Five Fascinating Facts about… Vita Sackville-West

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Compiled by Simon

Vita Sackville-West is probably best remembered today as the inamorata of Virginia Woolf or the garden designer behind Sissinghurst. Less remembered, on the whole, are her novels – though hopefully my review of The Edwardians will tempt you to give that one a read. Still less known are these five fascinating facts…

1.Vita Sackville-West appears in Orlando, and not just as the inspiration. You might have heard that Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel about a man who turns into a woman and lives for four centuries was something of a love letter to Vita Sackville-West – but did you know that she appears in photographs in the book too? She plays Orlando at various stages through history.

2. She quotes Milton in the title of one of her novels. I’ll give you a moment or two if you want to try to guess which one… well, it’s All Passion Spent. Those three words are the final three of Milton’s poem Samson Agonistes, which closes ‘His servants he with new acquist / Of true experience from this great event / With peace and consolation hath dismissed, / And calm of mind, all passion spent.

3. She bankrolled Virginia Woolf. While Vita and Virginia were rather more than business partners, it was the success of Sackville-West’s 1930 novel The Edwardians that really helped The Hogarth Press – the publishing house set up by Virginia and Leonard Woolf. The Edwardians sold 30,000 copies in the first six months in England, and 80,000 in the first year in the US.

4. Julian was her alter ego (amongst others). Sackville-West was sometimes fond of wearing men’s clothes and taking a male persona in her affairs with women. She appeared in public with her lover, the novelist Violet Trefusis, in the guise of Julian – but also sometimes adopted roles as David, Mitya, or Dark Man.

5. Knole obsessed her, as did the fact that she couldn’t inherit it. The rules of primogeniture meant that the vast stately home she’d grown up in went, instead, to a male cousin. Sissinghurst wouldn’t be a come-down for many, but Sackville-West’s love for, and loss of, Knole has a strong influence in The EdwardiansThe Heir, and others of her works.

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Simon is one of the Shiny editors.

Read his review of The Edwardians here.

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