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Rock Climbing and the Meaning of Life: Vita Sackville-West’s Letters to Virginia Woolf on the Intimacy-Building Power of Travel and How Nature Reveals Us to Ourselves

“I don’t believe one ever knows people in their own surroundings; one only knows them away, divorced from all the little strings and cobwebs of habit.”

Rock Climbing and the Meaning of Life: Vita Sackville-West’s Letters to Virginia Woolf on the Intimacy-Building Power of Travel and How Nature Reveals Us to Ourselves

“I simply adore Virginia Woolf… She is both detached and human, silent till she wants to say something, and then says it supremely well,” Vita Sackville-West (March 9, 1892–June 2, 1962) wrote in a letter to her husband after meeting the famed author with whom she would embark upon one of literature’s greatest romances — a romance that would inspire Woolf’s groundbreaking 1928 novel Orlando, memorably described by Vita’s son as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature.”

The origin of that uncommon and uncommonly beautiful love story unfolds in Letters of Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf (public library). Although their relationship lasted until death did them part and metamorphosed across the spectrum of the romantic and the platonic, their early correspondence is imbued with a special kind of magic. It bears all the markings of a proper Victorian courtship, but is also fused with a certain uncontainable wildness of desire, so that the subtlest sentence can hold enormous erotic charge.

“Dear Mrs. Nicolson,” Virginia writes in one of their first letters, immediately adding a parenthetically guarded plea for greater intimacy: “(But I wish you could be induced to call me Virginia.)” Vita complies eagerly, addressing her next letter as “My dear Virginia” and adding her own parenthetical petition: “(You see I don’t take much inducing. Could you be induced likewise, do you think?)” This mutual induction didn’t take long. Soon, they were courting each other, albeit with careful psychological parentheses, though the most seductive medium they each knew — literature. Virginia invited Vita to be one of the first authors to contribute a book to Hogarth Press, the hand-printed press she cofounded with her husband Leonard in 1917. Vita gladly obliged.

In a letter from July 16 of 1924, Vita writes:

My dear Virginia…

You asked me to write a story for you. On the peaks of mountains, and beside green lakes, I am writing it for you. I shut my eyes to the blue gentians, to the coral of androsace; I shut my ears to the brawling of rivers; I shut my nose to the scent of pines; I concentrate on my story.

[…]

An amphitheater of mountains encloses one’s horizons and one’s footsteps. Today I climbed up to the eternal snows, and there found bright yellow poppies braving alike the glacier and the storm; and was ashamed before their courage… This is how one ought to feel, I am convinced. I contemplate young mountaineers hung with ropes and ice-axes, and think that they alone have understood how to live life… I told you once I would rather go to Spain with you than with anyone, and you looked confused, and I felt I had made a gaffe, — been to personal, in fact, — but still the statement remains a true one, and I shan’t be really satisfied till I have enticed you away.

For two people who barely knew each other in a temporal sense, Vita and Virginia seemed to know each other’s soul deeply — the mark, perhaps, of all great loves. Even this letter from the dawn of their lifelong is suffused with Vita’s acute psychological insight into Virginia’s conflicted genius — an intellect so fertile as to change the course of culture yet so formidable as to cut Virginia off from her heart (as Proust believed the intellect is apt to do) and from the passions of her animal self.

Escaping into nature together, Vita believed, would free Virginia from the self-imposed shackles of her mind and help her surrender to the creaturely place where passion lives. Vita writes:

Oh yes, you like people through the brain better than through the heart, — forgive me if I am wrong. Of course there must be exceptions; there always are…

I don’t believe one ever knows people in their own surroundings; one only knows them away, divorced from all the little strings and cobwebs of habit. Long Barn, Knole, Richmond, and Bloomsbury. All too familiar and entrapping. Either I am at home, and you are strange; or you are at home, and I am strange; so neither is the real essential person, and confusion results.

But in the Basque provinces … We should both be equally strange and equally real.

Virginia took more than a month to respond. And when she did, it was clear that Vita had sliced through her thickest defenses, touching into the most vulnerable core of her being. She writes back on August 19, 1924, with painful and painfully evident self-restraint:

I enjoyed your intimate letter from the Dolomites. It gave me a great deal of pain — which is I’ve no doubt the first stage of intimacy — no friends, no heart, only an indifferent head. Never mind: I enjoyed your abuse very much…

But I will not go on else I should write you a really intimate letter, and then you would dislike me, more, even more, than you do.

Virginia’s forced restraint didn’t last long. By the following summer, the two — both of whom thrived in what we would call open marriages today — had fallen madly in love and were soon writing each other exquisite love letters. While she was crafting Orlando under Vita’s enchantment, Vita’s husband wrote to Virginia in a telegram:

I am glad that Vita has come under an influence so stimulating and so sane… You need never worry about my having any feeling except a longing that Vita’s life should be as rich and as sincere as possible. I loathe jealousy as I loathe all forms of disease.

Complement the exhilaratingly beautiful Letters of Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf with Woolf on what makes relationships last and nature as a creative catalyst for art.

BP

Virginia Woolf on Clothing as a Vehicle of Identity, the Fluidity of Gender, and the Trans Dimension of Human Nature

“Vain trifles as they seem, clothes … change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.”

Almost a century before Emily Spivack came to explore how clothes “help us assert our identity or aspirations” in her wonderful inquiry into the emotional dimension of clothing, which inspired a recent episode of NPR’s excellent Invisibilia, Virginia Woolf wove the subject into Orlando: A Biography (public library) — a novel that, despite being a work of fiction (or, rather, a masterwork of fiction), brims with exquisitely articulated psychological truth about such perplexities as the elasticity of time and our propensity for self-doubt in creative work. (Vita Sackville-West — Woolf’s lover and muse, who inspired Orlando — captured the wellspring of this wisdom perfectly in recounting her very first encounter with Virginia: “She is both detached and human, silent till she wants to say something, and then says it supremely well.”)

Woolf writes:

Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us… There is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us and not we them; we may make them take the mould of arm or breast, but they mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking.

Curiously, Woolf herself was of questionable sartorial sensibility — so much so that even Vita noticed it from the midst of her infatuation, remarking on Virginia’s aesthetically atrocious choice of “woollen orange stockings [and] pumps.” But perhaps Woolf was simply more interested in the symbolic dimension of clothes than in the stylistic; more keen to explore that symbolism in her writing than in her wardrobe.

Tilda Swinton as Orlando
Tilda Swinton as Orlando

With an eye to her protagonist’s fluid transition between the male and female genders — one that happened in the novel by magic rather than by medicine, for Woolf was writing two years before the first successful gender reassignment surgery was completed, decades before the term “transgender” was coined, and nearly half a century before Jan Morris’s trailblazing account of what it’s actually like to change bodily genders — Woolf considers the role of clothing as a vehicle of the transition and a signifier of the fluidity of identity:

Clothes are but a symbol of something hid deep beneath. It was a change in Orlando herself that dictated her choice of a woman’s dress and of a woman’s sex. And perhaps in this she was only expressing rather more openly than usual — openness indeed was the soul of her nature — something that happens to most people without being thus plainly expressed.

Fleshing out the ideas that would ripen a year later into her elegant case for why the most creatively fertile mind is the androgynous mind, Woolf adds:

Different though the sexes are, they intermix. In every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place, and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness, while underneath the sex is the very opposite of what it is above.

Complement this particular passage of the wholly magnificent Orlando with Quentin Bell — Woolf’s beloved nephew, collaborator in quirk, and official biographer — on the morality of clothing, then revisit Woolf on the relationship between loneliness and creativity, how to live more fully in the present, and the epiphany that taught her what it means to be an artist.

BP

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 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.”

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

Virginia Woolf on the Relationship Between Loneliness and Creativity

“If I could catch the feeling, I would; the feeling of the singing of the real world, as one is driven by loneliness and silence from the habitable world.”

Virginia Woolf on the Relationship Between Loneliness and Creativity

There is a kind of loneliness that lodges itself in the psyche and never fully leaves, a loneliness most anguishing not in solitude but in companionship and amid the crowd. If solitude fertilizes the imagination, loneliness vacuums it of vitality and sands the baseboards of the spirit with the scratchy restlessness of longing — for connection, for communion, for escape. And yet it is out of this restlessness that so many great works of art are born.

“We have all known the long loneliness,” Dorothy Day wrote, but some — artists, perhaps — know it more intimately than others and few artists have articulated this knowledge with more stunning and stirring lucidity than Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941). Loneliness permeates A Writer’s Diary (public library) — that abiding source of Woolf’s wisdom on such varied dimensions of existence as the paradoxes of aging, the elasticity of time, the key to lasting relationships, and the creative benefits of keeping a diary. In fact, it is precisely the transmutation of loneliness into connection with the universal human experience that lends Woolf’s writing its timeless penetrative power.

virginiawoolf
Virginia Woolf (Photograph: George Charles Beresford)

In the late summer of 1928, a month before the publication of Orlando subverted stereotypes and revolutionized culture, 44-year-old Woolf found herself grappling once more with the yin-yang of loneliness and creation. In a diary entry penned at Monk’s House — the countryside cottage she and her husband had bought in Sussex a decade earlier, where she crafted some of her most beloved works — she writes:

Often down here I have entered into a sanctuary … of great agony once; and always some terror; so afraid one is of loneliness; of seeing to the bottom of the vessel. That is one of the experiences I have had here in some Augusts; and got then to a consciousness of what I call “reality”: a thing I see before me: something abstract; but residing in the downs or sky; beside which nothing matters; in which I shall rest and continue to exist. Reality I call it. And I fancy sometimes this is the most necessary thing to me: that which I seek. But who knows — once one takes a pen and writes? How difficult not to go making “reality” this and that, whereas it is one thing. Now perhaps this is my gift: this perhaps is what distinguishes me from other people: I think it may be rare to have so acute a sense of something like that — but again, who knows? I would like to express it too.

Art by Nina Cosford from the illustrated biography of Virginia Woolf

The following fall, thirteen days before the publication of A Room of One’s Own — that ultimate paean to the relationship between loneliness and creative vitality — Woolf revisits the subject in her diary, contemplating the strange ways in which we deny or confer validity upon our loneliness. Loneliness, after all, is an interior chill independent of externalities and often thrives precisely when our circumstances appear most enviable to the outside world — a warping of reality that is itself intensely, almost unbearably real. Woolf writes:

These October days are to me a little strained and surrounded with silence. What I mean by this last word I don’t quite know, since I have never stopped “seeing” people… No, it’s not physical silence; it’s some inner loneliness.

And yet for Woolf, this lonely silence is inseparable from the creative impulse. Half a century before Adrienne Rich asserted that “the impulse to create begins — often terribly and fearfully — in a tunnel of silence,” Woolf illustrates this nuanced feeling with a lived example:

I was walking up Bedford Place is it — the straight street with all the boarding houses this afternoon — and I said to myself spontaneously, something like this. How I suffer. And no one knows how I suffer, walking up this street, engaged with my anguish, as I was after Thoby [Woolf’s brother] died — alone; fighting something alone. But then I had the devil to fight, and now nothing. And when I come indoors it is all so silent — I am not carrying a great rush of wheels in my head — yet I am writing… And it is autumn; and the lights are going up… and this celebrity business is quite chronic — and I am richer than I have ever been — and bought a pair of earrings today — and for all this, there is vacancy and silence somewhere in the machine. On the whole, I do not much mind; because what I like is to flash and dash from side to side, goaded on by what I call reality. If I never felt these extraordinarily pervasive strains — of unrest or rest or happiness or discomfort — I should float down into acquiescence. Here is something to fight; and when I wake early I say to myself Fight, fight. If I could catch the feeling, I would; the feeling of the singing of the real world, as one is driven by loneliness and silence from the habitable world… Anything is possible. And this curious steed, life, is genuine. Does any of this convey what I want to say? But I have not really laid hands on the emptiness after all.

A Writer’s Diary remains one of the most psychologically insightful and beautifully crafted packets of human thought and feeling ever bound between two covers. Complement this particular portion with Sara Maitland on how to be alone without being lonely and David Whyte on the transfiguration of aloneness, then revisit Woolf on why the most fertile mind is the androgynous mind and her electrifying account of the epiphany that taught her what it means to be an artist.

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