Banned Books Week and Vita's challenge

Published: 25 September 2019

Last update: 25 September 2019

Blog post
This blog post is written by Hannah Squire, Assistant Curator, National Public Programmes Hannah Squire Assistant Curator, National Public Programmes
Vita Sackville-West's 'Challenge'

The libraries at our places are of particular interest to Hannah Squire, Assistant Curator for National Public Programmes. In recognition of Banned Books Week, a nationwide campaign to celebrate the freedom to read, Hannah takes a closer look at a number of books in the library at Sissinghurst Castle Garden in Kent and explores the ways in which Vita Sackville-West challenged accepted boundaries of love.

When I visit National Trust houses, the rooms I most look forward to visiting are the libraries. I love to study the shelves, uncovering the books that belonged to those individuals who called these places home. Seeing the worn chairs and sofas where readers sequestered themselves and the desks where their thoughts became words is a thrilling experience. 

Books have been some of my greatest teachers, friends and confidantes. My life would be much emptier if I didn’t have the freedom to read a diverse range of stories, to discover new worlds in words.

Banned Books Week, which runs this year from 22 September – 28 September, is an opportunity to celebrate the power of reading and to commemorate the many voices that have been banned, censored or challenged in the past and today. Looking at the many authors and titles in National Trust libraries that have been subject to some form of suppression, I feel immense gratitude toward those who have experienced censorship, yet persevered nonetheless.  

It wasn’t until 2017, however, when the National Trust initiated its Prejudice and Pride celebrations, that I truly began to appreciate the bigotry, censorship and struggles faced by LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) writers at our places. I learned of the tremendous determination, courage and strength it took for them to even attempt to publish their thoughts, feelings and ideas in the first place.

One of my favourite places – one that holds a significant place in the history of banned books – is Vita Sackville-West’s tower at Sissinghurst in Kent.

Sissinghurst Castle Garden in Kent, with a view of the Elizabethan gatehouse tower where Vita spent much of her time reading and writing
Sissinghurst in Autumn
Sissinghurst Castle Garden in Kent, with a view of the Elizabethan gatehouse tower where Vita spent much of her time reading and writing

Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962), author, poet, critic and gardener, bought Sissinghurst with her husband Harold Nicolson in 1930. The tower was primarily her space, the writing room and turret a private sanctuary that Vita’s son, Nigel Nicolson, describes as having only entered a few times during his mother’s lifetime.

Vita's desk in the Writing Room in the Tower at Sissinghurst Castle where Vita did most of her writing
Vita's desk in the Writing Room in the Tower
Vita's desk in the Writing Room in the Tower at Sissinghurst Castle where Vita did most of her writing

These spaces embody Vita; they express an energetic, fiercely intelligent and passionate woman. To this day, her desk is decorated with photos of those she loved and who inspired her writing, while her shelves burst with well-thumbed books.

The Turret Room off the Writing Room, where the main body of Vita's personal library of books are stored
The alcove off the Writing Room in the Tower at Sissinghurst Castle, Kent
The Turret Room off the Writing Room, where the main body of Vita's personal library of books are stored

These rooms tell the story of a woman whose writing was censored, notably by her mother.  But they also tell the story of a woman who, we would learn after her death, censored herself.

One of the works that can be found on the shelves in Vita’s rooms is her second novel, ‘Challenge’. Written in 1918-1919, it had been printed and advertised in 1920 and was waiting to be bound when it was suppressed.

'Challenge' was censored and not published in the UK until 1973. It was first printed in the United States in 1923 / Sissinghurst NT 3158652
The title page of the US edition of  'Challenge'
'Challenge' was censored and not published in the UK until 1973. It was first printed in the United States in 1923 / Sissinghurst NT 3158652

‘Challenge’ is about Vita’s love affair with the socialite and author, Violet Trefusis (née Keppel), written during the height of their elopement. Violet both inspired and collaborated on the novel, providing edits and rewrites. As the title suggests, the book was written as a challenge, to show the profound love Vita felt for Violet in defiance of heteronormative constricts of the early 20th century. Nigel Nicolson would describe ‘Challenge’ as his mother’s ‘declaration of defiance … She wished to publish it as a memorial to what she had endured, as her statement of what love could and should be.’

Sir John Lavery's portrait of Violet Trefusis (née Keppel), painted in 1919 at the height of her love affair with Vita. It hangs in the Tower Sitting Room at Sissinghurst / NT 2900015
Violet Trefusis (née Keppel)
Sir John Lavery's portrait of Violet Trefusis (née Keppel), painted in 1919 at the height of her love affair with Vita. It hangs in the Tower Sitting Room at Sissinghurst / NT 2900015

Set in Greece, ‘Challenge’ tells the story of the doomed young lovers Julian and Eve. Julian was the name Vita adopted when dressing as a man and Eve was modelled on Violet. Although ‘Challenge’ was written as a heterosexual romance, Vita nonetheless faced pressures from her mother, Lady Sackville, from Violet’s mother, Lady Keppel and from the novelist, Marie Belloc Lowndes, to terminate the publication. In their eyes, the characters of Julian and Eve were far too thinly veiled portraits of Vita and Violet, who were already subject to much gossip. Vita’s mother herself paid the publishing company Collins compensation for the cancellation.

It’s hard to imagine the sense of disappointment Vita must have felt, particularly being silenced by her own mother. ‘I hope Mama is pleased. She has beaten me,’ wrote Vita in her diary in 1920.

Violet herself wrote in fury to Vita: ‘You can’t seriously mean it. It would be idiotic. The book is admirable. …Don’t relent, sigh or soften. It’s absurd, disloyal to me, and useless.’

" Cast aside the drab garments of respectability and convention, my beautiful Bird of Paradise, they become you not. Lead the life Nature intended you to lead"

It would take 53 years before ‘Challenge’ would be published in the UK. It found a publisher in the United States in 1923, three years after it was meant to be published. Several copies of this first edition can be found in the tower at Sissinghurst.

The American edition, however, wasn’t without censorship. Vita’s original dedication was addressed to Violet: ‘Dedicated with gratitude for much excellent copy to the original of Eve’. This  was suppressed, subsituted instead with lines of Turkish love poetry.

The turret held a secret to one final censored manuscript by Vita. After her death in 1962, Nigel found his mother’s locked Gladstone bag in the turret room. Not having the key, he sliced into the leather and found inside a notebook with over 80 pages of autobiography. 

Vita’s Gladstone bag that was found in the turret room after her death. The slash made by her son Nigel is visible / Sissinghurst NT 802767
Vita’s Gladstone bag
Vita’s Gladstone bag that was found in the turret room after her death. The slash made by her son Nigel is visible / Sissinghurst NT 802767

This manuscript was written by Vita in 1920, around the same time as ‘Challenge’. It provides an autobiographical account of her love affair with Violet, after her heterosexual, fictionalised account had been censored in the UK. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Vita never sought to publish it. In this way, she practiced a form of self-censorship.

Along with ‘Challenge’, Nigel ultimately published Vita’s manuscript under the title ‘Portrait of a Marriage’, in 1973. In his foreword to the latter, Nigel quoted his mother, stating that in writing her autobiography 'she believes that "the psychology of people like myself will be a matter of interest" when hypocrisy gives place to "a spirit of candour which one hopes will spread with the progress of the world." That time has come now…and I do not believe that she would deplore the revelation of her secret, knowing that it could help and encourage those similarly placed today.’

Nigel ensured that his mother’s voice was no longer censored, helping to restore her LGBTQ identity. I am very grateful he gave us all the chance to hear Vita’s voice that had been censored for too long. 

Portraits of Vita

Discover more