Vita in love at Sissinghurst Castle Garden
Within the drawers and cupboards of Vita Sackville-West’s Writing Room at Sissinghurst are many objects including manuscripts and letters.
One such item is the beautifully handmade but mysteriously unsigned Valentine’s Day card from 1955 depicting a Sissinghurst Rose, which is pictured above. The style of the artwork and the date it was received allow for a confident attribution to the sender of the love note. However, it affords the Collections and House Team an opportunity to explore some of Vita’s most significant romantic relationships to celebrate Valentine’s Day.
Vita married Harold in 1913 in the chapel at Knole wearing a dress of gold silk brocade surrounded by hothouse lilies in pots. For Vita and Harold the marriage was an enormous success; they both had numerous affairs and had freedom within their relationship but provided each other with a constancy of affection, love and respect. As Harold put it in a letter to Vita in 1942: ‘Each of us knows that there is a common room where we meet on the basis of perfect understanding.’ Letter writing between the pair began early in their courtship and continued until Vita’s death in 1962. One early letter sent in February 1912 possibly offers a hint at Vita’s first Valentine’s gift from her husband to be:
" My dear Harold, Thank you ever so much for the Turkish delight. It is so bad for me and I like it so much."
Vita and Violet met as young girls and began a love affair that was to become so intense it almost put an end to Vita’s marriage. The women ran away together to the South of France, Vita dressed as a man, and vowed never to return to their respective husbands, though Vita ultimately did. The episode was fictionalised in Vita’s novel ‘Challenge’; a book that wasn’t published until long after it had been written for fear of further scandal. To this day, a number of objects, including a pair of delicate crystal rabbits, sit in Vita’s Writing Room as a testament to the love these women felt for each other. Violet gifted the pair of rabbits to Vita as a fond reminder of their early friendship, when Vita often wrote to Violet of rabbits.
The love affair between Virginia and Vita was short, Vita told Harold they slept together only twice, but their friendship and correspondence spanned nearly twenty years. They were each artistically and intellectually inspired by the other and wrote highly romantic letters:
" I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia. I composed a beautiful letter to you in the sleepless nightmare hours of the night, and it has all gone: I just miss you, in a quite simple desperate human way. You, with all your un-dumb letters, would never write so elementary a phrase as that; perhaps you wouldn’t even feel it."
Vita gifted Virginia a turquoise ceramic dish that is part of a larger collection found in the Writing Room. The gift can be found at Virginia’s home, Monk’s House, underpinning their enduring connection to one another.
Their romantic relationship was negatively impacted by Vita’s promiscuity and regular entanglements with other women. The intense jealousy Virginia felt was ultimately the catalyst for one of her most noted literary achievements: ‘Yesterday morning I was in despair […] I couldn’t screw a word from me; and at last dropped my head in my hands: dipped my pen in the ink, and wrote these words, as if automatically, on a clean sheet: Orlando: A Biography.’ (Letter from Virginia to Vita. 1927) Orlando was to become a semi-biographical portrait of Vita. Her son, Nigel Nicolson, described the novel as the ‘the longest and most charming love letter in history.’
Edie, an artist who lived locally to Sissinghurst, is our most likely author of the mysterious Valentine’s Day card sent to Vita in 1955. Within the collection there are many items that were gifted to Vita from Edie including birthday cards, Christmas cards and framed watercolours.
Edie was Vita’s closest friend and lover in her later years and she writes to Harold in 1958: ‘You see, if Edie died, I should really feel rather desolate. For one thing, she is about the only person who understands how much I love you, and would know what I would feel if you got ill or died. She is my only close friend. I haven’t got many friends, and I don’t want them, but it is nice to have one friend to whom one can talk openly, and if I lost Edie, I should have nobody left.’
Vita Sackville-West loved intensely and often: Mary Campbell, Dorothy Wellesley, Rosamund Grosvenor, Gwen St Aubyn and others are to be included in Vita’s prolific romantic life. The wonderful collection of letters, objects and mementos in Vita’s Writing Room remains as evidence of her sentimental attachment to the relationships in her life. In Vita’s lifetime the room remained her own private haven; admittance to others was infrequent and selective and the collection within is deeply personal and significant.