All Passion Spent … and Nearly Forgotten

Violet to Vita : The Letters of Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West, 1910-1921

By Mitchell A. Leaska and John Phillips, eds.

For most Americans, Violet Trefusis doesn’t ring a bell. Vita Sackville-West, if she has any currency here, it is probably for her short affair with Virginia Woolf that followed years after her affair with Violet. Just re-read the headline. Anyone notice the title of a famous novel by Vita (though you’re excused if you attributed it to Milton)?

Violet and Vita were quite well known in their day. Both were accomplished writers: Vita before Violet, Violet mostly in French, one of several languages in which they shared fluency. As Vita gained fame as a writer and Violet struggled to discover what she might do with her life — she drew and dabbled in writing at the time, they became among the most famous, some might counter infamous, couplings of twentieth century England.

Both were highborn women, Violet the daughter of Alice Keppel, the mistress of the Prince of Wales, Edward VII after his coronation in 1901, a discreet woman respected by all Society, including Queen Alexandria, who invited Alice to attend the King’s deathbed. Vita’s lineage extended back to Elizabeth I by way of the Queen’s cousin, Thomas Sackville, then through the Earls and Dukes of Dorset and the Barons Sackville; Elizabeth granted Thomas Knole House, if not the largest, then among the largest of English homes. (Virginia Woolf, who wrote Orlando for and about Vita, set much of the novel at Knole, because it was synonymous with Vita and was her greatest love and its loss due to inheritance laws her greatest regret.)

Affairs within the upper class occurred. Discretion begat tolerance. Scandal arose when lovers stepped beyond the bounds of discretion. And so was the case with Violet and Vita. At the time of the affair that blazed across Europe from its full blooming at Vita’s home, Long Barn, in April 1918, to its slow, painful withering away by the close of 1921, Society buzzed about the women while their mothers, cast from carbon steel, maneuvered to end it. Vita was a married woman with a diplomat husband, Harold, and two children. Violet, single at the start, found herself coerced into a marriage with Denys Trefusis, who agreed to Violet’s outlandish requests and suffered from the lashings of her vituperative tongue.

Violet’s letters to Vita present half of the affair. Vita’s letters to Violet no longer exist; in a rage, a common emotional state for him during these years of their marriage, Denys destroyed them. Unfortunate, for they would immensely increase our understanding of what the two shared read side by side. For Vita’s recounting of their affair, you can read her memoir composed at the end, with her son Nigel’s clarifications, explanations, discussion, and defense of her long, loving, and unorthodox marriage to Harold Nicolson, as well as her relationship to himself and first son Benedict, in Portrait of a Marriage.

Violet to Vita opens with a comprehensive overview written by Professor Mitchell A. Leaska. Leaska does an excellent job of explaining not only the events of the affair, but also adds insight regarding the women’s family histories, as well as psychological perception about their actions.

Violet and Vita met as girls in 1904 at school, when they were 10 and 12 respectively. They visited each other’s homes. In 1908, Violet accompanied Vita and Rosamund Grosvenor, Vita’s love at the time, and their governesses to Italy. There Violet first declared her love for Vita. In 1910, the two began a steady, almost daily, correspondence that continued through 1921.

Violet’s letters chronicle their affair as it develops, strengthens, matures, and, finally, disintegrates after their fiery clash at Amiens in February 1920, with fed-up husbands and Violet’s father adding to the drama. Violet’s offense? Breaking her pledge never to have sex with her husband Denys, who, incredibly, had agreed to abstain as a condition of marriage! Vita, for her part, had ceased sexual relations with Harold soon after the birth of Nigel.

In their relationship, Violet assumed the role of passive lover; Vita, with pronounced masculine tendencies and a wish to have been born a boy, was the strong, controlling counterpart, sometimes dressing as her alter ego Julian. Violet continually played to Vita’s desire, as well as her need always to be more than just Mrs. Harold Nicolson.

To whet your appetite for this collection of impassioned love letters, here are a few samples of Violet’s writings:

“I tell you,” she wrote in 1918, “there is a barbaric splendour about you that conquered not only me, but everyone who saw you. You are made to conquer … not to be conquered.”

Appealing to Vita’s need for control and mastery, Violet wrote in June 1918: “I revel in your beauty, your beauty of form and feature. I exult in my surrender … I love belonging to you — I glory in it, that you alone … have bent me to your will, shattered my self-possession, robbed me of my mystery, made me your, yours, so that away from you I am nothing but a useless puppet!”

As the affair intensified, she urged Vita to leave Harold and run away with her: “I think you now realize this can’t go on, that we must once and for all take our courage in both hands, and go away together. What sort of life can we lead now? Yours, an infamous and degrading lie to the world, officially bound to someone you can’t care for, perpetually with that someone, that in itself constitutes an outrage to me …”

After the breakup at Amiens, Violet declared: “If you lead me to think you are never coming back to me, there is but one way out for me, and that is … Death.”

Once more, toward the close of 1920, she wrote: “For you I would commit any crime; for you I would sacrifice any other love. My love for you terrifies me.”

But in the end, Violet conceded: “… I am dazed with grief … You have chosen, my darling; you had to choose between me and your family, and you have chosen them. Of course, you are quite right. I do not blame you.”

Recommended if two of the previous centuries most fascinating women intrigue you, and for a front row seat to an impassioned affair of two highly literate, expressive, and iconoclastic women who wanted to break the bounds of conventionality but ultimately found themselves bound by them for social and financial reasons. And maybe, just a little bit, to show the current crop of moderns they hold no corner on modernity. c/w

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