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Sackville-West, Vita (1892-1962)  
 
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Most readers know Vita Sackville-West, if they know her at all, for her love affair with Virginia Woolf, and for Woolf's brilliant depiction of her as the alluring hero-heroine of Orlando (1928). But Sackville-West was a prolific author in her own right. Her fifty-five books include seven collections of poems and stories, twelve novels, and twenty-two works of nonfiction.

Yet these works reveal only in veiled and muted ways the woman who captivated Virginia Woolf and inspired Orlando, whose affairs (mostly with women) precipitated international scandals and provoked threats of murder and suicide from lovers and husbands of lovers.

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Although her letters make frequent--usually cryptic--allusions to her sexual relationships with women (and Victoria Glendinning fills out the story with rich detail in her 1983 biography), Sackville-West wrote directly and at length about her sexual identity only once, in a secret journal in 1920, discovered after her death from cancer in 1962 by her son Nigel Nicolson and published as part of Portrait of a Marriage in 1973.

Nicolson intended Portrait of a Marriage as a "panegyric" of the flexible and enduring relationship between Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson--in a marriage of nearly fifty years that provided social and emotional security for both partners, while allowing freedom for numerous affairs, almost entirely lesbian and homosexual.

Nicolson was a young career diplomat when Vita met him in 1910. She was a self-conscious aristocrat, descended on her father's side from Thomas Sackville (1536-1608), Earl of Dorset, Lord High Treasurer of England, poet, courtier, and cousin to the Queen. But she was equally fascinated by her maternal grandmother--a Spanish gypsy dancer who called herself Pepita and appeared on stage as "The Star of Andalusia."

Writing was Sackville-West's passion. By the time she met Nicolson, she had already authored two novels, two plays in French, and a verse drama about the suicide of the unappreciated poet Thomas Chatterton.

She was also "in love" with her girlhood friend, Rosamund Grosvenor. "Oh, I dare say I realized vaguely that I had no business to sleep with Rosamund, and I should certainly never have allowed anyone to find it out," she admits in the secret journal, but she saw no conflict between the two relationships: "I really was innocent." Her first son, Ben, was born in 1914, the second, Nigel, in 1917.

In 1918, when another girlhood friendship, with Violet Keppel, blazed into sexual passion, conflict careened toward public scandal. The two women traveled together to Cornwall, Paris, southern France, and Monte Carlo, with Vita dressing in men's clothes and calling herself "Julian." Keppel's marriage to Denys Trefusis in 1919 only heightened the passion between them, and in 1920, when the two women "eloped" to France, the two husbands pursued in a private plane and catapulted all four into international headlines.

Sackville-West wrote a fictional account of the affair in her novel Challenge (1923), but she moved the action to a Greek island and depicted the relationship (between "Julian" and "Eve") as heterosexual.

The more revealing document is the secret journal she began in 1920 in an effort to understand her "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality"--a "brutal and hard and savage" side of herself that reveled in amorous adventures with female lovers, and a "seraphic and childlike" side content with marriage to Nicolson.

Nor did she write only for private catharsis. Rather, by analyzing her attractions to women "in an impersonal and scientific spirit," she hoped to create a useful record for the day she saw coming when "the psychology of people like myself will be a matter of interest, and ... it will be recognized that many more people of my type do exist than under the present-day system of hypocrisy is commonly admitted."

The psychology of people like herself was not something Sackville-West explored publicly in poems and novels. Nevertheless, her works do invite readings as highly coded and carefully veiled expressions of her values and experiences.

Cultural and temperamental dualities in novels like Heritage (1919), The Dragon in Shallow Waters (1921), Grey Wethers (1923), and The Devil at Westease (1947) mirror the duality she imagined inheriting from the Sackvilles and her Spanish grandmother, and that duality mirrors the psychosexual one described in the secret journal.

Portrayals of marriage and sexual relationships between men and women in The Edwardians (1930), All Passion Spent (1931), and Family History (1932), hint at the psychological balancing act that enabled her own marriage to Nicolson.

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Vita Sackville-West in 1910.
  
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