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