Challenge was my suggestion to my very small book group, and as I have enjoyed others of Vita Sackville West’s books I was looking forward to it. We meet to discuss it next week – and I’m now feeling rather nervous of their take on it. The main problem with Challenge – is that apart from one of two rare moments of interest, it is unremittingly dull. Vita Sackville West is definitely at her best writing about the English society she was a part of. While Challenge does have an autobiographical element – in the relationship between the two central characters – I just felt there was less of Vita in the novel than I had expected. Vita did however write herself into this novel in the character of Julian – while Violet Trefusis; the woman with whom she had a relationship, and eloped to France with, is reproduced in the character of Eve. The descriptions of Eve in the novel – sounds very Violet Trefusis like.
Challenge – the title apparently coming from the challenge it is to dare to love – is set on a fictional Greek Island, Herakleion. Herakleion is inhabited by an odd mixture of people, governed by a mix of indigenous people, and a cosmopolitan group of diplomats. One of the main families on Herakleion are the Davenants, Julian the son of one brother, Eve the daughter of the other.
The novel begins with a party or reception held by another key figure on the island – although not a key figure in the novel – Madame Lafarge. This enables the reader – if they can – to obtain some understanding of the society in which we find ourselves. Among the other notable figures are the wealthy Christopoulos’ the Danish Excellency and the singer Kato – the mistress of the Premier. Julian – only nineteen when the novel opens, is just returned from England – moves through this society with all the arrogance of youth. His childhood having been spent on the island, his education has been an English one.
Relations between Herakleion and the islands which lie within sight of its shore – have been poor for many years. Tensions between the two sides continually percolate beneath the surface, and an idealistic Julian is ripe for a crusade. When Julian incurs his father’s wrath by sticking his nose into local affairs he is smartly packed off again.
Two years later Julian arrives back on Herakleion, and while his sympathies still lie with the islanders – he can’t help but get drawn into the emotional life of his cousin Eve too. Eve announces she is engaged to a Russian prince – the next moment it’s all off. Julian and Eve begin to grow closer, and Eve shocks Julian with a declaration of love, which Julian – having grown up with Eve – feels very odd about. The relationship between these two develop slowly – set against a backdrop of confusing political history, and conducted in excruciatingly long conversations, fuelled by jealousy and idealism.
When tensions flare again between Herakleion (honestly it’s all a bit inexplicable and tedious) Julian throws his lot in with the rebels and heads off the island of Aphros, where is greeted as a conquering hero. Eve goes with him, and once on Aphros their passions ignite. Eve presented as a woman who only exists to love others, does not share Julian’s convictions, but is happy to pretend – for the moment at least.
“How you play with me, Julian,’ she said idly.
‘you’re such a delicious toy’
‘only a toy?’
He remembered the intricate, untranslatable thoughts he had been thinking about her five minutes earlier and began to laugh to himself.
‘A great deal more than a toy. Once I thought of you only as a child, a helpless, irritating, adorable child, always looking for trouble, and turning to me for help when trouble came.’
‘Then you made me think of you as a woman,’ he replied gravely.
‘You seemed to hesitate a good deal before deciding to think of me as that.’
‘Yes, I tried to judge our position by ordinary codes; you must have thought me ridiculous.’”
Stella Duffy in her brief introduction to this edition, says that in this novel Vita wrote a kind of classic Greek drama, certainly there are no happy endings – we sense that from early on. For me however, the drama, what there is of it, only takes place in the final third of the novel. In his forward to the novel – which appeared in the first published edition in 1974 and is reproduced here, Nigel Nicolson (VSW’s son) describes it as:
“… a love story, written in the presence of the beloved, inspired by her, corrected by her (for Vita each evening would read to Violet the pages she had written during the day), and embellished by her with words and whole sentences written into the manuscript.”
(Nigel Nicolson – 1974)
So Vita decided not to publish this novel in 1920 – as originally intended – concerned about a possible scandal, despite being apparently pleased with the book. It was published fifty years later, her son believing that is what she would have wanted.
I was very disappointed in this novel – I do feel there may be merits I have missed. I would urge anyone to read All Passion Spent, Family History and The Edwardians by VSW and her excellent poignant novella The Heir is truly wonderful – but this may be a novel for Sackville West completists.