Posts Tagged ‘Vita Sackville West’


Published in the year before her death No Signposts in the Sea is perhaps Vita Sackville West’s most haunting novel. Written at a time when Vita was suffering from the (still undiagnosed) cancer that would end her life, it was also her last.

vita-and-haroldVita  and her husband; Harold Nicolson and their friend Edie Lamont – to whom the novel is dedicated, set sail on a cruise of the West Indies and South America in 1959. Vita and Harold had enjoyed cruise life before, yet on this last, sad voyage Vita began writing No Signposts… a novel about dying, unrequited love and how life should be grabbed at with both hands. The novel feels beautifully intimate, bound up as it is life, love, death and travel.

The novel  is also shot through with extracts of poetry, reflecting the thoughts of the central characters Edmund and Laura. There is a delicate, elegiac quality to the narrative – which I really enjoyed. I can only assume that Vita was (on some level at least) aware that she perhaps – like Edmund in her story – would not be around for long.

“I want my fill of beauty before I go. Geographically I do not care and scarcely know where I am. There are no signposts in the sea.”

During a week when I felt increasingly hopeless and helpless I felt very much like sailing away on a calm sea, this book felt like perfect reading. I picked it up for the Librarything Virago Group’s author of the month – which in January is Vita Sackville West. Although I enjoyed this little novel enormously, there were a couple of moments when I was brought up sharply – almost back to the mad reality of 2017, with – what was for me – some unexpected, racially offensive attitudes. I know to expect it of novels from the 1930s and 40s – I read a lot of books from that period, stupidly I had not expected the same in a novel from 1961. It was naïve of me, I suppose. Still, the 1960s were still a different time, I understand that, and VSW of a very different class, that shows too, but none of this was enough to prevent me from enjoying this novel.

The story is told by Edmund Carr, the novel is his journal, discovered after his eventual death. We know from the beginning that Edmund is on borrowed time.

Fifty-year old Edmund Carr is an eminent journalist, who came from humble beginnings, and now counts members of an entirely different social class among his friends. One of those friends is Laura Drysdale, an attractive widow of forty. Edmund nurses a secret tenderness for Laura, and so when his doctor tells him he has just a few months to live, Edmund decides to spend his last weeks with Laura. Laura has booked herself passage on a cruise ship. Edmund hurriedly leaves his job in Fleet Street, and books passage on the same ship.

Delighting in having the sun on his face, Edmund settles into a lovely on board routine, frequently in the company of Laura. Keeping both his illness and the truth of his feelings a secret, Edmund is content just to be in Laura’s company, terrified of ruining the relationship they already have by looking for more. He is unable, however to free himself of his feelings, now so much in the company of Laura they are, if anything strengthened.

“And sometimes I suddenly hear her voice. This is a queer experience. I know her voice so well in the ordinary way of things, and then suddenly and unexpectedly I hear it as though I had never heard it before. It may be only six words, of no especial significance. Thus, I heard her say no, no more coffee thank you, and it was as though she had said Edmund my darling, I love you.
Love does play queer tricks,”

Together they watch the sunset from the deck, share dinner on a beautiful island, watch a magnificent lightning storm from Laura’s private balcony, all while observing their fellow cruisers with wry humour. Laura is presented as perhaps being a little unconventional – she discusses her views on marriage quite candidly and relates the touching story of a lesbian couple she knows. In these sections, we can presumably see, Vita’s own attitude to love and relationships.

Fellow passenger Colonel Dalrymple adds a little complication to Edmund’s contentedness. At first Edmund is happy with the colonel’s company, he, along with another passenger make up a four with Edmund and Laura, for bridge. In time, though Edmund imagines the Colonel has romantic interests of his own toward Laura, and his own jealous paranoia begins to threaten his enjoyment in Laura’s company. He watches the colonel, listens for footsteps between cabins at night, makes an uncharacteristically snide remark, and then worries that in doing so he has given himself away.

“Then come mysterious currents which rock the ship from below without much visible convulsion. Where do they come from, these secret arteries of the sea, tropical or polar? They are as inexplicable to me as the emotions which rock my own heart. I do not let them appear on the surface but am terribly aware of them beneath. Sometimes, churned by a gale, the waters grow angry and the blue expanse turns black and white, tossing us remorselessly, the waves crashing with a sound as of breaking biscuits, the rain hissing as it obliterates all vision, and again I draw the parallel between the elements and the surprising violence I have discovered in myself.”

Despite a couple of small jarring moments, this is a lovely, thought provoking novel – VSW re-creates her own love of cruising, her enjoyment becomes our own, the expanse of sea, the warmth of sun, a night-time, moon bathed deck, her writing is gloriously evocative.

Next month the librarything Virago group will be reading the work of Rebecca West – I have two (at least) VMC West novels tbr – so I may join in that too.

NPG x14197; Vita Sackville-West by Cecil Beaton

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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.’
‘And then?’
‘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.

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seducers in Ecuador2

My second read for Simon and Karen’s 1924 club was Seducers in Ecuador by Vita Sackville West. A very slight novella (it seems it has been published in a single volume in the past) it is now most commonly published alongside Vita’s 1922 novella The Heir. I read The Heir a couple of years ago – in a gorgeous little Hesperus Press edition. Especially with the 1924 club seducers in ecuadorin mind, I acquired my copy of Seducers in Ecuador from Bello books, they too publish it alongside The Heir, which I suppose I now have two copies of – oh well.

Seducers in Ecuador is an odd little book, very slightly disturbing, I found myself unable to develop any kind of relationship with any of the characters. As well as The Heir, I have read three other Vita Sackville West novels, and to me Seducers in Ecuador seems rather different, experimental perhaps. Told in a third person narrative, the point of view throughout is that of the main character Arthur Lomax, yet as a reader I found myself questioning everything. I couldn’t quite decide if we could trust all that we are told, it seemed so very unlikely – and I suspect that, that is the point. This is a novella about the nature of truth, which is rather fantastical and darkly comic.

“It was in Egypt that Arthur Lomax contracted the habit which, after a pleasantly varied career, brought him finally to the scaffold. In Egypt most tourists wear blue spectacles. Arthur Lomax followed this prudent if unbecoming fashion. In the company of three people he scarcely knew, but into whose intimacy he had been forced by the exigencies of yachting; straddling his long legs across a donkey; attired in a suit of white ducks, a solar topee on his head, his blue spectacles on his nose, he contemplated the Sphinx. But Lomax was less interested in the Sphinx than in the phenomenon produced by the wearing of those coloured glasses.”

The story is that of Arthur Lomax, an unremarkable Englishman, I felt him to be a seeker of new experiences. Lomax is every bit the Englishman abroad, solar topee and white ducks, enjoying the company of other Brits abroad. Whilst in Egypt; Lomax takes to wearing blue, black or brown lenses in his spectacles; in doing so his view of the world is altered, bettered. His new view of the world is to have the most alarming and deadly effect. Suddenly everything seems so much improved, and Arthur is happier. Lomax accepts an invitation to accompany a group of people he barely knows, on board a yacht. One of the party is a woman he met before the voyage begins, Miss Whitaker, who she claims was seduced by a man in Ecuador and is now having his child, she’s afraid of the consequences should her brother discover her secret, Lomax marries her.

“The only woman in his life being inaccessible, one reason for marriage with anybody else was as good as another. And what better reason than that one had found a lonely woman in tears, and had looked on her through coloured glasses?”

The couple go aboard as strangers – which they are, telling no one of their marriage. The owner of the yacht is Bellamy, fabulously wealthy, it is his death for which Lomax is hanged (this is not a spoiler we know that from the start). The final member of the group is Artivale a poor, young scientist.

Bellamy tells Lomax that he is suffering from a terminal illness, that he is afraid of the coming pain, he asks his new acquaintance to kill him, and beguiled by his new world seen through blue glass, Lomax agrees.

“The world was changed for him, and, had he but known it, the whole of his future altered, by those two circles of blue glass. Unfortunately one does not recognise the turning-point of one’s future until one’s future has become one’s past.”

What is the truth and what is a lie? both the reader and Lomax must ponder these questions, as back in London Lomax’s nightmare to the inevitable end begins.

Once begun, this little novella is very hard to put down and unexpectedly, I find myself returning to it in my mind.

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The Edwardians was written by Vita Sackville West as a sort of joke, one she kept Virginia Woolf updated on through her letters whilst writing it. Published by the Hogarth Press in 1930 it was an instant success, although was not taken very seriously by its author – and in later years she apparently disliked hearing it praised. In her superb introduction to this edition, Victoria Glendinning explains why the publication of Woolf’s Orlando – which had flattered and excited Vita – was the inspiration for The Edwardians in which Vita exploits “the lavish, feudal, traditional world of her Edwardian childhood at Knole”.

For me reading The Edwardians was doubly interesting having only read Orlando a couple of weeks ago. Chevron – the large, country estate in The Edwardians – is very much Knole, and there is a great feeling of autobiographical reminiscences in the novel. So many small incidents which can only have come from life – horse drawn buses, house parties, seating plans and house guest names in small slits on the outside of bedroom doors – meticulously, and knowingly organised, and the Christmas tree ceremony, the handing out of gifts to tenants children. This novel is clearly a critique of this feudal, aristocratic society into which Vita was born; there is also an acknowledgement that their charmed existence is slowly coming to an end. This is a world of privilege and duty and old world feudalism, but it is also a world of selfish hypocrisy, snobbery and class divisions.

As The Edwardians opens in 1905 Sebastian is the nineteen year old heir to the Chevron estate, following the death of his father, he is already Duke, and until he is twenty-one his widowed mother, Lucy, the Duchess carefully controls the world of Chevron and its entertainments. As the Duchess prepares for another large, weekend house party, she glances over the table seating plan, making what adjustments she feels necessary. Bedrooms are allocated with a tactfully unspoken acknowledgement of who is sleeping with whom. These aristocratic people keep one another’s secrets beautifully, allowing no breath of scandal to seep outside their closed world. Sebastian loves Chevron, yet there is much of the glittering society of which he is part that he despises. Sebastian’s sister Viola is just sixteen and already scornful of their inheritance.

At the house party is Leonard Anquetil – an explorer – whose recent celebrity like status has opened this closed society to him. One night – up on the roof of Chevron, Anquetil talks frankly to Sebastian about the traditions and inequalities of his class – and urges him to accompany him on his next adventure.

“There is another danger which you can scarcely hope to escape. It is the weight of the past. Not only will you esteem material objects because they are old — I am not superficial enough to reproach you for so harmless a weakness — but, more banefully, you will venerate ideas and institutions because they have remained for a long time in force; for so long a time as to appear to you absolute and unalterable. That is real atrophy of the soul. You inherit your code ready-made. That waxwork figure labelled Gentleman will be forever mopping and mowing at you… You will never wonder why you pursue a certain course of behaviour; you will pursue it because it is the thing to do. And the past is to blame for all this; inheritance, tradition, upbringing; your nurse, your father, your tutor, your public school, Chevron, your ancestors, all the gamut. Even should you try to break loose it will be in vain… though you may wobble in your orbit, you can never escape from it.”

Sebastian is tempted, he feels Anquetil understands him, but he also feels he can’t abandon Chevron and its traditions. Another of the party is the society beauty Lady Sylvia Roehampton – a friend of Sebastian’s mother, she casts her roving eye over the handsome young duke and sets about beginning a heady affair with him, while the whole of society whispers about them, her poor husband remains clueless. When Lady Roehampton’s husband is later made aware of their relationship he issues an ultimatum, which ultimately separates the lovers and leaves Sebastian bitter and hurt.

After his relationship with Sylvia ends, Sebastian throws himself into a cynical and soulless existence. Seeking entertainments Sebastian becomes something of a notorious young man about town. His mother wants him to marry appropriately and settle down to life at Chevron. He meets a young doctor and his wife Teresa, Teresa Spedding a silly middle-class young woman, is very impressed with his aristocratic background – Sebastian thinks he can capitalise on her fascination with aristocratic society and persuade her into an affair. However – the moralities of the middle classes – are not those of the aristocracy it would seem.

“He had tried the most fashionable society, and he had tried the middle-class, and in both his plunging spirit had got stuck in the glue of convention and hypocrisy.”

The novel ends with the coronation of George V – and the end of the Edwardian era, and also sees the return of Leonard Anquetil between expeditions. It is Anquetil who is destined to open up to both Sebastian and his modern thinking younger sister the possibilities of another world.
This novel is hugely readable and paints a fantastic portrait of a kind of lifestyle long gone now. It’s hard not to see VSW and her family in these characters, but even for those who know nothing about VSW, her family and her lovers, this is still a very good read indeed.

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It seems that at one time this novel by Vita Sackville West was fairly neglected, and apparently even Vita herself wrote of it quite disparagingly. However as well as being a really good story – it a wonderful 1930’s exploration of the complexities of family life, relationships and society in an England on the brink of great change. West also seems to have quite a bit to say about love in this novel, romantic love, obsessional love of people and places and the difficulties when the lovers are mismatched in the eyes of society, alongside the perils of staking too much on one person.

Evelyn Jarrold is a beautiful, elegant woman, nearing forty a widow with a seventeen year old son at Eton. Her father in law is a self-made man, wealthy with a large country estate, he is proud of the coal industry which made his fortune. Living in a London flat Evelyn has kept close to this large family of sons, daughters and grandchildren since her husband died in the First World War. Evelyn is trusted and respected by her in-laws; her conduct has never been in question. The Jarrolds are a traditional family, hunting, shooting conservatives that Evelyn’s son Dan, his Grandfather’s heir, finds himself to be rather at odds with. Evelyn’s niece Ruth adores her glamorous aunt, visiting her and chatting to her at length – although Evelyn finds her adoration rather wearisome.

Miles Vane-Merrick is a twenty five year old rising Labour politician. He too is from a privileged background – a younger son he has no money, although he has a picturesque ruined castle and surrounding lands buried deep in the Kent countryside, where he lives much of the time with a couple of faithful old retainers. Miles’s home is an almost exact representation of Sissinghurst – the Nicolson family home that Vita herself loved so dearly and where in the 1930’s she created some spectacular gardens .

“The lane widened, and the fan of light showed up a group of oast-houses beside a great tiled barn; then it swung round on a long, low range of buildings with a pointed arch between two gables. Miles drove under the arch and pulled up. It was very dark and cold. The hard winter starlight revealed an untidy courtyard, enclosed by ruined walls, and, opposite, an arrowy tower springing up to a lovely height with glinting windows”

When Evelyn and Miles begin a passionate relationship they are flouting several social conventions and inequalities. Evelyn is a fashionably and expensively dressed woman right off the cover of a fashion magazine, used to a life of comfort, ease and idleness. Miles is an idealistic socialist working on an economics book; he loves the countryside and his castle almost obsessively. Evelyn and Miles strive to keep their relationship a secret – spending time together at Miles’s castle or at Evelyn’s flat while Dan finishes his year at Eton. Evelyn’s love for Miles is of the all-consuming variety, he becomes her reason for living, and yet she is concerned about how her son and family would re-act to her relationship. Evelyn is jealous of Mile’s work, of his bohemian friends who she dislikes. Dan meanwhile is delighted by Miles, hangs upon his every word, impressed by his ideologies he see in Miles all the things he aspires to – things the Jarrolds will never understand or approve.

“Love as Evelyn understood it was an entire absorption of one lover into the other. He wanted to retain his individuality, his activity, his time-table. He wanted to lead his own life, parallel with the life of love, separate, independent.”

There is a story (referred to in the introduction to my VMC edition) that Harold Nicolson read Family History during a train journey and wept the entire way. Throughout the story of Evelyn and Miles, the reader has the distinct impression that this love affair cannot survive the difficulties which each of these mismatched lovers place upon the other. Evelyn cares deeply about her beloved son, but outside of her relationship with Dan she is quite able to be spoilt, selfish, vain and dreadfully jealous – yet she is not unlikeable, there is a sympathetic vulnerability to Evelyn – she is conventional with few if any interests. Yet in idealist Miles – a man who likes his women “idle and decorative” and hates “clever women” I found much more to dislike.
The ending is perhaps inevitable in one sense – yet Vita Sackville-West gives her readers an ending that is really very sad, but beautifully written.

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Vita Sackville West is definitely someone who’s writing I feel I should know better. A few years ago I read All Passion Spent in a small ancient penguin paperback and thoroughly enjoyed it. Prior to that I had been fascinated by the hugely enjoyable memoir ‘Portrait of a marriage’ written by Vita’s son Nigel Nicolson of his parent’s marriage. Reading Violet Trefusis’ beautiful letters to Vita, in the collection called Violet to Vita, I found that Vita actually remains frustratingly elusive, as the letters are all Violet’s. I am determined now though, to read more of Vita’s work, especially having finally got around to reading this beautiful little story.

The Heir is a 1922 novella, attractively re-issued by Hesperus in 2008. Having read a couple of excellent reviews of it last year – I immediately wanted to read it.
Beautifully and sensitively written The Heir is the story of Mr Chase, a lonely insurance clerk from Wolverhampton, the heir of the title, who, upon the death of his aunt, has inherited an estate seemingly impractical and burdensome. It would appear its worth lying only in what its various parts can be sold for. Mr Chase; anxious to get back to his office; is, at first somewhat uncomfortable in the beautiful house of Blackboys Estate. Chase’s discomfort is not made any better by the frequent presence of Mr Nutley – one of the partners in the firm of solicitors and estate agents handling the forthcoming auction. Nutley is a wonderfully malevolent character, actually delighting in the distress of estate tenants under threat of losing their homes. In the weeks leading up to the sale, Chase spends more and more time at Blackboys, he starts to feel rather at home in the place, making friends with some of the local tenants and enjoying the company of an old greyhound and the peacocks that live in the grounds.

“And as his vision widened he saw that the house fused very graciously with the trees, the meadows, and the hills, grown there in place no less than they, a part of the secular tradition. He reconsidered even the pictures; not as the representation of meaningless ghosts, but as men and women whose blood had gone to the making of that now in his own veins. It was the land, the farms, the rickyards, the sown, the fallow, that taught him his wisdom. He learnt it slowly, and without knowing he learnt.”

The Heir is surprisingly emotional; Vita Sackville West apparently drew very much on her own experiences of inheritance and loss when she wrote it. She is said to have worried that the story was too sentimental when she was first approached for permission to reprint it nearly thirty years after first writing it. The Heir is not to my mind overly sentimental – it is though deeply poignant and I simply loved it.
This is a small book – which the reader cannot but help race through, anxious to know what will become of Chase and the Blackboys estate. It is certainly possible to read in one sitting, I read it in two, punctuated by a trip to the post office and pharmacy, and some other domestic chores. It made for a delightful afternoon read however, when I was able to sit down and read the majority of it quietly , delighting in the wonderful language and wishing more than anything that there was much more of it. I wanted to know Mr Chase better, follow his progress beyond the events of this beautiful little novella. Maybe it is better, that I imagine it all for myself instead.

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