Europe and abroad. The Sackvilles had always been a family whom scandal found easily, and so the fact that Vita herself became such a controversial character - in an era now chastised for its prudishness - thus does not come as a surprise. After her grandfather's career took a downward turn in America, he and Vita's mother returned to England to settle at Knole. There Vita's mother began to entertain friends and family with lavish parties in her gardens. There she was introduced to Lionel Sackville-West, her own first cousin and soon to be inheritor of Knole. There the cousins were married, with the permission of Cardinal Manning, in 1890. Our poet-gardener Vita Sackville-West was their only child.

Vita was strongly affected by her mother's arresting presence, which had a predominant effect on Vita herself, said to have been gangly and awkward. These were disadvantages which may have led to emotional abuse in Vita's early life. She was brought up surrounded by garish affluence, which did not go uncriticized by her later in her life. Though her childhood at Knole was almost fairy-tale in its aesthetic - and the inspiration for her best-selling novel, The Edwardians - it may have also provided the fodder for some of her most disturbing fictions. Vita was said by some to be shy and aloof, as many great minds are. She was intimidating to some, and became more and more reclusive in her later life - preferring the company of a tight circle of friends or the solitude of her garden. She could be found in her characteristic jodhpurs and knee gaiters, balancing a trowel and a cigarette as she worked dirt and seed into a cornucopia of colour.

Vita's private life was of lasting interest to the public, one concerned much as we are presently with the state of marriage and others' intimate dealings. In 1913 she married the diplomat and journalist Harold Nicolson, also a person of ambiguous sexual orientation. Together they were quite involved in the Bloomsbury Group, an intellectual and social elite made up of Cambridge graduates. They had two sons, Benedict and Nigel Nicolson, who became a well-known art critic and publisher, respectively. In 1919 Vita and Harold began a series of separation, both to pursue a variety of other relationships of a homosexual nature. Despite many extramarital affairs, leading them in and out of each others' lives, the couple maintained a deep respect for each other and embodied what might today be called an "open marriage." It was eventually commemorated and celebrated in their son Nigel's book, Portrait of a Marriage. In 1930, Sackville-West and Nicolson grew concerned that their property at Knole was dreadfully close to development over which they had no control, and took up residency at Sissinghurst Castle. (The picture to the left is of Vita's beloved tower at Sissinghurst in which she had her office.)

Vita herself was a popular public figure, attracting the attention of famous academics, artists, and architects. In fact, she is known as much for the objects of her affections as for her own accomplishments. Love and affection were definitely two mediums she displayed a great affinity for! Her long affair with her childhood friend Violet Trefusis was one that lasted throughout her life. Their relationship often manifested itself in creative genius, as was the case with their co-authored novel, Challenge. The novel was suppressed in England so as to avoid scandal, but published in America in 1923. One famous anecdote from her romantic antics was her and Violet's summer trip to Paris, where their husbands had to follow them in hopes of persuading them to come home. The rendezvous for which she is most famous for is the one with author Virginia Woolf in the late 1920s. Woolf wrote extensively about Vita in her diaries, and in fictional form in her provocative novel Orlando, for which Vita played the muse.

Vita began writing at the young age of eleven, and produced a healthy volume of work around pastoral themes. The Land was published in 1926, a long poem for which she received the Hawthornden Prize. She followed the poem with The Garden, which won the Heinemann prize. Her deep passion for gardening was apparent in her use of the prize money - spent entirely on azaleas for the garden! In 1946 Vita was made a Companion of Honour for her services to literature, and the following year she began a weekly column in the Observer called 'In Your Garden'. The column launched her career in the gardening world, where she would come to be as respected as she was already in the literary one. As Anne Scott James notes, her writing "did more to change the face of English gardening than any other writing since Robinson's The English Flower Garden."

This high praise, (noted in Victoria Glendinning's 1983 biography "Vita, The Life of Vita Sackville-West") illustrates the extent of her reach in gardening communities of the 20th Century. As is the case with any admirable journalistic work, Sackville-West's articles were collected and made into a succession of four separate volumes, published between 1951 and 1958 by Michael Joseph. Vita herself was extremely critical of her own work. She made frequent references to her poems and novels as belonging nowhere but in the "rubbish heap." It is perhaps her talent at the ground level that she eventually grew to take more pride in.

Vita's gardening style was inspired by her friends Gertrude Jekyll and Edward Lutyens - the "dynamic duo" of gardening in the early 20th century. It was Sissinghurst Castle, which she and Harold had found in ruin in 1929, that brought forth her true abilities and allowed them space to flourish. It was here where Vita and Harold settled into an amicable companionship and gardening partnership, taking it upon themselves to restore the estate beyond its former glory. Even Vita's most vociferous critic Rebecca West praised the gardens at Sissinghurst - however backhandedly - as "her one magnificent act of creation." In spite of her heart's lifelong wanderings, Sissinghurst came to win Vita's long-term affection. Under her and Harold's hands, it became the most visited garden in all of England. In 1948 Vita became a founding member of the National Trust's garden committee, who strive to carry on her work today.

Notable Publications:
(Because of the volume of her published works, these poetry and fiction lists are by no means exhaustive.)

Gardening Books

Some Flowers. (1937)
Country Notes. (1939)
Country Notes in Wartime. (1940)
In Your Garden. (1951)
In Your Garden Again. (1953)
More for Your Garden. (1955)
A Joy of Gardening: A Selection for Americans. (1958)
Even More for Your Garden. (1958)
The Illustrated Garden Book: A New Anthology. Robin Lane Fox, ed., Atheneum (1986)
The Land and the Garden, Viking (1989)
Poems of West and East (1917)
Orchard and Vineyard 1921
The Land 1927


Heritage (1919)
Challenge (1923)
All Passion Spent (1931)
The Dark Island (1934)
Grand Canyon (1942)


Please also visit Old London Maps on the web as many of the maps
and views available there have plans and depictions of gardens from
the medieval period through to the late nineteenth century.

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