The Sackville-Wests and Nicolsons

The Sackville-Wests and Nicolsons have written their shared mythology for generations. (And this presents problems of nomenclature to the reviewer, who has in this case chosen, for clarity, to refer to individuals by their first name.) Much memoired, these families have repeatedly looked to themselves, telling and retelling the private and professional lives of close relatives and distant ancestors. At the heart of this mythology is Vita Sackville-West: writer, gardener, wife to Harold Nicolson, now perhaps best remembered for her long list of lovers, both male and female.

Vita shapes this mythology in more ways than one. In 1922, she set the template for family storytelling in her history of Knole and the Sackvilles. These “fugitive impressions” of estates, traditions and individuals laid claim to “personal familiarity” with the objects of study. The result is a deeply personal history of Knole – the house where Vita was born, but which she could not inherit (being, after all, a daughter) – and the book makes use of a privileged “I”, a narrating persona who traverses the estate, inside and out:

“At sunset I have seen the silhouette of the great building stand dead black on a red sky; on moonlight nights it stands black and silent, with glinting windows, like an enchanted castle. On misty autumn nights I have seen it emerging partially from the trails of vapour, and heard the lonely roar of the red deer roaming under the walls.”

In a pattern that recurs throughout the family mythology, Vita employs this rhetoric of intimacy to stress her right to write these narratives. It was a strategy she repeated in Pepita (1937), a joint biography of her Spanish grandmother, the dancer Josefa Duran y Ortega, and her mother, Victoria Sackville-West. And it is a pattern to which her own life story has been subject time and again.

Nigel Nicolson, Vita’s younger son, published Portrait of a Marriage in 1973. The book was part biography, part autobiography, interweaving Vita’s first-hand account of her childhood, early years of marriage and love affair with Violet Trefusis, with Nigel’s retrospective account of his parents’ lives. What Vita tells, Nigel retells. He claimed that her story required “confirmation and amplification”, offering “commentaries” and “essential new facts” on account of his privileged position behind family lines. For Adam Nicolson, Nigel’s son and Vita’s grandson, Portrait of a Marriage came to represent the “Nicolson version” of events, the authorized account of Vita’s marriage and love affairs that he would question and retell (once again) in Sissinghurst: An unfinished history (2008) and its accompanying BBC Four television series (2009) documenting life at the National Trust property. Adam’s retelling emphasized his father’s limiting bias; where Nigel had sought to “[pack] the pain and grief” of his parents’ homosexual affairs “in the cushioning tissue paper” of their heterosexual marriage, Adam would seek to acknowledge and celebrate his grandparents’ defiance of social and sexual norms.

Two recent biographies promise to swell this mythology and its endless revisions: one by a family member, the other by an “outsider”. Matthew Dennison’s Behind the Mask: The Life of Vita Sackville-West is the first biography of Vita for more than thirty years – the first since Victoria Glendinning published her authorized text (1983), which was a commission from Nigel Nicolson. Glendinning was far from reverential when it came to the less honourable aspects of Vita’s life and the Nicolsons’ marriage. With Nigel’s permission, she revealed that Harold was the first to stray, contracting venereal disease at a house party at Knebworth. She also acknowledged that readers might find themselves unable to like her subject: “Some of Vita’s behaviour was indefensible”, she concedes, but hopes the biography will be “read as an adventure story. I think [Vita] would like that too”. In following Glendinning, Dennison’s task is a difficult one. The “adventure” of her biography lay in its revelation of stories and events obfuscated by the “cushioning tissue paper” of family accounts: Harold’s homosexuality and infidelities, and Vita’s many female lovers beside Violet. On the evidence of Dennison’s Behind the Mask, it seems there are no new skeletons to emerge from the Sackville-Wests’ rather public closet. Indeed, there is an element of retrenchment, with Dennison struggling to free himself from the “Nicolson version” of Vita’s life.

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