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Behind the Mask: Vita Sackville-West

The androgynously gorgeous Lady Nicholson or as we know the sapphic baroness Vita Sackville-West had a fabulously dynamic identity transcending beyond her passionate and notorious liaisons, through the annals of the past. Vita’s larger-than-life personality declared assertively, in a letter to Virginia, read that she would rather fail gloriously but dingily succeed. Between the ages of fourteen and eighteen, she had composed almost five full-length novels—one in French, five intense plays, and brilliant ballads to boot. She quite candidly describes her childhood self in a diary as “rough” and “secret.” Virginia Woolf who read Vita as no one else describes her shortly after they had met:

“She shines in the grocery shop in Seven oaks, with a candle-lit radiance. Stalking on legs like beach trees. Pink-glowing, grape-clustered, pearl-hanging.”

She grew up at Knole, the Kent home of their long-gestating aristocratic legacy, where she wrote fervently and prolifically. Vita married the young diplomat Harold Nicolson, at the age of 21, in a private chapel at Knole. Their open marriage availed her of other turbulent romances with Violet Trefusis; whom she met as a child; when before she left, Violet offered her a disarming parting kiss. Time thus invited them, to a decade-long obsession brewing from a mutually ardent intrigue, emphatically on non-platonic terms. Gradually being besotted with the incandescent Virginia Woolf, ten years her senior. It blossomed into a profoundly sacrosanct emotional affinity, timeless tenderness, intellectual cohesion, sensuous

passion and the most steadfast of friendships, all of which are deeply and delicately human.

“I wish you would be induced to call me Virginia”, “I often think of you, instead of my

novel” and so on.

Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf

Vita has been lurking in the context of Woolf through most of her revolutionary novels and many experimental compositions like ‘The Waves’ until the sacred sacrilege of a deferential obeisance to her own emotions when she documented Vita in her 1948 novel, “Orlando” as she became her eternal muse and played an explosive ultrafeminine role effortlessly shapeshifting between being a man and lady, which transmogrified the nature and course of LGBT love for centuries to follow. Orlando traverses through time and is rightfully a feminist facade. The eponymous hero begins life as a ravishing young man awaiting a visit from the Queen. He serves at the Elizabethan court and almost instantaneously becomes the Queen’s favorite. Eventually gets besotted with Sasha who is governed by an unpredictable infidelity and vamooses to Russia. Amid the vain trepidations, despaired and befuddled Orlando lays to rest for a long period and no one proves successful in rousing him but one day, quite preposterously he awakens himself in Constantinople—completely metamorphosed into a woman; although her senses, passions, and intellect remain unchanged. As she switches gender roles, she takes upon herself the task to engage and disengage vivaciously with the 19th and 20th-century social life, holding court with great poets such as Pope and the wife and mother Orlando makes new promises and hopes for women for the foreseeable times to follow. Nigel Nicolson, quite poetically calls it:

“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 another, plays with her, dresses her in fur, lace and emeralds, teases her, flirts with her, drops a veil of mist around her.”

Closed parallels can be drawn between fiction and fact, as Vita was to Woolf, amorphous yet easily conceivable. Constricting yet liberating. She elicits out the character of the Russian princess Sasha emulating none other but Trefusis whom Orlando loves religiously nonetheless she had been largely accountable for the dissolution of their long and passionate affair. However, Virginia’s fervent romance did not thwart her vision to make many wanton comments about Vita in her letters to Leonard Woolf, berating that

“She had a pen of brass.”

Perhaps the preternatural creation of Orlando—an idealized version of erratic and wayward Vita; only hushes Woolf’s feral moments of perennial grief to have known her so closely to witness the propensity for promiscuous dissipation and moments of cruel unfaithfulness. Woolf’s initial intentions for the book may have been to reassemble shards of unalloyed joy, a restorative tonic to frantic and feral anguish—but at the anti-climactic finale of their fling, the insuperable loss suffered by Sackville-West as well as herself fermented a “spark” of hope that would restrain her from drowning in a “great sea of melancholy.”

The romantic buccaneer out of the apparels and chosen garbs of her lovers, was quite capable a novelist, a diarist, and a poet herself, publishing more than a dozen compendiums of poetry and 13 novels in her lifetime. She was twice awarded the very reverential Hawthornden Prize for Imaginative Literature for her outstanding pastoral epic, ‘The Land’ in 1927, and for ‘Collected Poems’ in 1933. Her glorious column at The Observer is eternally evoked, as a token of remembrance for the celebrated garden at Sissinghurst created with her consort, Harold Nicolson. Ergo, the nonpareil utterance of the name of Lady Nicholson may provoke prismatic identifications; some of those who know Vita Sackville-West as the intrepid Orlando, some for her idyllic gardens at Sissinghurst or equally quintessential garden advice. Another cohort associates this name, with her ultrafeminine role in the annals of history and for the brazen and unabashed sapphism. Among the several vacillations of Virginia, she has rightly identified that Vita had little interest in feminism—the only emancipation that she deemed worthy of great consequence, was the Freedom of choice and Freedom to publish. In Woolf’s Personalities, she proceeds true great writers as having,

“Something elusive, enigmatic, impersonal about them—which makes them relatively

uninteresting biographically. It is the imperfect artist who never managed to say the whole thing in their books, who wield the power of personality over us” and that was the single most psychedelic pneuma; whose charm has seized time and freed breath of its breathless tides.”

That was Vita.


Triasha Mondal is a poet and writer from Kolkata. She writes because she thinks it’s a cathartic relief.

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