Ways with Words 2010: The Ghosts of Vita Sackville-West

From The Telegraph:

Inheritancestory_1640859f On display in the Great Hall is a facsimile of the bound manuscript of the novel Orlando, dedicated to Vita by the author, her lover Virginia Woolf. Vita is the eponymous hero or heroine Orlando (Orlando changes sex over the four centuries in which the novel is set) and Orlando’s ancestral home is a house, like Knole, with 365 rooms. The pages are threaded through with specific references to Knole and to its past and present incumbents: the head gardener Stubbs, Vita’s father’s elkhound Canute, and so on. Vita’s husband, Harold Nicolson, features as Marmaduke Bontrol Shelmerdine, Esquire. One of Vita’s former lovers, Violet Keppel, later Trefusis, was the Russian Princess. “She talked so enchantingly, so wittily, so wisely,” is how Virginia Woolf describes Princess Sasha in Orlando. In a letter to Vita, she wrote of Violet: “I still remember her, like a fox cub, all scent and seduction.”

Orlando also nurtured the literary associations that have become interwoven with the house’s story. Orlando (or Vita) strides into the Poets’ Parlour, our dining room today, where “her old friends Dryden, Pope, Swift, Addison regarded her demurely at first” [from their portraits on the walls]. But when they learnt that Orlando had just won a prize for a poem [Vita won the Hawthornden Prize for her poem The Land], “they nodded their heads approvingly”.

Orlando was published in 1928, the year Vita’s father died; and the novel, which ends with Orlando returning to Knole, allows Vita – as Orlando – to take possession in fantasy of the house that she had been denied in fact. As Harold described Orlando to Vita: it is a “book in which you and Knole are identified forever, a book which will perpetuate that identity into years when both you and I are dead”. Vita’s mother, Lady Sackville, on the other hand, pasted a photograph of Virginia Woolf into her copy of Orlando and wrote beside it: “The awful face of a mad woman whose successful mad desire is to separate people who care for each other. I loathe this woman for having changed my Vita and taken her away from me.”

More here.

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