Clare MacCulloch

Violet to Vita

Violet to Vita: The Letters of Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville- Westedited by Mitchell A. Leaska & John Phillips, Methuen, 303 pp. 1989.


 There is no end, but addition: the trailing
 Consequence of further days and hours,
 While emotion takes to itself the emotionless
 Years of living among the breakage
 Of what was believed in as the most reliable -
 And therefore the fittest for renunciation.

             T.S. Eliot's "The Dry Salvages"

The lives of Violet Trefusis and Vita Sackville-West certainly demonstrate Eliot's observation elsewhere that our beginnings never know our endings. Vita tragically went to a painful death from which Harold Nicolson, her husband, never recovered. Nigel Nicolson, her son, wrote after his father's death in 1968, "He was never the same again. He really died with her. Not even her most famous creation, her gardens, survived.

 They cannot break the heart, as friend
 Or love may split our trust for ever.
 We never asked them to pretend:
 Death is a clean sufficient end
 For flower, friend or lover.

Vita's observation was an accurate one. In 1967, Sissinghurst passed into the ownership of the National Trust, and as Victoria Glendinning points out in her excellent biography of Vita, "its future was secure . . . though it 'can never be the same."' Violet's death came from starvation as the culmination of illness on I March 1972. Having survived Vita by ten years, her end too was tragic. Philippe jullian, her biographer in The Other Woman: A Life of Violet Trefusis, summarizes it in his closing chapter, ironically entitled after one- of Vita's novels, All Passion Spent.


 The last two months of her life were cruel,
 and the immense villa (I'Ombrellino in
 Florence) surrounded by statues, empty
 fountains, and dead flowers was indeed
 the perfect setting for the death agony of
 someone who had never liked doing things

Vita's ashes are in a "small pink marble sarcophagus that once held her two ink-wells, from Long Barn days," Glendinning tells us, secure "in the Sackville family crypt at Withyham with her ancestors." jullian records that Violet's last wishes for a resting place shout louder.

 Most of her ashes are buried close to her
 parents' tomb in the Protestant cemetery
 near Florence; the remainder have been
 sealed in the ancient ruins near the
 Monk's Refectory below the tower at
 St. Loup (in France).  A marker indicates
 the spot: 'Violet Trefusis 1894-1972,
 Anglaise de naissance, Fran@aise de coeur.'

Her chosen epitaph is a poignant and telling one: "She Withdrew.
But that was not the end of either woman. Or of their love affair. As Robert Anderson so wisely wrote in I Never Sang For My Father, death may end a life but not a relationship.
Violet Trefusis first became familiar to many of us when Nigel Nicolson published his fascinating account of his parents' marriage,Portrait of a Marriage, in 1973. Violet was the antagonist. In Nicolson's mother's (now famous) canvas bag, found locked in the corner of her tower at Sissinghurst, was an autobiography written when Vita was twenty-eight. "It was an autobiography . . . a confession, an attempt to purge her mind and heart of a love which had possessed her, a love for another woman, Violet Tiefusis." Afraid that the contents of that Gladstone bag might be destroyed by his father or "it him," Nicolson waited four years after the death of his father before risking publication.

 The simplicity of it, its candour,
 the extraordinary sequence of events
 which it unfolded, her implicit plea
 for forgiveness and compassion, for
 the strength to resist further
 temptation, stirred me deeply. I had
 long known the barest outlines of the
 story (but not from her) and here was
 every detail of it, written with
 scarcely an erasure or correction at
 a moment when the wound was still
 fresh and painful. . . . Now I think
 that I should have shown it to him
 when the agony of her loss had been
 transmuted into numb acceptance of
 it.  He might well have agreed with
 me that this was a document unique in
 the vast literature of love, and among
 the most moving pieces that she ever
 wrote; that far from tarnishing the
 memory of her, it burnished it; and
 that one day, perhaps, it should be

The book was an immediate and runaway success. It was not just the shock of this extraordinary marriage and its troubled patches with Violet but the writing itself which made it such an interesting read.

 Although her narrative began uncertainly
 with a rambling account of her
 childhood, when she came to the heart
 of her problem it grew in power and
 intensity, sharpened by a novelist's
 instinctive variation of mood and speed,
 almost as if it were not her own
 experience that she was describing but

Life does imitate, but rarely superadds, art.

 Although V. Sackville-West left no
 instructions about her autobiography,
 and as far as I know had never shown it
 to anybody, I believe that she wrote it
 with eventual publication in mind. It
 assumed an audience.  She knew that I
 would find it after her death, but did
 not destroy it.  She wrote it as a
 conscious work of art, in such a way that
 it would be intelligible to an outsider,
 and her use of pseudonyms is itself an
 indication that she expected, even hoped,
 that other eyes might one day read it....
 There are passages in the manuscript which
 suggest that the writing of it was for her
 much more than an act of catharsis. She
 refers to possible readers' of it. She
 believes that 'the psychology of people
 like myself will be a matter of interest'
 when hypocrisy gives p lace to 'a spirit
 of candour which one hopes will spread
 with the rogress of the world.'

Fifty years after the fact, Nicolson felt that the time had come.

The letters of these two fascinating women would be supplementary documentation to their story. And that is the justification for this invasion of such a private matter. The publication of Violet to Vita: The Letters of Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West is meant to be both an elaboration of theme and a celebration of a unique relationship.

The editors are formidable collaborators. Mitchell A. Leaska, who already has co-edited The Letters of Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf, has this time teamed up with John Phillips. Leaska, with a solid literary background, is on the faculty of New York University. Phillips comes to this project from a more personal level. Having completed an M.A. in English Literature at Duke University, he arrived in Florence in 1960. He fell in love with "old stones," he recounts, and he eventually met Violet Trefusis, and shared a taste in antiques and houses; their friendship lasted until her death when he became her literary executor and co-authored Violet Trefusis, A Biography.

It is from Phillips's biography that we first saw collected together Vita's mound of "Violetiana" which was amongst the Sissinghurst Castle papers. Phillips included there 53 letters, most in full, written from 1910 to 1921.

 But the great mass of the letters are
 those written during the years of the
 "grand passion," from 1918-1921: more
 than five hundred, ranging from those
 scribbled in pencil on scraps,
 frequently impossible to decipher, to
 those on fine paper with splendid
 letterheads. The latter are often more
 brilliant, witty, and very beautiful;
 they are I believe in the tradition of
 the best English letterwriters. Above
 all, the reader feels keenly the
 sincerity and intensity of Violet's
 passion for Vita, an all-consuming
 passion which all but destroyed her.
 In a sense, it did destroy her: the
 youthful Violet whose idealism burned
 with a pure bright flame was transformed
 into a femme de lettres and femme du
 monde, who would embrace and conquer
 - supreme irony - the society which she
 had thought to reject, the society which
 was her heritage. She was to pass much
 of her life amid its pompous facades.
 But always, there remained in the
 shadows glimmerings of the 'other
 Violet,' an ephemeral, fanciful

Phillips also included, in this earlier volume, a dozen letters from Violet to Vita written from 1940-1950 and three from Harold Nicolson (one in 1950 and two after Vita's death in 1962). This shorter selection is, to my mind, the wiser choice. The promise of that first tease from Phillips' cache is, unfortunately, too much like the Violet in these collected and complete letters: more attractive in the speculation than the realization.

The love story is familiar to most enthusiasts of Vita and may be reduced to an outline. The two girls met at school when Vita was 12 and Violet two years younger. Notes - hardly letters were exchanged although the first extant letter is dated 11 September 1910, four years later. Overruling her lust, Vita married Harold Nicolson at Knole on I October 1913 with Rosamund Grosvenor, an early love and jealous rival, for Violet, as maid of honour. The cast of characters for the fiasco to follow seems set with this event. Vita and Violet ran off together; and for a bit, it seemed that Violet's impending marriage to Denys Trefusis, the handsome, charming war hero, might be a decision well deferred. Shame from Harold (already pursuing his own homosexual dalliance) and shocked outrage from the mothers (Violet's mother being Mrs. George Keppel, and maitresse en titre of King Edward VII for the last decade of his life and Vita's mother being Lady Sackville-West and already setting her cap for Edwin Lutyens et al. including J.P. Morgan) eventually brought the women to their senses. But not before the lovers masqueraded around Europe, as travellers and gossip, with Vita exercising not only her new interest in lesbianism but cross-dressing. Vita called ersel "Mitya an Violet was "Alushka." They parted; they reconciled; they parted. Eventually Vita returned to domesticity and Violet married Denys when he promised in writing to a "marriage in name only." The bare bones of the affair are all too sordid (including a rape by Vita) and bathetic - even for a readership which is aware of the atrocities committee daily on afternoon (and evening) soaps. There must be more to warrant the letters in print.

After the affair ended, Violet continued to write agonising letters. Amidst talk of suicide, madness, exquisite pain and mourning, there are some sad, moving thoughts interspersed into the most insane screams of self-indulgence. On 19 March 1920, Violet wrote:

 People say they couldn't be seen with
 me in public. I give you my word of
 honour this is true.  Two people have
 said it who are by way of being my
 friends. Try to understand how deeply
 this hurts me. I come to you all
 bleeding and hurt, knowing that you
 have been spared the ghastly day I
 have just been through, knowing that
 you are surrounded with sympathy and
 affection - How can you expect me not
 to find it unjust?  It's as though
 two people had been caught stealing,
 but one is put in prison, and the
 other is not.  The one who is in
 prison can't help feeling the

And two months later on 7 May, there is this pitiful admission.

 ... One thing I revel in is my quite
 remarkable weak grasp on Reality - a
 little tug, and I should be free for
 ever, free from what most people
 term Reality - My realities are quite
 different, only they're so
 'insaisissable' . . . Do you know,
 Mitya, that my only really solid and
 unseverable 'lien' with this world is
 you, my love for you? I believe if there
 weren't you I should live more and more
 in my own world, until finally I
 withdrew myself inwardly
 altogether.... Because you don't see
 things as I see them, because you
 don't really understand, you think I
 am wicked and immoral and selfish -
 so I am, according to your standards,
 but not according to my own. 
 According to my own, I am singularly
 pure, uncontaminated, and high
 principled. You will laugh, but it is
 true. And you can laugh all your life,
 but it will still be true.

Surely that letter must have softened the heart of Harold who certainly suffered his own lot through the tortuous days of the affair. He referred to Violet as "that little tortuous, erotic, inescapable irremediable and unlimited tease. I don't hate her . . . no more than I should hate opium if you (Vita) took it. " And opium Violet became for Vita. But eventually, as was Vita's pattern, the effects of the drug wore off or were not strong enough. Vita went on to a long list of other lovers and Violet continued her flirtations to the end. Vita settled. Violet reconciled with Denys, but that too came to a tragic end when he died of tuberculosis in 1929. Violet never remarried. But in that year, she published the first of her novels. And that was her salvation. Fiction was finally to become the mainstay of her life. Her form of art took precedent over her misspent youth.

And so with Vita. She had written Challenge with Violet's collaboration during the height of their affair. In it, Vita appears as "Julian" and Violet as "Eve." It is not a particularly good read, apart from its sensational retelling of a "real" story. But Vita had discovered her trump card in the affair; she too was able to convert what aspects of her life she chose to art. (The ultimate irony occurs later when another of Vita's lovers, Virginia Woolf, returned the compliment by giving Vita literary immortality by writing Orlando for and about her.)

Although described by Woolf as one who wrote with "a pen of brass," Vita went on to fame as a popular novelist, poet and journalist. Violet also tried to follow in her footsteps but she never attained the fame or following of " il miglio fabbro" to quote Pound's salute from Eliot. This is largely due to Violet's stunted artistic growth. Violet was, as Glendinning points out in her TLS review ofA Solitary Woman: A Life of Violet Trefusis by Henrietta Sharpe, a fantasist.

 Harold Nicolson called her a
 mythomane - a polite way,
 says Miss Sharpe, of saying
 "pathological liar." She never
 really grew up, nor wanted to. 
 Like Vita she had a charming,
 dominant mother, and she remained
 her mother's precious little girl
 for as long as her mother lived.

Although she lived to be much older than Vita, Violet was always the child in an adult world.

But what a periphery. Her guest book is most impressive: the musicians, George Auric, Arthur Rubinstein, Francis Poulenc; personalities as various as Dior, Beaton, Duff and Diana Cooper, Randolph Churchill, the duke and duchess of Windsor, the princess of Denmark, François Mauriac and François Sagan; the writers, Virginia Woolf, Blixen, Colette, Maugham, Morrand; and her friend to the last, Frangois Mitterand. And there were many more who moved in rarified surroundings: Garden by Charles de Noailles; Frescoes by Bébé Bérard. Thierry de Beaucé, current owner of her former French residence, has noted:

 Thus Violet Trefusis ... kept herself
 constantly surrounded with famous,
 clever and beautiful people, and they
 in turn were enchanted by her eccentric
 view of the world and her perpetual
 warfare against all forms of stuffiness.

Even Nancy Mitford, who had turned her acid pen on Violet in Love in a Cold Climate, lived to become a friend and one of those who respected Violet's humanity, her culture and 'the fact she lived her life to the hilt... writes de Beaucé.

If Violet's literary skills were limited, her letter-writing abilities were not. Glendinning has observed:

 ... Her letters to Vita, even as a
 young girl, are fluent, fanciful,
 multilingual, inspired.  Vita's, in
 comparison are dull. (There is no
 more vivid account of an 
 archiprivileged Edwardian childhood
 than Violet's. She also published
 modish novels in both French and
 English; but her letter-writing
 and conversational  brilliance
 never properly transferred
 itself to her fiction.)

Violet herself was aware of her superior talent in this area. In her guarded autobiography, Don't Look Round, Violet comments on Vita's correspondence.

 I bombarded the poor girl with 
 letters which became more exacting
 as hers tended to become more and
 more of the 'yesterdaymy-pet-rabbit
 -had-six-babies' variety. 
 Clearly no letter-writer.

Vita obviously had other, and larger, more disparate, fish to fry. Violet did not. As Glendinning writes: ... Real life' could never match up the expectations of (her) beginnings."

The greatest limitation (apart from the very cheap and tawdry paperback edition compared to the splendid cloth-bound book) ofViolet to Vita: The Letters of Violet Trefusts to Vita Sackville- West is that we are only presented with one side of the story: Violet's. This is no fault of the editors who have done a fine job in selection and commentary. Violet often writes that Vita does not write as much or as many letters in return. That was not ultimately to matter. Denys Trefusis, in a pique of rage (small wonder), destroyed all of Vita's letters. Violet subsequently reported this to Vita.

 He has done you a good turn by
 burning every single one of your
 letters - the ones that were either
 in his or my father's possession and
 the ones that were in my writing
 table drawer.  He has read them all
 so he can have no illusions left.

Fortunately, in contrast, Vita seems to have thrown nothing out. "Virtually all" of the letters which she received from Violet are reprinted here by Leaska and Phillips.

With the end of the affair, the letters became less frequent. And life had not ended in spite of Violet's anguish that it might as well have done. The relationship cooled in 1921 because Vita changed her mind and passionate commitment was never her long suit. Violet remained constant, it seems, to the end. Vacillation occurred but Violet was resigned to loneliness and social ostracism and homelessness in the capitals of Europe which for all their joys and pleasures remained empty to her. Denys, never the comfort or support that Harold was for Vita, is the mysterious player in the drama. His letters have not survived. Sharpe, in A Solitary Woman, describes him as finding comfort with Russian ballerinas and extraordinary trips to Russia. When he died, Violet was with him and she mourned him but ultimately offered too little too late as her tendency and "real instinct was to run away." Discreet liaisons with both sexes followed until she died.

Her friendships were solid and long-lasting. She inspired loyalty and support.

Violet returned to England during the war and different letters were exchanged with Vita. There were even luncheon meetings. Vita, never one to pass up on a metaphor, described her reaction to Violet's presence so near to her in England: "You are the unexploded bomb to me." (German bombs just happened to be falling round Sissinghurst at the time and invasion seemed inevitable.)

After the war, Violet moved between her parents' home in Florence and her own tower, St. Loup-de-Naud, southeast of Paris. Like Sissinghurst, it too had served as a military barracks and had all the romantic associations of Vita's tower in Kent. Given to Violet by her friend, the princess de Polignac (and that appears to be another story), a refuge was found in France. De Beauc6's description of it is apt to my recollection of first seeing it and demonstrates the attraction it must have held for Violet.

 There was nothing particularly
 enticing about it; rather the
 opposite, because everything looked
 terribly bare in the cold light of
 February.... There was the tower
 rising out of the mist, with the
 clock tower nearby ... two starkly
 vertical structures in the middle of
 a vast romantic plain stretching all
 the way to Poland.  And all this in
 an area regularly visited by many
 species of migratory birds.... The
 last thing I wanted to do was
 unsettle the shades of all those
 vanished people who had left races
 of themselves in it.

But a house is not a replacement for a person, a beloved. All the romantic fantasy of the tower was inadequate. Glendinning believes that:

 Violet never recovered from the
 disillusioning loss of Vita, who
 remained always the 'gold thread'
 - perhaps the only one - in her
 life.  She never risked total love,
 or even social disapproval, again. 
 She learnt to wear a mask.  The
 romantic vision was never re-created.

Glendinning's conclusion was drawn ten years ago. Violet To Vita: The Letters of Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville- West would confirm and document it. Geography also throws light on life.

Edmund Clerihew Bentley has an interesting little rhyme in hisBiography for Beginners.

 The art of Biography
 Is different from Geography.
 Geography is about maps.
 But Biography is about chaps.

The bias of sexism aside, is there truth in th' is nonsense ver.-. What can' geography tell us about the end of biography? Both Violet and Vita were aesthetes. Both submerged themselves in lives which were false to their natures. Both searched for emotional bonds in houses and places - Vita with more success and satisfaction than Violet. Both "battled and half succeeded in ignoring the realities' of mundane existence so that their worlds of fantasy might triumph" as Phillips concludes.

 Even her unique grande passion, her
 love for Vita, was for her - as her
 letters reveal - an aspect of her
 quest for an Ideal Beauty ... I
 shall always remember the intensity
 with which on several occasions, she
 summed it up for my benefit: "Nothing
 but the Best shall content my soul."

Perhaps that is the ultimate tragedy of Violet's life, her passion, and these letters: her grasp exceeded her reach. George Woodcock has noted that "we preceive . . . according to our general preconceptions of life and . . . what we find . . . is in fact what we have gone to seek." The two women met, loved, lost and parted. Perhaps human, mortal, love was not what either was searching for at all. For the rest of their lives they each moved through great rooms, towers, countries which echoed with ruminations and ghosts of bygone passions.

Leaska and Phillips have a very disquieting ending to the story. One of Violet's favourite books, The Unquiet Grave by 'Palinarus' - her friend Cyril Connolly - is inscribed to her. Violet has marked vehemently with a red crayon the following passage:

 We love only once, for once only are
 we perfectly equipped for loving: we
 may appear to ourselves to be as much
 in love at other times - so does a day
 in early September, though it is six
 hours shorter, seem as hot as one in
 June.  And on how that first great
 love-affair shapes itself depends the
 pattern of our lives.

And when Mitterrand paid her a last visit, he left profoundly shaken and recorded this in his journal:

 ...  in the great house the memory
 persisted of singular passions of
 which I had registered the last
 cries.... There appeared occasionally
 . . . the signs of ancient storms and
 torments that half a century had not
 entirely dispelled.  I knew that an
 epoch was drawing to an end, or rather,
 were fading away the traces of a time
 elsewhere already vanished, althougl-
 until now preserved here by the firm
 hand of Violet.

So finally the life and the relationship ended. Whatever our personal or moral reaction to this story, Mitchell A. Leaska and John Phillips have, in Violet to Vita.- The Letters of Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West, given Violet, for the moment, the last word.

 Clare MacCulloch painting