Vita Sackville-West posts a letter from Teheran describing in great detail a game she plays where she ¨[finds and pieces] together all the scattered fragments of Virginia's world.¨ Virginia Woolf states in a two-line letter delivered to the other side of the world only: “Yes yes yes I do like you. I am afraid to write the stronger word.”
More than a romance, the relationship between Sackville-West and Woolf spans two decades until Woolf's death. Both women become immediately fascinated with each other and balance out each other's flaws. Sackville-West appreciates Woolf's ethereal wisdom, while Woolf recognizes Sackville-West's ability to command any crowd and flourish in high society. Woolf sees Sackville-West as ¨being in short (what I have never been) a real woman.” While Woolf's diary entries early in their relationship are critical of Sackville-West to the point of slight cruelty, Sackville-West is enamored with Woolf from the beginning, writing to her husband that she ¨simply [adores] Virginia Woolf.¨
Both women fill an empty space in each other. Sackville-West appreciates Woolf's writing at a time when Woolf´s work is obscure, and Woolf provides Sackville-West with the inspiration and excitement she lives for. Sackville-West is loud and daring and bold, a known sapphic, notorious for having dressed up as a man and eloped with a female lover, and Virginia Woolf is a fascination to her.
Sackville-West writes in a letter to her husband that, ¨Virginia inspires a feeling of tenderness… owing to her funny mixture of hardness and softness.¨ Woolf later muses in a diary entry, ¨[Vita] so lavishes on me the maternal protection…¨ While this makes for a fascinating relationship to read about and enriches both women's writing, it proves important to recognize that they both engaged in polyamory and had other partners to fit other emotional needs.
This relationship waxes and wanes over the next two decades. It is so grounded in the nature of affection and the passage of time that the words spring up onto the page. Alongside this affair, Sackville-West has other notable affairs, a few of whom she is closer to than Woolf. Both women are also happily married and devoted to their husbands. However, their relationship remains unique and of historical significance due to the progressive ideas in their letters and their impact on each others' growth and work.
Sackville-West points out early on in their correspondence that Virginia has no passion and sees everything as ¨copy¨, remarks that offend Woolf and take Sackville-West a few letters to mitigate. Sackville-West soon fills that void and becomes a passion and obsession for Woolf, inspiring one of Woolf's most groundbreaking works: Orlando, which follows a reimagined Sackville-West changing genders and traveling for over three centuries. However, Orlando could also be seen as Woolf using Sackville-West as ¨copy,¨ just as Sackville-West had claimed. Either way, Orlando is a prime example of the outcome of this relationship. Another work of Woolf's that comes out of this relationship is A Room of One’s Own (1929), an essay that advocates for women's financial independence. Woolf writes it as a response to Sackville-West being denied her wealthy family estate due to her being a woman.
Sackville-West and Woolf have an interesting and powerful relationship, but neither is to be idolized. Their letters also display ideas of their time that these women did not react to progressively. Some of Sackville-West's descriptions of people during her travels can be problematic through a modern lens. Woolf was, without a doubt, rough in her language and, at times, elitist and racist in her published work.
The book of letters I have also contains an introduction by Alison Bechdel, creator of the Bechdel test. It is a beautiful work to have on your bookshelf, highlight or annotate, or give as a present.
is a high school student in New Jersey. They like (in no particular order) books, music, science, history, running, and (of course) writing and are always up to learn something new! Find them on Instagram at @writing_stoot.