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.”
By Maria Popova
“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 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.