Vita Sackville-West, The Edwardians

Vita Sackville-West, The Edwardians. Virago Modern Classics paperback, 2004. First published 1930

Vita Sackville-West’s first novel was written, says Victoria Glendinning in her introduction to this edition, ‘for fun, and to make money.’ It achieved both ends, becoming a best-seller for the Woolfs at Hogarth Press, and succeeding as the author hoped in making everybody ‘seriously annoyed.’

Sackville-West Edwardians coverThis is because it’s a gleeful exposition of the shallow hypocrisy, duplicity and decadence of the Edwardian upper classes – a superficially glamorous world she knew well, having been raised in the stately home of Knole, upon which Chevron in this novel is based, an equally lavish and vast country estate that had belonged to the Sackvilles since Elizabethan times. Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1929) is a thinly disguised fantasy about Vita’s ambivalent sexuality and personality in the context of this dynasty.

In order to write such an exposé, she needed to create some characters who could provide an outsider’s critical view. The first of these is the flimsily-drawn, implausible polar explorer with the exotic name of Leonard Anquetil. He views this privileged party of ‘easily-pleased’ house-guests balefully: they are, he sees, ‘surely spoilt by the surfeits of entertainment that life had always offered them’, yet never tiring of the endless series of frivolously tedious events like this one, or showing any inclination to ‘vary the programme’ they’d followed every weekend since schooldays. Anquetil reflects:

to take their place in a world where pleasure fell like a ripened peach for the outstretching of a hand…All their days were the same; had been the same for an eternity of years…With what glamour this scheme is invested, insolent imposture! and upon what does it base its pretensions? [ he could see that none of them] were in any way remarkable, nor that their conversation was in any way worthy or exciting the interest of an eager man. He listened carefully, tabulating their topics. They were more interested, he observed, in facts than ideas. A large proportion of their conversation seemed to consist in asking one another what they had thought of such-and-such an entertainment, and whether they were going to such-and-such another.

Money is their other obsession, and ‘other people’s incomes’. Politics features only to provide an opportunity to show off which prominent figures they knew in that world.

Their chief desire was to cap one another’s information. So this is the great world, thought Anquetil; the world of the élite…If this is Society…God help us, for surely no fraud has ever equalled it. These are the people who ordain the London season, glorify Ascot, make or unmake the fortune of small Continental watering-places, inspire envy, emulation, and snobbishness – well, thought Anquetil, with a shrug, they spend money, and that is the best that can be said for them.

I’ve quoted at length to give an idea of the lush, pleasing prose style and genial viciousness of the narrative. Two more key characters also have a jaundiced view of this  world: the handsome duke, Sebastian, who is master of Chevron at 19 (his father died when he was young), and his younger sister, Viola. Both are disillusioned with and ultimately reject this privileged world, with its sham ‘code’ of conduct that involves deception, infidelity and treachery, concealed beneath a veneer of gentility, respectability and brittle honour. It disgusts the siblings, and they rebel – although Sebastian has a deep and genuine love of Chevron; it’s the people who he has to mix with that disillusion him.

Sackville-West clearly had enormous fun writing this, and it’s great fun to read. But ultimately, like the superficial characters it depicts, it doesn’t sustain. It’s true that she makes the best of such an easy target: boring, selfish, superficial snobs. But the characters who she presents as embodying the values of decency and integrity, chiefly Anquetil, Sebastian and Viola, aren’t fully rounded. Like the rest of the cast of characters, they’re more like caricatures.

But I enjoyed this gleeful demolition job and finished it in a couple of binge-reads. It’s like Downton Abbey written as a comical horror story. The prose style, as noted already, is smooth, with occasional poetic touches; here’s the first description of Sebastian’s first lover, the ‘professional beauty’, Lady Roehampton:

[she] was moving idly about the room looking like a loosened rose; she was wrapped in grey satin edged with swansdown.

I’m not sure this visual image quite works; maybe that’s why Sackville-West’s friends and publishers, the Woolfs, didn’t rate her highly as a writer (though they relished the revenue she generated). As an entertainer she’s great fun.

There’s some unfortunate casual anti-Semitism that’s sadly characteristic of the times in which it was written, but one redeeming feature is its foreshadowing of the disastrous slaughter of World War I that was about to happen. We know that whatever summary justice is handed out by the novelist to these shallow, self-indulgent creatures and their social circus, history was to deliver far worse.

I posted on Vita Sackville-West’s 1931 novel All Passion Spent HERE

Liz at her blog Adventures in Reading, Running and Working wrote about it HERE with links to more reviews.

 

 

Men do kill women. Vita Sackville-West, All Passion Spent

Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962), All Passion Spent. Virago Modern Classics 2010; first published 1931

Henry Lyulph Holland, first Earl of Slane, had existed for so long that the public had begun to regard him as immortal. The public, as a whole, finds reassurance in longevity, and, after the necessary interlude of reaction, is disposed to recognise extreme old age as a sign of excellence.

VSW All P Spent coverSo begins, eloquently and wittily, Vita (short for Victoria) Sackville-West’s ninth novel. Lord Slane had led a life of eminence as politician (rising to Prime Minister, then in later years he sat – when it suited him – in the House of Lords) and diplomat (ultimately as Viceroy of India). When he dies aged 94 his six children and ‘their two wives and a husband bringing the number up to nine’, a ‘sufficiently formidable family gathering’ – all in their sixties – gather like ‘old black ravens’ – or vultures – to determine the fate of his widow, their mother, Lady Slane, who is 88.

There’s a sort of inverted or subverted King Lear plot; led by the domineering Herbert, the eldest, they assume that she will spend a portion of the year in each of their houses in turn; they will ‘divide mother between them’. Each of them has their own venal, selfish motives for such an arrangement. She must, they assume, ‘be allowed to break down, and then, after that was over, be stowed away,’ or ‘cleared up’, like her late husband’s desk. They privately believe their mother ‘was rather a simpleton’ with ‘no grasp on the world as it was’, therefore malleable:

Mother had no will of her own; all her life long, gracious and gentle, she had been wholly submissive – an appendage. It was assumed that she had not brain enough to be self-assertive…That she might have ideas which she kept to herself never entered into their estimate…She would be grateful to them for arranging her few remaining years.

This patronising assessment (shared by most who know or knew her) is proved inaccurate; for Lady Slane, who ‘had spent a great deal of her life listening, without making much comment’, and who ‘all her life had been accustomed to have her comings and goings and stayings arranged for her’, obediently doing what was expected of her as the trophy wife of a public male figure, amazes the vulture offspring by announcing that she has no intention of complying with their decision: she is to rent a house for herself and her equally elderly French maid Genoux in Hampstead where she will live alone. Visitors will be banned, except for her children; anyone younger she deems too trying.

They assume she ‘must be mad.’ This stereotypically passive, submissive woman, always ‘reserved in speech, withholding her opinion’, never revealing what she was thinking, had clearly fooled them all along. This was a mask she wore involuntarily. Now she is free.

Only Edith, the unmarried youngest child, ‘always flustered’ and inclined to say the wrong thing, and who the rest of the family dismiss as scatterbrained and ‘a half-wit’ (pretty much like her mother, then), has any emotional intelligence, is ‘surprisingly shrewd’, and perceives her mother’s true nature, just as she sees through the hypocrisy, greed and bullying of her siblings – except for her equally unprepossessing brother Kay, a bachelor whose collection of compasses and astrolabes was all that interested him and kept him happy.

What follows is a revealing portrait of a woman asserting her right to be herself – Vita habitually denied she was a feminist, but a believer in human rights. As a member of the bohemian, ostensibly free-thinking Bloomsbury set, and Virginia Woolf’s lover (along with Violet Trefusis and others), Vita was intent on showing how society oppressed and constrained women and their individuality, and how the institution of marriage precluded most women from expressing their true selves. Lady Slane had longed to be an artist, but marriage to Henry meant that she never once painted. She had a role to play as his decorative ‘appendage’, his obedient wife – this is the only life for which women like her were ‘formed, dressed, bedizened, educated…safeguarded, kept in the dark, hinted at, segregated, repressed, all that at a given moment they may be delivered, or may deliver their daughters over, to Minister to a Man’.

Victoria Glendinning, in an astute and intelligent Introduction, considers the weaknesses in this portrayal. Why make Lady Slane so intellectually dim, so feminine? Her argument is compelling.

The newly liberated old woman’s life in Hampstead is amusingly told, with some engagingly eccentric characters – including a long-forgotten old flame who turns up unexpectedly, reminding her of what she once glimpsed but foreswore in her radiant, unquestioning youth – and some lively, sparkling prose. It’s hard to believe that home-educated Vita saw herself, like Lady Slane, as a rather stupid and limited writer beside the glittering Virginia Woolf.

Take this, for example: Lady Slane’s landlord, the delightfully strange Mr Bucktrout, has taken a liking to her – he’s refused to rent out his house for decades, but recognises in her a kindred spirit; he’s even taken to giving her little presents, and is one of the few people she’ll allow to visit. She thinks of his small, thoughtful gestures of attentiveness, comparing them favourably with the empty manners of polite society:

Courtesy ceased to be blankly artificial, when prompted by real esteem; it became, simply, one of the decent, veiling graces; a formula by which a profounder feeling might be conveyed.

She remembers a flock of yellow and white butterflies that once accompanied her and her husband as they crossed the Persian desert together, in a passage too long to quote here, but which is a beautiful, fragile image of the life she glimpsed but was unable to enter into. As the man says who once locked eyes and souls with her in India, and then left her life:

Face it, Lady Slane. Your children, your husband, your splendour, were nothing but obstacles that kept you from yourself. They were what you chose to substitute for your real vocation. You were too young, I suppose, to know any better, but when you chose that life you sinned against the light.

Men do kill women, he concludes. Henry had ‘cheated her of her chosen life’, she reflects on another occasion, but had offered her another, an ‘ample life’, but one ‘pressed up close against her own nursery’. He’d substituted his life and interests, or their children’s, for her own. ‘It had never occurred to him that she might prefer simply to be herself.’

Vita can write (ok, maybe not sustained over every page), and needn’t have felt inadequate when compared with the better fiction of her famous lover; I’d have liked to quote more examples to support my case, and realise I’ve focused here on the novel’s themes and moral, rather than on the style. I’d be interested to know if I’m alone in admiring it – despite its unevenness. She is indeed a lesser talent, less serious, ambitious and experimental, less important in the annals of literature, perhaps, than the author of Orlando, whose protagonist is based on Vita; but there’s some fine writing in this heartfelt novel, even though it flags about halfway through.