Vita and Virginia
In the summer of 1940, as the German invasion of Britain seemed imminent, Vita Sackville-West sent her most treasured possessions to safety. Vita was living at Sissinghurst, a grand but now ruined Elizabethan house, in the heart of the Kent countryside. The county was exposed to regular air raids and British soldiers were stationed in Sissinghurst Tower on the lookout for German parachutists. With the fear of invasion hanging over her, Vita sent away her jewels, her will, and a book manuscript.
While Vita was a celebrated author, the manuscript was not her own. The pages of purple ink were the manuscript of Orlando, given to her in October 1928 by her friend and lover Virginia Woolf. Vita’s son Nigel would later describe the novel as ‘the longest and most charming love letter in literature’.
Vita and Virginia first met in December 1922, with the latter noting afterwards that she had felt ‘shy and schoolgirlish’ in the presence of the ‘lovely gifted aristocratic Sackville West’. After this meeting their relationship grew, as the two women continued to dine together and write to one another. Vita later noted that whilst they did occasionally ‘sleep’ together, their relationship was more ‘a spiritual thing… an intellectual thing’.
Virginia was invited to Knole House, Vita’s Elizabethan ancestral home, in the summer of 1924. Virginia was both in awe of Knole and Vita, writing that ‘all those ancestors and centuries, and silver and gold, have bred a perfect body’. The visit inspired Virginia’s Orlando which embodied her love for history, for Knole, and for Vita.
Virginia first started to write Orlando, a novel about a 16th century nobleman who lives for over 400 years and changes biological sex along the way, in March 1927. Virginia’s progressive attitude towards gender is clear in Orlando, as she views gender as a social construct and takes care with Orlando’s pronouns. After his transition she states that ‘for convention’s sake, say “her” for “his”, and “she” for “he”’. It is ‘simple fact’ that ‘Orlando was a man till the age of thirty; [then] he became a woman.’
The character of Orlando was based on Vita, ‘the lusts of [her] flesh and the lure of [her] mind’, her portrait became Orlando’s likeness. Vita, like Orlando, flouted the rules of gender and had many lovers. Her husband Harold Nicolson once commented that ‘I don’t mind who you sleep with, so long as I may keep your heart’. Harold also had his fair share of same-sex lovers.
Virginia explores same-sex ‘Sapphist’ attraction in Orlando, with the protagonist noting that ‘being of the same sex… [did] quicken and deepen those feelings’ which she felt towards women.
However, her tone is also wary. Virginia notes that Orlando’s poetry about ‘Egyptian girls’, a verse taken from Vita’s The Land, was risky when she has ‘a husband’ at home. Virginia’s message to Vita is clear, she ‘had only escaped by the skin of her teeth’ as she had put on a wedding ‘ring’ and found ‘a man’. Homosexual acts between men were illegal, but queer women would be outcast by society and Vita had much to lose.
The main setting of Orlando is the ‘great’ Elizabethan house, ‘more like a town than a house’, with its ‘halls… galleries… courts… bedrooms’. This house was clearly based on Knole with both houses—the real one and the fictional one—being said to have 365 rooms and 52 staircases. In Orlando, Sackville-West’s ancestral ‘leopards’ appear on the stained-glass windows and Orlando brushes her hair with ‘King James’ silver brush’ which is kept in The King’s Room at Knole.
While Orlando preserved Vita’s character, it also preserved the essence of Knole for Vita. This was Virginia’s greatest gift to her lover, saving Knole’s soul within the pages of her book. On 28 January 1928 Vita’s father died and the ancestral home passed to Vita’s uncle. Vita couldn’t inherit because she was a woman. The 1000-acre deer park and four-acre house had been Vita’s childhood home. She had ‘loved it; and took it for granted that Knole loved’ her. After her father died, she only had a few days to rule Knole. After that she lost Knole ‘forever’ and faced a ‘turning point in [her] life’.
One cannot fully comprehend Vita’s loss without visiting Knole in person. Once you enter the gates it takes a few minutes to drive up the winding road to the house. You pass through fields and woodland, all dotted with herds of deer. The house itself is imposing and expansive, with hundreds of grand rooms all furnished with expensive furniture.
Most significantly the house is packed with Sackville-West heirlooms and portraits. Their wealth and their history bleeds through the walls. The power that Knole holds is palpable. Vita could have lived like a Queen if being a man had not been the key to unlocking Knole.
In 1930, following her loss of Knole, Vita and Harold purchased Sissinghurst. This was a cluster of derelict Elizabethan farm buildings, two cottages and a tower. When they moved in ‘not a single room was habitable’ but over the years they transformed Sissinghurst into a world-famous English garden and a romantic castle.
Vita filled Sissinghurst with items from Knole, her bed, her amber flasks from her childhood windowsill, her mirror. Yet, it would be inaccurate to suggest that Sissinghurst simply became a copy of Knole. While both were Elizabethan mansions with a connection to the Sackville-Wests, Sissinghurst became its own entity shaped by Harold and Vita.
Perhaps in response to Orlando Vita wrote the poem Sissinghurst, dedicating it to Virginia. She wrote of ‘a tired swimmer in the waves of time’ who finds the ‘castle… buried in time and sleep’. Vita painted Sissinghurst in a rose-tinted light, as Virginia had done for Knole. Both used their words to preserve these houses and their love for one another.
Eventually, both Knole and Sissinghurst would meet the same fate and were handed over to the National Trust. At the time Vita was reluctant to hand over her ‘darlings’ but as Orlando notes ‘the house… belonged to time now; to history’. Yet, the combination of the National Trust’s vital conservation and Vita and Virginia’s writing has prevented these houses from slipping under the ‘waves of time’.
Hannah McCann is a history undergraduate student at the University of Sheffield. She recently completed the Sheffield Undergraduate Research Project which provides undergraduate students with an opportunity to research an area of special interest. In her project she chose to look at how Vita and Virginia’s Queer relationship manifests itself in their literature and at their National Trust Properties.
Cover Image: Knole House. Photographer: Hannah McCann