Virginia and Vita
Virginia Woolf met Vita Sackville-West, the inspiration for Orlando, at a dinner party in 1922. Vita’s reputation preceded her: she was an aristocrat, a successful writer, and a notorious cross-dresser whose romantic escapades with one Violet Trefusis (the basis for the Russian princess Sasha in Orlando) were well known among the members of the Bloomsbury Group. At first, Virginia was unimpressed with Vita; she had, in her view, “all the supple ease of the aristocracy, but not the wit of the artist.” Despite Virginia’s reservations, she invited Vita to publish a novel with the Hogarth Press; that professional relationship grew into a friendship, transforming into a love affair in 1925 after the two women spent a few nights alone together at Vita’s country home at Long Barn. There, she recorded in her diary an iconic description of Vita: “she shines…with a candle lit radiance, stalking on legs of beach trees, pink glowing, grape clustered, pearl hung. That is the secret of her glamour, I suppose.” Virginia also noted her anxiety about the relationship: “What is the effect of all this on me? Very mixed.” It was her first consummated lesbian relationship, and her insecurity was bound up with her envy of Vita’s “maturity and full breastedness,” her charisma, and the fact that she was a mother—“her being in short (what I have never been) a real woman.” (At the time of their affair, both Virginia and Vita were married; Virginia to Leonard Woolf, with whom she founded the Hogarth Press, and Vita to Harold Nicolson, a writer and frequent ambassador to Tehran. Both men, while never expressing enthusiasm for their wives’ affair, never interfered with it, either.)
Much scholarship has been dedicated to surmising the sexual details of Virginia and Vita’s relationship; while their letters and diaries disguise much, they reveal a relationship that was intense but brief, sexual but frequently stymied, always deeply felt, and not without its jealousies. Vita had always been more sexually adventurous than Virginia, a fact that she occasionally lorded over Virginia in their moments of contention. Orlando was written shortly after one of these rough patches in their relationship, when Vita (ever the sexual conquistadora) entertained affairs with other women. The writing of Orlando was both Virginia’s dedication to Vita and her gentle act of revenge. She peppered the book with esoteric love-gifts to Vita, including little flatteries of her beauty: her stately legs, her “glamour,” “the Pink, the Pearl, the Perfection of her sex”—words and phrases that only Vita would recognize from their love letters. Even a bird that cries “Life! Life! Life!” chirps the English translation of the Latin, “Vita! Vita! Vita!”
Perhaps Virginia’s most thoughtful fiction was to restore to Vita her beloved family estate, Knole House. Though Vita was in line to inherit her ancestral mansion, the great house passed instead to Vita’s uncle because Vita could not legally inherit it as a woman. Vita, who had loved Knole since she was a child, was heartbroken; returning the fictional version of Knole to Vita/Orlando, therefore, is one of the novel’s most profound acts of affection. As biographer Hermione Lee surmises, Knole (a calendar house of 365 rooms, 52 staircases, 12 entrances, and 7 courtyards) and its illustrious ancestry “was as much the inspiration for Orlando as Vita was herself”—and though Virginia personally found Knole House cold and daunting, she was nevertheless fascinated by its historical atmosphere, a fascination that also pervades the novel. (Knole’s great halls and bedchambers also inspired Collette Pollard’s scenic design).
Upon Orlando’s publication, Virginia delivered a handsome black leather-bound copy of the book to Vita, who counted herself “completely dazzled, bewitched, enchanted, under a spell.” She also declared: “you have invented a new form of Narcissism,—I confess,—I am in love with Orlando—this is a complication I had not foreseen.” In her private diary, Virginia was ambivalent about Orlando as a literary achievement. “The truth is I expect I began [Orlando] as a joke,” she wrote, “and went on with it seriously.” Casting off her usual modernist prose, she thought of Orlando as a “writer’s holiday”—undoubtedly mingled with the pleasure of “writing Vita.” Orlando became her most popular novel, exceeding in sales all her previous books. As the critic Arnold Bennett observed (somewhat resentfully) at the time, “you cannot keep your end up at a London dinner party in these weeks unless you have read Mrs. Virginia Woolf’s Orlando.”
In the years to come, the intensity of Virginia and Vita’s love affair faded, though their friendship remained constant; Virginia’s final letter to Vita was composed a week before Virginia’s suicide in 1941. A few days later, Vita published a poem in Virginia’s memory, describing her as “rich on contradictions, rich in love,” a poet who “caught her special prey with words of honey and lamp of wit.” Their deep love and friendship remains memorialized in their love letters to each other, including Virginia’s finest love letter, Orlando.
Photo: Victoria Mary (‘Vita’) Sackville-West by John Gay, photograph,1948.© National Portrait Gallery, London
–Drew Dir, Resident Dramaturg