Portrait of a Marriage
By Nigel Nicolson
Interestingly, in her tribute and spoof of her dear friend Vita Sackville-West, Virginia Woolf framed the questions that Nigel Nicolson attempted answering by surrounding his mother’s confession of her affair with Violet Trefusis with his own apologia for her various affairs. Toward the end of Orlando, Woolf placed these thoughts in the mind of Vita’s personification, Lady Orlando: “She was married, true; but if one’s husband was always sailing round Cape Horn, was it marriage? If one liked him, was it marriage? And finally, if one still wished, more than anything in the whole world, to write poetry, was it marriage?” She answered, “She had her doubts.”
Of course, Woolf was writing fiction and a humorous tribute, a well as a send up of Victorian biography, so she probably didn’t believe her answer, and certainly Vita, Harold, and Nigel didn’t. Doubtless, Nigel’s parents had a decidedly unconventional marriage. It was a marriage, though, and something of a perfect one for them, one conducted much times at a distance, in obsessive letter writing, often from necessity as Harold Nicolson served as a diplomat until 1929 and then as a politician and writer, and laced on both sides with homosexual affairs. Vita and Harold wrote constantly, both producing numerous highly regarded works of fiction, criticism, she poetry, as well as diaries, and Vita’s gardening books (the National Trust now owns and maintains their second home Sissinghurst Castle and its gardens, a passion they shared). And writing, by its nature, is a solitary profession.
In Portrait of a Marriage, Vita works out her own feelings about her just concluding affair with Violet Trefusis, an impassioned three-year romp through England and over Europe that came within a hare’s breath of ruining her marriage; that would have sunk any ordinary marriage if not for upper class social convention (ironically, what she and Violet professed to be rebelling against), strong-willed mothers, and an almost unbelievably tolerant and loving husband. She came to understand fully Harold’s love for her and her for him, and suffered and wrote of her guilt for tormenting him.
That is the crux of Portrait of a Marriage: in their own ways, Vita and Harold loved each other. It may not have been a conventional love or marriage; nonetheless, the foundation of their relationship was love and respect for each other. Nigel brings out their love in what must have been a difficult assignment for a son.
Highly recommended to be read with an open mind. For more on Vita, an ever-fascinating woman, read the standard biography by Victoria Glendinning, Vita: The Life of V. Sackville-West. For more on her affair with Violet Trefusis, who became a fine writer herself, see Professor Mitchell A. Leaska’s introduction to Violet to Vita: The Letters of Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West, 1910-1921. And do read Vita’s works, still worthy of your attention.
Finally, a picture is worth a thousands words. This edition contains perhaps our favorite photo of Vita and Harold. They are on their way to the Scott hearing (Vita’s mother’s contested inheritance of a fortune from Sir John Murray “Seery” Scott) on July 4, 1913, where Vita is to present testimony. A paparazzi of the era snapped it a few months preceding her marriage to Harold on October 1, 1913. From left to right, are Harold, a very great space, Vita tightly next to Rosamund Grosvenor, then Lord Sackville slightly ahead. Nothing special you might say, except that Rosamund and Vita were lovers, though few viewing the photo at the time would have known. w/c