Who was Vita Sackville-West?

Oil painting on canvas, Victoria (Vita) Mary Sackville-West, Lady Nicolson (1892-1962) by Philip Alexius de László de Lombos

Victoria (Vita) Mary Sackville-West (1892-1962) was a prolific fiction writer, prize-winning poet, and gardener. Her husband, Harold Nicolson, was a diplomat and important diarist. Their younger son Nigel Nicolson also became a writer, as did his son Adam. The Sackville-Wests and Nicolsons were involved in the activities of the National Trust from its earliest days.

Vita, Knole, and the Sackvilles: A family romance

Vita was born at Knole, the only daughter of Lionel Edward Sackville-West (later third Baron Sackville) and his cousin, Victoria Sackville-West.

As a young girl, Vita delighted in showing visitors around Knole, and she expressed profound attachment to the estate throughout her life. It was therefore a constant source of distress to her that, as a woman, she was unable to inherit her ancestral home. Knole passed to her cousin Eddy after her father’s death.

Her book, Knole and the Sackvilles, remains an eloquent appraisal of her family and their stately home.

Harold and marriage

Vita married diplomat Harold Nicolson in 1913. The Nicolsons enjoyed a close relationship and a very successful marriage, later documented in their son Nigel’s book, Portrait of a Marriage (1973).

Both had affairs with same-sex partners throughout their married life, Vita perhaps most famously with the writer and Bloomsbury group member, Virginia Woolf. Vita and Harold's mutual acceptance of each other’s lovers affirmed their commitment to their marriage.

Writing

Vita had begun writing novels, plays, and poetry as a girl, but her experiences in Constantinople while she and Harold were in residence prompted her to write Poems of East and West in 1917, beginning a long writing career.

Her poem The Land (1926) won the Hawthornden prize in 1927, and memorialised the customs, rituals, and landscapes of her native Kent’s agricultural seasons. The poem preserves some of the cadences of the county’s archaic farming language and was immensely popular, as was its follow-up, The Garden, published in 1946.

Vita’s novels also sold well, especially The Edwardians (1930), and often revolved around country houses, the aristocracy, and inheritance.

The Nicolsons at Sissinghurst

Vita and Harold purchased Sissinghurst Castle in 1930, a then run-down Elizabethan mansion in Kent, and began immediately to renovate both house and garden.

Vita became increasingly reclusive as the Second World War began, and spent her last decades ensconced at Sissinghurst, writing novels and gardening books in its famous tower and creating the splendour of its gardens.

The Nicolsons and the National Trust

Vita began speaking for the National Trust in 1928, helped to negotiate the institution’s taking over of Knole in the early 1940s, and became, along with Harold (who served as Executive Council vice-chairman), a member of the Trust’s council. Sissinghurst became a Trust property upon her death in 1962.

Knole in the autumn glow

Knole

A fascinating destination for a day out. Find out more about Knole, which is nestled in a medieval deer-park and full of hidden treasures.

The tower in partial scaffold with the conservation project well under way

Sissinghurst

Historic, poetic, iconic and a refuge dedicated to beauty. Read more about this wonderful place.

The house seen from the garden in the summer at Monk's House, East Sussex.

Monk's House 

Vita visited her friend and lover Virginia Woolf at Woolf's country retreat, a seventeenth century cottage in the village of Rodmell. Virginia and Leonard Woolf purchased the house in 1919, and Woolf worked on all of her subsequent novels there. Her writing lodge, in the garden, overlooks Mount Caburn and the medieval parish church, and gave her a room of her own.