The Literary Life of Vita Sackville-West at Sissinghurst Castle Garden
Vita Sackville-West was born on the 9th March 1892 and to celebrate her birthday the Sissinghurst Team are having a closer look at Vita’s literary career.
Mostly known as a gardener Vita was also a novelist, biographer, journalist, playwright and poet. The library at Sissinghurst is extensive and within the books are letters from friends, letters from admiring readers, postcards and press cuttings, all paying tribute to Vita’s litany of work. Aptly, we found an amusing poem sent to Vita on her birthday from someone called Lally in 1944:
" ‘Above all our Vita is a Poet. The greatest living Poet, and the Best. The Muses all acclaim V Sackville-West.’"
Vita began writing at a young age and never stopped. She wrote continuously, making rare corrections and in the same handwriting that hardly changed throughout her career. She said of her childhood work that it was ‘pretentious, quite uninteresting, pedantic, and all written at unflagging speed: the day after one was finished another would begin … I had flaring days, oh yes, I did! when I thought I was going to electrify the world.'
Her first literary success came in 1907, at the age of 15, when she received a 1 pound award for writing a limerick. Vita often used code when she wrote to herself, parts of this quote were deciphered and read as follows, ‘This is the first money I have got through writing. I hope as I am to restore the fortunes of the family it will not be the last.’ Vita’s early hopes for a successful literary career and her secret plans written in code in her diary concerned her parents. They wished her to be less introverted and embrace the social opportunities that her status as the daughter of Knole gave her.
Their disapproval did not dampen Vita’s passion and she self-published her own work at the age of 17. It was a verse drama on the life and death of Thomas Chatterton, an 18th century English poet who committed suicide at 17 years old. Vita saved her pocket money and had 100 copies made in the local town, giving one to her mother as a birthday present. Retreating to the attics of Knole to act out her work she wrote later that she was ‘moved to tears every time by my own performance’.
Literature became a means of dramatic escapism, expression and autobiography. Vita would explore her emotions and desires within her work. Her novel ‘Challenge’ was written in 1923 and is a thinly veiled account of her love affair with Violet Trefusis. The novels ‘The Heir’ and ‘The Edwardians’ explore themes of inheritance and ownership as Vita grieves for and celebrates her childhood home, Knole Park. It is often said that Knole was Vita’s greatest love but as she was a woman, she was unable to inherit and instead it went to her uncle. In ‘Family History’ Vita shares with the reader, through the eyes of her heroine Evelyn, her first encounter with her new home, the South Cottage at Sissinghurst: ‘It was only a cottage, but in its mullioned windows it preserved traces of grandeur.'
Vita was a popular novelist and her books often topped the sales charts on their publication. However, her love was for writing poetry: ‘I do get so frightfully, frenziedly excited writing poetry. It is the only thing that makes me truly and completely happy.’ She yearned for critical acclaim and in 1927 she won the prestigious Hawthornden Prize for her poem ‘The Land’. She won the award for a second time in 1933 with ‘Collected Poems’ and remains to this day the only writer to have won twice.
Vita led a life of storytelling, weaving fact and fantasy together into a startling output of literary endeavour. She was not always successful; her attachment to history and tradition sometimes meant her work could feel dated and she often compared herself unfavourably to her contemporaries, Virginia Woolf included. She said herself in a letter to her husband Harold Nicolson in 1946,
" What worries me a bit, is being so out of touch with poetry as it is written today. (…) yet I cant get into gear with it at all. It is just something left out of my makeup."
When Vita bought Sissinghurst in 1930, creating a private writing space in the Elizabethan Tower was a priority. This room is still full of Vita’s belongings: her writing pens, half used ink pots, notebooks, manuscripts, annotated books and even her lipstick. She would write long into the night with a small electric heater by her feet penning the work that would pay for the creation of the garden she would become famous for, Sissinghurst.