- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 15, 2002

Edited by Mary Ann Caws.
Palgrave., $29.95, 370 pages, illus.

Tall, dark, and (in some people's eyes) handsome, the English aristocrat Vita Sackville-West considered it a great misfortune she was not born a man, not so much because she was a rather masculine woman who was attracted to other women as because being born female deprived her of the right to inherit Knole, the historic house which had been in the Sackville family for centuries.
Although she pursued a number of love affairs, her unorthodox marriage to diplomat and writer Harold Nicolson proved, in the eyes of the couple and their children, a notable success. An outdoorish woman who loved gardening, she enjoyed a career as a novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, and garden writer and was also the model for the gender-shifting hero/heroine of her friend Virginia Woolf's novel "Orlando."
To the extent that Vita Sackville-West is known today, it is largely because of "Orlando" and, even more, "Portrait of a Marriage," her son Nigel Nicolson's groundbreakingly frank account of his parents' unconventional life together. The burgeoning fame of her friend and lover Virginia Woolf, endlessly driven by the growth of feminist literary criticism, has also given Miss Sackville-West (she vastly preferred this appellation to Mrs., or later Lady, Nicolson) a little extra exposure to the spotlight.
As a devoted wife and mother who was also a dedicated philanderer mostly with other women, but at least once with a man yet managed to juggle all this with maximum satisfaction and minimum destructiveness to all concerned, she is inevitably a figure who fascinates.
But "Vita Sackville-West: Selected Writings," as presented by Mary Ann Caws, is not another portrait of the Nicolson marriage, or indeed, of Vita's arresting personality or the life she led. Rather, it is an attempt to provide an overview of her writing, fiction and nonfiction. This is perhaps a necessary corrective, since her later fame as a figure has tended to eclipse the fact that once she was famous as a writer.
The author of many bestselling novels as well as short stories and poems, she was also a frequent broadcaster on the BBC radio's cultural programming. And for many who were unaware of her literary output, she was England's leading writer of gardening advice, whose columns ran in London's Sunday "Observer" for many decades. Indeed, the garden she created at Sissinghurst, the ancient house in Kent which she and her husband restored so lovingly, serves as a monument to her distinctive horticultural taste. Perhaps recognizing this, professor Caws has somewhat coyly dedicated this volume "To Sissinghurst."
The author has given a representative sampling of the wide variety of the genres in which her subject operated, excerpting several novels, giving us some short stories, poems, and letters, plus some of the gardening columns and parts of her most celebrated travel book, "Passenger to Teheran" (1926), among other offerings. She has also given in full the diary Miss Sackville-West kept during a lecture tour of the United States in the winter of 1933, as well as a brief selection from her diaries as a young woman.
There is nothing wrong with Ms. Caws's methodology and this book certainly serves as an adequate tour d'horizon of her subject's oeuvre. Yet the picture which emerges is on the whole less attractive and compelling than the figure glimpsed elsewhere, most notably in the selections from her letters included in her husband's published "Diaries" and in her correspondence with Virginia Woolf which was published two decades ago.
Ms. Caws provides a handful of letters to Virginia Woolf, but they are on the whole lackluster; there are so many better ones she might have chosen. I think especially of her spirited rejection of her feminist friend's espousal of women's superiority to men.
It is hard to believe that the examples of Vita Sackville-West's fiction provided in this book will lead many readers to rush out and get hold of her novels, some of which may be found in the Virago Series of women writers. She certainly had an ability to come up with striking titles "Seducers in Ecuador," "All Passion Spent," "No Signposts in the Sea" but it is difficult, given the literary taste of today or even of yesterday to work up much enthusiasm for her novels, many of which are little more than overheated, supercharged bodice-rippers with more than a soupcon of sadomasochism. These sold quite well in the United States and in the United Kingdom (where they made a lot of money for Virginia and Leonard Woolf's Hogarth Press) and were precisely the kind of novels that would have produced the enthusiastic crowds which Vita found so irksome at women's clubs and colleges across the United States. But they elicited little critical respect in their own day and even the strenuous efforts of feminist revisionism have not been able to give them much of a place in the central canon.
The poetry, also not highly regarded by the critical arbiters of its own time, is downright embarrassing in ours. At its best, it can rise to the facile and depressingly obvious; all too often it lacks even the most fundamental attributes of scansion and she's not writing "free verse." There can be no doubt as to the strength of her feelings for Virginia Woolf and the genuine distress she felt at her suicide in 1941, yet the verse tribute she penned shortly afterward will never rank with Auden's tribute to Yeats, let alone Shelley's to Keats.
Ms. Caws provides introductory material and occasionally contributes glosses on words and phrases that might be obscure. Not all these are successful: for instance, her translation of Vita's description of her lecture audience in Columbus, Ohio, "a very dankbares publicum," as "a thankless public," when it actually means "a grateful audience." Translating this phrase doesn't take the education of a Ph.D. or the expertise of a Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature: recourse to a German-English dictionary by her or even by one of her assistants would have done the job. Vita Sackville-West was quite a linguist (at times she kept her diary in French or Italian); it's a pity that the editor of this volume doesn't share her talent. Another inaccuracy: the author says that Harold Nicolson's "Journey to Java" was based on their 1959 cruise to Port Said, Singapore, and Manila on the SS Cambodge. It was, in fact, based on their 1956 cruise on the SS Willem Ruys to guess where Java.
On the subject of Vita Sackville-West's anti-Semitism as expressed in casual asides in diaries or letters, Ms. Caws defends them as "typical of her time and social set." This simply is not good enough. Not everyone at that time suffered from this unfortunate prejudice, all too common though it was in a wide variety of classes and social circles. It is also true that bigotry or the lack of it is at all times a measure (even if not the only measure) of the essential quality of a person. For example, both Eleanor Roosevelt and Jacqueline Kennedy came from backgrounds where anti-Semitism was commonplace. Their lifelong rejections of the prejudice are barometers of their development as human beings.
It is interesting to note how feminist scholars who are quick to condemn any hint of what they imagine to be racial, social, or gender prejudice on the contemporary scene can be so eager to explain away past instances of such noxious attitudes.
In summing up Vita Sackville West, you cannot do better than her friend Virginia Woolf, who wrote of her in a diary entry of 1926: "She is not clever; but abundant and fruitful, truthful too.
She taps so many sources of life: repose and variety." Readers interested in the variety of Vita Sackville-West's writings will find something of value in this collection, but those who feel they have got to know her from other sources may feel a little disappointed, because in the end, she was someone who put more of her talent into her life than into her work.

Martin Rubin is a writer in Pasadena, Calif.

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