Vita Sackville-West
BornMarch 9, 1892
BirthplaceKnole House, Kent, England
DiedJune 2, 1962
Occupationnovelist, poet
SpouseHarold Nicolson

Vita Sackville-West, The Hon Lady Nicolson [1] [2], (Order of the Companions of Honour) (March 9, 1892 – June 2, 1962) was an English poet, novelist and gardener. Her long narrative poem, The Land, won the Hawthornden Prize in 1927. She won it again, becoming the only writer to do so, in 1933 with her Collected Poems. She helped create her own gardens in Sissinghurst, Kent which provide the backdrop to Sissinghurst Castle. She was famous for her exuberant aristocratic life, her strong marriage, and her passionate affairs with women like novelist Virginia Woolf.

Early life

Sackville-West was born at Knole House in Kent, and her first love affair was with this ancient and huge house; because she was a woman, she could not inherit it, and this affected the rest of her life. She was the daughter of Lionel Edward Sackville-West, 3rd Baron Sackville and his wife Baroness Victoria Sackville-West. She was christened "Victoria Mary Sackville-West" but was known as "Vita" throughout her life.

Personal life, marriage and bisexuality

Vita Sackville-West, although she did marry and have children, was predominantly lesbian throughout her life. In 1913, Sackville-West married Harold Nicolson, at different times a diplomat, journalist, broadcaster, Member of Parliament, author of biographies and novels, and, crucially, a fellow bisexual in what would now be called an "open marriage". Both she and her husband had several consecutive same-sex relations outside their marriage, as was common among the Bloomsbury Group of writers and artists with which they had some association.

Affair with Violet Trefusis

The affair that had the deepest and most lasting effect on Vita's personal life was that with novelist Violet Trefusis, daughter to courtesan Alice Keppel. They met when Vita was age twelve and Trefusis ten, and attended school together for a number of years. A relationship started while both were in their teens. Both married, but by the time both of Vita's sons were no longer toddlers, Vita and Violet had eloped several times from 1918 on, mostly to France, where Vita would dress as a young man when they went out. The affair eventually ended badly, with Trefusis pursuing Sackville-West to great lengths, until Sackville-West's affairs with other women finally took their toll, but Trefusis refused to give up.

Also, the two women had made a bond to remain exclusive to one another, meaning that although both women were married, neither could engage in sexual relations with her own husband. Sackville-West received allegations that Trefusis had been involved sexually with her own husband, indicating she had broken their bond, prompting her to end the affair. By all accounts, Vita was by that time looking for a reason, and used that as justification. Despite the poor ending, the two women were devoted to one another, and deeply in love, and continued occasional liaisons for a number of years afterward, but never rekindled the affair.

Vita's novel Challenge also bears witness to this affair: Vita and Violet had started writing this book as a collaborative endeavour, the male character's name, Julian, being Vita's nickname while passing as a man. Vita's mother, Lady Sackville, found the portrayal obvious enough to insist the novel not be published in England; Vita's son Nigel (1973, p. 194), however, praises her: "She fought for the right to love, men and women, rejecting the conventions that marriage demands exclusive love, and that women should love only men, and men only women. For this she was prepared to give up everything… How could she regret that the knowledge of it should now reach the ears of a new generation, one so infinitely more compassionate than her own?"

Affair with Virginia Woolf

The affair for which Sackville-West is most remembered was with the prominent writer Virginia Woolf in the late 1920s. Woolf wrote one of her most famous novels, Orlando, described by Sackville-West's son Nigel Nicolson as "the longest and most charming love-letter in literature", as a result of this affair. Unusually, Orlando's moment of conception was documented: Woolf writes in her diary on October 5, 1927: "And instantly the usual exciting devices enter my mind: a biography beginning in the year 1500 and continuing to the present day, called Orlando: Vita; only with a change about from one sex to the other" (posthumous excerpt from her diary by husband Leonard Woolf).

From all accounts of the time, Woolf and Sackville-West remained together for the remainder of their lives.

In 1931 Sackville-West became involved in an affair with journalist Evelyn Irons, who had interviewed her after The Edwardians became a bestseller.[1]

Effects of her affairs on her marriage

Affairs such as that with Mary Garman and others not listed here, were no impediment to a true closeness between Sackville-West and her husband, as is seen from their nearly daily correspondence (also published later by their son Nigel), and from an interview they gave for BBC radio after World War II. They were truly devoted to each other, and Nicolson gave up his diplomatic career partly so that he could live with Vita in England, uninterrupted by long solitary postings to missions abroad.

Well known writings

The Edwardians (1930) and All Passion Spent (1931) are perhaps her best known novels today. In the latter, the elderly Lady Slane courageously embraces a long suppressed sense of freedom and whimsy after a lifetime of convention. This novel was faithfully dramatized by the BBC in 1986 starring Dame Wendy Hiller.

Sackville-West's science-fantasy Grand Canyon (1942) is a "cautionary tale" (as she termed it) about a Nazi invasion of an unprepared United States. The book takes an unsuspected twist, however, that makes it something more than a typical invasion yarn.

In 1946 Sackville-West was made a Companion of Honour for her services to literature. The following year she began a weekly column in the Observer called In your Garden. In 1948 she became a founder member of the National Trust's garden committee.

Sissinghurst Castle is now owned by the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty. Sissinghurst Castle Garden is the most visited garden in England.


Travel is the most private of pleasures. There is no greater bore than the travel bore. We do not in the least want to hear what he has seen in Hong-Kong.

- The opening sentences of Passenger to Teheran, Sackville-West's account of her own 1926 journey to visit Harold Nicolson in Iran.

Selected bibliography


  • Poems of West and East (1917)
  • Orchard and Vineyard (1921)
  • The Land (1927)
  • The Garden(1946)


  • Heritage (1919)
  • Challenge (1923)
  • The Edwardians (1930)
  • All Passion Spent (1931)
  • The Dark Island (1934)
  • Grand Canyon (1942)


  • Duineser Elegien: Elegies from the Castle of Duino, by Rainer Maria Rilke trns. V. Sackville-West (Hogarth Press, London, 1931)

Biographies/Other works

  • Passenger to Teheran (Hogarth Press 1926, reprinted Tauris Parke Paperbacks 2007, ISBN 978-1-84511-343-8)
  • Knole and the Sackvilles (1922)
  • Saint Joan of Arc (Doubleday 1936, reprinted M. Joseph 1969)
  • Pepita (Doubleday, 1937, reprinted Hogarth Press 1970)
  • The Eagle and The Dove (M. Joseph, 1943)
  • Daughter of France: The Life of Marie Louise d'Orleans (Doubleday, 1959)

Further reading

  • Victoria Glendinning: Vita: The Life of V. Sackville-West (1983)
  • Robert Cross and Ann Ravenscroft-Hulme: Vita Sackville-West: A Bibliography (Oak Knoll Press, 1999) ISBN 1-58456-004-5
  • David Cannadine: Portrait of More Than a Marriage: Harold Nicholson and Vita Sackville-West Revisited. From Aspects of Aristocracy, pp. 210–42. (Yale University Press, 1994) ISBN 0-300-05981-7
  • Peggy Wolf: Sternenlieder und Grabgesänge. Vita Sackville-West: Eine kommentierte Bibliographie der deutschsprachigen Veröffentlichungen von ihr und über sie 1930 - 2005. Daphne-Verlag, Göttingen, 2006. ISBN 3-89137-041-5


  1. Brenner, Felix. "Obituary: Evelyn Irons", The Independent (London), April 25, 2000. Retrieved on 2007-02-05. 

External links

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