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How Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West Fell in Love

The real-life story behind “the longest and most charming love letter in literature.”

How Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West Fell in Love

Four years after the end of her turbulent decade-long romance with Violet Trefusis, the English poet, novelist, and landscape designer Vita Sackville-West became intensely infatuated with Virginia Woolf, ten years her senior. Theirs was a singular love that, like the protagonist of Woolf’s revolutionary novel inspired by Vita, shape-shifted fluidly as the years and decades wore on, morphing now into fervent passion, now into deep and delicate emotional intimacy, now into the most steadfast of friendships.

Sackville-West’s son, Nigel Nicolson, chronicles their relationship with great reverence and sensitivity in his 1973 book Portrait of a Marriage: Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson (public library), drawing on his mother’s letters and diaries to illuminate the enormity of the love the two women shared from the day they first met to the day Vita learned of Virginia’s death — a love that remained every bit as alive even in her moving letter of condolence to Woolf’s husband.

Their uncommon bond began in December of 1922, when Virginia was forty and her first literary success, Mrs. Dalloway, was still three years ahead. Four days after their first meeting, Virginia invited Vita to a small dinner party. Vita reported to her husband — the diplomat Harold Nicolson, also queer — in a letter from December 19, 1922:

I simply adore Virginia Woolf, and so would you. You would fall quite flat before her charm and personality… Mrs. Woolf is so simple: she does give the impression of something big. She is utterly unaffected: there are no outward adornments — she dresses quite atrociously. At first you think she is plain, then a sort of spiritual beauty imposes itself on you, and you find a fascination in watching her. She was smarter last night, that is to say, the woollen orange stockings were replaced by yellow silk ones, but she still wore the pumps. She is both detached and human, silent till she wants to say something, and then says it supremely well.

After remarking that Woolf was “quite old” — she was forty — Vita adds with a sort of wistful giddiness:

I’ve rarely taken such a fancy to anyone, and I think she likes me. At least, she asked me to Richmond where she lives. Darling, I have quite lost my heart.

Over the coming weeks, a good five years before she professed being “reduced to a thing that wants Virginia,” Vita lost her heart completely and the intimacy between the two women magnetized them closer and closer. She writes in a diary entry from the following February:

Dined with Virginia at Richmond. She is as delicious as ever. How right she is when she says that love makes anyone a bore, but the excitement of life lies in “the little moves” nearer to people. But perhaps she feels this because she is an experimentalist in humanity, and has no grande passion in her life.

A month later, Vita confides in her diary again:

Lunch with Virginia in Travistock Square, where she has just arrived. The first time that I have been alone with her for long. Went on to see Mama, my head swimming with Virginia.

But then, Nicolson notes, there came a gap in communication. Virginia herself was initially ambivalent, at once hopelessly drawn to Vita — to “her being in short (what I have never been) a real woman,” as she wrote in her own diary — and exasperated by the suddenness and severity of that attraction. Quentin Bell — the beloved nephew with whom Woolf had once collaborated on a satirical family newspaper and who later became her official biographer — speculates about the cause:

She probably became aware of Vita’s feelings and perhaps acquired an inkling of her own at that first encounter; she felt shy, almost virginal, in Vita’s company, and she was, I suspect, roused to a sense of danger.

Nicolson considers his mother’s pole of the battery:

Vita was too well aware of the delicacy of Virginia’s mind and body to press her strongly, and their friendship developed affectionately, starting with the small tendernesses by the fireside. (Vita liked to sit on the floor by Virginia’s chair) that gradually, so gradually, led to something a little more.

But that something was not little by any measure — for any love at all is no small matter, but especially one of such magnitude. Vita became Virginia’s lover and muse, and went on to inspire her groundbreaking 1928 novel Orlando, which revolutionized the politics of LGBT love and which Nicolson himself so poetically calls “the longest and most charming love letter in literature, in which [Virginia] explores Vita, weaves her in and out of the centuries, tosses her from one sex to the other, plays with her, dresses her in furs, lace and emeralds, teases her, flirts with her, drops a veil of mist around her, and ends by photographing her in the mud at Long Barn, with dogs, awaiting Virginia’s arrival the next day.”

Drawing of Vita Sackville-West by Nina Cosford from Virginia Woolf: An Illustrated Biography
Drawing of Vita Sackville-West by Nina Cosford from Virginia Woolf: An Illustrated Biography

On October 11, 1928 — the day Orlando published — Vita received a lavish package, containing a pristine copy of the book and Virginia’s original manuscript, custom-bound for Vita in Niger leather, her initials engraved on the spine. Years later, upon receiving news of Virginia’s death, Vita would describe her onetime lover and lifelong friend as “the loveliest mind and spirit” she ever knew and “a loss which can never diminish.”

Nicolson writes of his mother’s relationship with Virginia, taking care to note that the open marriages both women had, while unconventional by the era’s standards, were held together by unbreakable intellectual and spiritual bonds to their respective spouses:

[Virginia’s] friendship was the most important fact in Vita’s life, except Harold, just as Vita’s was the most important in Virginia’s, except Leonard, and perhaps her sister Vanessa. If one seeks a parallel to Vita-Harold, one can find it only in Virginia-Leonard, although one must admit differences, for Virginia was sexually frigid and Leonard was not homosexual. Their marriages were alike in the freedom they allowed each other, in the invincibility of their love, in its intellectual, spiritual and non-physical base, in the eagerness of all four of them to savour life, challenge convention, work hard, play dangerously with the emotions — and in their solicitude for each other. How well do I recall Leonard’s look as he watched Virginia across a sitting-room to see that she did not grow tired or overexcited, caring for her much as Joseph must have cared for Mary, for their relationship was Biblical. There was no jealousy between the Woolfs and the Nicolsons, beause they had arrived independently at the same definition of “trust.”

Portrait of a Marriage is a rich and rewarding read in its entirety, aglow with the kaleidoscopic nuances and pluralities of love. Complement it with Virginia Woolf what makes relationships last and literature’s greatest LGBT love letters, then revisit Edna St. Vincent Millay’s exquisite polyamorous love letters from the same era in which Vita and Virginia fell in love.

BP

An Illustrated Celebration of Trailblazing Women in Science

Ada Lovelace, Marie Curie, Jane Goodall, Mae Jemison, and more pioneers who conquered curiosity against tremendous cultural odds.

When pioneering scientist Vera Rubin was a little girl in the 1930s, she longed to be an astronomer but had never met a sole person of that vocation in real life. Decades later, after she broke the glass ceiling in astronomy by becoming the first woman permitted to observe at the prestigious Palomar Observatory and went on to discover dark matter, Rubin reflected: “It never occurred to me that I couldn’t be an astronomer.” She traced the firmness of that conviction to a children’s book about Maria Mitchell — America’s first woman astronomer and a lifelong champion of women in science — which had expanded her horizon of possibility and seeded the idea that she, a little girl amid a culture impoverished of such role models, could one day become an astronomer. Rubin did become one — one of the greatest ones who ever lived — whilst raising three children of her own, all of whom grew up to earn doctorates in science, including a daughter who became an astronomer herself. That Rubin has not yet been awarded the Nobel Prize is both a travesty and a testament to our culture’s long history of inequality in science.

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Rubin is one of the fifty extraordinary women whom artist and author Rachel Ignotofsky celebrates in Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World (public library) — an illustrated homage to some of the most influential and inspiring women in STEM since long before we acronymized the conquest of curiosity through discovery and invention, ranging from the ancient astronomer, mathematician, and philosopher Hypatia in the fourth century to Iranian mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani, born in 1977.

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True as it may be that being an outsider is an advantage in science and life, modeling furnishes young hearts with the assurance that people who are in some way like them can belong and shine in fields comprised primarily of people drastically unlike them. It is this ethos that Igontofsky embraces by being deliberate in ensuring that the scientists included come from a vast variety of ethnic backgrounds, nationalities, orientations, and cultural traditions.

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There are the expected trailblazers who have stood as beacons of possibility for decades, even centuries: Ada Lovelace, who became the world’s first de facto computer programmer; Marie Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and to this day the only person awarded a Nobel in two different sciences; Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who once elicited the exclamation “Miss Bell, you have made the greatest astronomical discovery of the twentieth century!” (and was subsequently excluded from the Nobel she deserved); Maria Sybilla Merian, the 17th-century German naturalist whose studies of butterfly metamorphosis revolutionized entomology and natural history illustration; and Jane Goodall — another pioneer who turned her childhood dream into reality against tremendous odds and went on to do more for the understanding of nonhuman consciousness than any scientist before or since.

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But there are also lesser-known and no less extraordinary engineers, physicists, physicians, chemists, geneticists, geologists, inventors, biologists, and scientists of all stripes, united by the possession of insatiable curiosity, a singular genius for transmuting it into knowledge, and two X chromosomes.

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Woven throughout the micro-biographies are visual factoids like a timeline of notable events in the history of women in science, statistics about the alarming gender gap in STEM fields, and a visual taxonomy of lab tools.

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In the introduction, Ignotofsky captures just what women in science have been up against, as recently as mere decades ago, even though science itself is millennia old:

Nothing says trouble like a woman in pants. That was the attitude in the 1930s, anyway; when Barbara McClintock wore slacks at the University of Missouri, it was considered scandalous. Even worse, she was feisty, direct, incredibly smart, and twice as sharp as most of her male colleagues. She did things her way to get the best results, even if it meant working late with her students, who were breaking curfew. If you think these seem like good qualities for scientist, then you are right. But back then, these weren’t necessarily considered good qualities in a woman. Her intelligence, her self-confidence, her willingness to break rules, and of course her pants were all considered shocking!

Barbara had already made her mark on the field of genetics with her groundbreaking work at Cornell University, mapping chromosomes using corn. This work is still important in scientific history. Yet while working at the University of Missouri Barbara was seen as bold and unladylike. The faculty excluded her from meetings and gave her little support with her research. When she found out they would fire her if she got married and there was no possibility of promotion, she decided she had had enough.

Risking her entire career, she packed her bags. With no plan, except an unwillingness to compromise her worth, Barbara went off to find her dream job. This decision would allow her to joyously research all day and eventually make the discovery of jumping genes. This discovery would win her a Nobel Prize and forever change how we view genetics.

Barbara McClintock’s story is not unique. As long as humanity has asked questions about our world, men and women have looked to the stars, under rocks, and through microscopes to find the answers. Although both men and women have the same thirst for knowledge, women have not always been given the same opportunities to explore the answers.

Here, I’m reminded of how Maria Mitchell — the first person to discover a telescopic comet, which earned her unanimous election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences as the first woman ever admitted — earned three honorary degrees, even though she was never allowed to set foot in a university as a student. Ignotofsky captures the heartbreaking inequalities that only amplify the impressiveness of these women’s feats:

When women finally began gaining wider access to higher education, there was usually a catch. Often they would be given no space to work, no funding, and no recognition. Not allowed to enter the university building because of her gender, Lise Meitner did her radiochemistry experiments in a dank basement. Without funding for a lab, physicist and chemist Marie Curie handled dangerous radioactive elements in a tiny, dusty shed. After making one of the most important discoveries in the history of astronomy, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin still got little recognition, and for decades her gender limited her to work as a technical assistant. Creativity, persistence, and a love of discovery were the greatest tools these women had.

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Complement the marvelous Women in Science with more creative courage for young hearts with these favorite picture-book biographies of great artists, writers, and scientists, then revisit the story of how Maria Mitchell (alas, only a sidebar mention in the book) paved the way for women in science and Adrienne Rich’s touching tribute to Marie Curie.

Illustrations © Rachel Ignotofsky, courtesy of Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

BP

Pioneering Scientist Erwin Chargaff on the Power of Being an Outsider and What Makes a Great Teacher

“A teacher is one who can show you the way to yourself.”

Pioneering Scientist Erwin Chargaff on the Power of Being an Outsider and What Makes a Great Teacher

“No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life,” Nietzsche wrote in his timeless treatise on education and how to find oneself. But because self-reliance and loneliness are two sides of the same coin, the more independent and singular a life-path, the more like an outsider the person traveling it tends to feel — but this need not be a dispiriting thing. A century after Nietzsche, Hannah Arendt wrote beautifully about outsiderdom as a power and a privilege and James Baldwin asserted that it is the artist’s task to be the outsider disrupting society’s complacent stability. Even E.E. Cummings, one of the most influential and beloved poets of all time, was once condemned for his defiance of the accepted order and called an “arch-poseur and pretender, [a] disintegrator of language and mumbler of indecent nonsense.” Indeed, it is to the misfit, the outsider, and the dissenter that we owe every leap of progress and every shattering of the status quo in art, science, poetry, philosophy, and virtually every realm of human creative endeavor.

That’s what pioneering biochemist Erwin Chargaff (August 11, 1905–June 20, 2002) examines in a portion of Heraclitean Fire: Sketches from a Life Before Nature (public library | free ebook) — his altogether magnificent and uncommonly poetic 1978 autobiography, which gave us Chargaff’s abiding and timely insight into the poetics of curiosity, the crucial difference between explanation and understanding, and what makes a scientist.

Erwin Chargaff, 1930
Erwin Chargaff, 1930

Chargaff, who emigrated from Vienna to America just before Nazis seized power and killed his family, looks back on his childhood and writes:

When I was younger and people sometimes still told me the truth, I was often called a misfit; and all I could do was to nod sadly and affirmatively. For it is a fact that, with only a few glorious exceptions, I have not fitted well into the country and the society in which I have to live; into the language in which I had to converse; yes, even into the century into which I was born. This has been the fate of many people throughout history…

However, there accrue to the outsider great benefits, too; there is some comfort in being uncomfortable. If one is left alone in the sense of solitude, one is also left alone in the sense of bother.

Chargaff argues that despite the discomfort to the individual, this status of outsiderdom is of immense benefit to society, for it is often the misfits and the dissenters who kindle within dogma the first flames of progress. He writes:

I have often referred to myself as an outsider on the inside of science. The keepers of the flame may say correctly that they have no use for such outsiders. Well, they don’t, but science does. Every activity of the human mind has, throughout history, given rise to criticism within its own ranks; and some — philosophy, for instance — consist to a large extent of criticism of previous efforts and their conceptual basis. Only science has, in our times, become complacent; it slumbers beatifically in euphoric orthodoxy, disregarding contemptuously the few timid voices of apprehension. These may, however, be the heralds of storms to come.

He adds a lament as true of science as it is of the rest of culture, as valid of his era as it is of ours:

Our scientific mass society regards the outsider with little tenderness.

A great teacher, Chargaff argues, is one who not only refuses to press her or his students into a conformity mold but makes room for and actively encourages the virtues of being a misfit — that is, the orientation of mind and spirit that questions and opposes the status quo. He writes:

I have always tried to maintain my amateur status. I am not even sure that I comply with my own definition of a good teacher: he learned much, he taught more. Of one thing I am certain: a good teacher can only have dissident pupils, and in this respect I may have done some good.

In a passage that applies to nearly every field of human achievement, far beyond science, Chargaff revisits the subject of the great teacher’s gift to the student:

If there is such a thing as a great scientist … that greatness can certainly not be transferred by what is commonly called teaching. What the disciples learn are the mannerisms, tricks of the trade, ways to make a career, or perhaps, in the rarest cases, a critical view of the meaning of scientific evidence and its interpretation. A real teacher can teach through his example — this is what the ducklings get from their mothers — or, most infrequently, through the intensity and the originality of his view or vision of nature.

He later revisits the subject and distills the matter into a crystalline conclusion:

A teacher is one who can show you the way to yourself.

In a sentiment of enormous meta-poignancy, illuminating why timeless ideas by other minds — minds like his, via books like this — can speak so directly to our time and so intimately to our private experience, Chargaff adds:

We take from others only what we already have in ourselves.

This, of course, is what makes Heraclitean Fire itself so timelessly rewarding and full of wisdom that feels surprisingly personalized to the reader. Devour more of it here, then complement this particular portion with Nietzsche on the true value of education, John Dewey on its proper purpose, and Anne Lamott on the life-giving power of great teachers.

BP

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