Vita Sackville-West, the writer and gardener extraordinaire, grew up at Knole in Kent, a house that resembled “a medieval village with its square turrets and its grey walls, its hundred chimneys sending blue threads up into the air”. It is a self-contained but irredeemably grand building: now in the care of the National Trust, it is reputed to have a room for every day of the year. Sackville-West was deeply, cripplingly attached to it, perhaps for the simple, stubborn reason that it would never be hers (it would pass to a male heir). Down the years, Knole was first a shield – a perimeter wall over which those she disdained would never be able to climb – and then, once it was lost to her, a perpetual ache. Thanks to this, she grew up to be that most rare of creatures: a restive, questing woman who seemed always to be in search of a means of assuaging her loss, yet was also wholly herself, as easy in her skin as in her breeches and gardening boots.
The whiff of scandal, though, was there from the beginning, and sometimes it was in danger of turning into a stench. In 1910, when she was 18, her mother’s siblings launched a legal claim to the estate, one that would climax in a salacious court case (Vita’s mother, Victoria Sackville-West, was only the mistress of Knole because she had married her cousin, the third Lord Sackville; Victoria and her brothers and sisters were the illegitimate children of the second Lord Sackville). Three years later, another battle followed when the family of Victoria’s late lover, Sir John Murray Scott, challenged his will, accusing Lady Sackville-West of having used undue influence over him in order to secure a substantial legacy. Victoria triumphed on both occasions, but such public notoriety, you feel, also had its effect on her only child. Beneath Vita’s expansive, passionate nature ran a certain coolness. She was blithe, flexible, thick-skinned: as oblivious to the pain she caused others as to the gossip that inevitably trailed her.
In his new biography of Sackville-West, Matthew Dennison whizzes through her childhood and these court cases. His interest, in spite of the vague protestations he makes in the preface, seems to lie mostly in his subject’s sex life, a frisky business that was never going to be compromised by her marriage in 1913 to the writer and diplomat Harold Nicolson, who was gay. As a result, his narrative consists for the most part of a somewhat well-rehearsed catalogue of conquest, Vita’s béguins – this is his preferred term for the many women with whom she falls into bed – lined up one after the other in what quickly comes to resemble a kind of sapphic beauty pageant. The roll call begins in 1917 with Violet Keppel, the daughter of Edward VII’s mistress (“I know that when you fall into V’s hands your will becomes like a jellyfish addicted to cocaine,” wrote Harold, who couldn’t help wishing the manipulative Violet would simply drop dead); it ends with Alvilde Lees-Milne, the wife of the diarist James Lees-Milne. Along the way it takes in, among many others, Virginia Woolf; Hilda Matheson, a director of talks at the BBC; and Gwen St Aubyn, Vita’s sister-in-law. Faced with this seamless parade, the reader has little choice but to agree with another lover, the cruelly abandoned and unfortunately-named Olive Grinder, who wrote to Vita in 1932: “You do like to have your cake and eat it – and so many cakes, so many, a surfeit of sweet things.” There are times when the reader simply cannot tell these female confections apart. Poor Matheson stands out in the memory only because Vita charmingly likened her blue-stocking darling to “a strong purge… a hair shirt”.
You can see where this is going. Predictably, Dennison’s attention wanes dramatically after Vita, Harold and their two sons move to Sissinghurst Castle in 1930, the purchase of which did not go down terribly well with some of their friends (Harold’s lover, Raymond Mortimer, thought it “a gloomy place in hideous flat country, with commonplace cottages and no view”). Once they’re settled in and busy planting their hornbeams and climbing roses, his book starts to feel very much like a race to the end. The menopausal Vita, with her refusal to attend grand parties – “I hate the idea of being examined under electric lights,” she told Harold – and her “dark shadow of moustache” cannot match, for him, the young Vita, whose hooded eyes were feted, whose wedding dress was the same gold as “the tassel of Indian corn”. He touches on her drinking, the “muzzy moods” that came to worry Harold, only lightly. Ditto the staggering success and influence of the garden she created. He puts some effort into summarising her literary output, which was prodigious, reminding us along the way that she was briefly talked of as a future poet laureate (her reputation used to rest, somewhat uneasily, on her long poem, The Land; these days, if she is loved at all it is for her novel All Passion Spent, in which an elderly aristocratic widow finds new freedom in Hampstead). But his accounts are so uninspiring, so unwitty. In the end, what lingers in the memory is not this character or that plot, but the fact that Virginia and Leonard Woolf bought their Frigidaire on the back of the profits from Vita’s bestseller, The Edwardians, a novel they published at the Hogarth Press.
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