Category Archives: Sackville-West, Vita

2022: Book 21 – A House Full of Daughters by Juliet Nicolson

A Houseful of Daughters: A Memoir of Seven GenerationsA Houseful of Daughters: A Memoir of Seven Generations
by Juliet Nicolson
Rating: ★★★½
Publication Date: March 24, 2016
Genre: memoir, non-fiction
Pages: 326
ReRead?: No

All families have their myths and legends. For many years Juliet Nicolson accepted hers--the dangerous beauty of her flamenco dancing great-great-grandmother Pepita, the flirty manipulation of her great-grandmother Victoria, the infamous eccentricity of her grandmother Vita Sackville-West, her mother’s Tory-conventional background. But then Juliet, a distinguished historian, started to question. As she did so, she sifted fact from fiction, uncovering details and secrets long held just out of sight.

A House Full of Daughters takes us through seven generations of women. In the nineteenth-century slums of Malaga, the salons of fin-de-siecle Washington D.C., an English boarding school during the Second World War, Chelsea in the 1960s, the knife-edge that was New York City in the 1980s, these women emerge for Juliet as people in their own right, but also as part of who she is and where she has come from.

A House Full of Daughters is one woman’s investigation into the nature of family, memory, and the past. As Juliet finds uncomfortable patterns reflected in these distant and more recent versions of herself, she realizes her challenge is to embrace the good and reject the hazards that have trapped past generations.

I read the first 60% of the book – all of the chapters that covered the generations between Pepita, Vita Sackville-West’s grandmother, and Philippa, Vita’s daughter. The author is her granddaughter and I was just getting to her chapters when I decided that I had read the parts that interested me. There was nothing wrong with the book – but I selected it for its connection to Vita Sackville-West, and the connection became increasingly attenuated.

I did find it interesting, and it gave me some additional insight into Vita Sackville-West. She came from a long line of flamboyant, talented and often self-involved women. None of them were maternal in the way that I think of maternal – I suspect that being their child resulted in a lot of emotional neglect, benign at best. If there can be benign neglect of a child, which I strongly doubt. But they were an intriguing bunch, who lived their lives, each of them, in ways that were very different from my personal version of middle-class upbringing.

I am very interested in the women who were associated with the Bloomsbury Group, and the feminist movement in England in the pre- and post-WWI era. I’m done with Vita for now, but I can definitely see revisiting her work in the future, or reading a full biography that focuses on her. I’m also interested in Sissinghurst and her skill as a horticulturist, which was also an important part of who she was and which I didn’t get into at all. I also, eventually, want to read Hermione Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf, which may peripherally relate to Vita.

Anyway, this closes out my Vita Sackville-West project quite nicely, at least for now.

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West

All Passion SpentAll Passion Spent
by Vita Sackville-West
Rating: ★★★★
Publication Date: January 1, 1931
Genre: classic, fiction
Pages: 192
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women

When the great statesman Lord Slane dies, everyone assumes his dutiful wife will slowly fade away, the paying guest of each of her six children. But Lady Slane surprises everyone by escaping to a rented house in Hampstead where she revels in her new freedom, revives youthful ambitions and gathers some very unsuitable companions. Irreverent, entertaining and insightful, this is a tale of the unexpected joys of growing older.

My second book by Vita Sackville-West for my January deep dive was published in 1931. It tells the story of Lady Thane, 88 years old and recently widowed. It was really a treat – there are so few books that focus on, not just an elderly woman, but a frankly old woman, and how they look back over their lives. Lady Thane has lived a life that, by most measures, was one of great import and success – she was the Vicereine of India and the wife to a Prime Minister. She raised 6 not-entirely attractive children who have become successes in their own right. She has grand-children and, even great-grand-children.

But all of her identity is wrapped up in her relationship to someone else: wife, mother, grandmother. And now, at 88, at the death of her husband, she is ready to take stock of who she is in relationship to herself.

This feels like a very gentle book, but it is, in some ways, quite savage. Lady Thane does not regret her life, but she does recognize that what she wanted to be when she was young is quite lost to her forever. That by marrying, she took a very conventional path which led her in directions that, had she had greater agency, she almost certainly would not have gone on her own. She wanted to be an artist.

Even this is interesting, because Lady Thane is entirely untrained. The reader has no idea if she would have been a good artist at all, much less a great one. Lady Thane, as well, really does not know the answer here. “Artist” was a path that was so unavailable to her, that she can never been sure if she would have succeeded at it at all. She cannot begin to know if she really lost anything by marrying because she wasn’t even allowed to ask the question, much less seek an answer.

All Passion Spent felt like it had a very universal application to the lives of women. It left me filled with compassion for all of the Lady Thanes throughout history, who lived lives that appeared on the surface to be entirely satisfying, but which masked a deep well of regret and sadness for opportunities denied.

The last part of my deep dive into Vita Sackville-West is A House Full of Daughters, which I started last night. It is written by her granddaughter, Juliet Nicholson, who has a very easy to read writing style. I haven’t gotten to Vita yet – I’m reading now about her mother, Victoria – but I will get there soon.


2022: Book 8 – The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West

The EdwardiansThe Edwardians
by Vita Sackville-West
Rating: ★★★★
Publication Date: January 1, 1930
Genre: classic, fiction
Pages: 285
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women, classics club round 2

At nineteen, Sebastian is a duke and heir to a vast country estate. A deep sense of tradition binds him to his inheritance, though he loathes the social circus he is a part of. Deception, infidelity and greed hide beneath the glittering surface of good manners. Among the guests at a lavish party are two people who will change Sebastian's life: Lady Roehampton, who will initiate him in the art of love; and Leonard Anquetil, a polar explorer who will lead Sebastian and his free-spirited sister Viola to question their destiny.

A portrait of fashionable society at the height of the era, THE EDWARDIANS revealed all that was glamorous about the period - and all that was to lead to its downfall. First published in 1930, it was Vita Sackville-West's most successful book.

One of my Goodreads Groups selected Vita Sackville-West as an author-in-residence for January through March, so I selected The Edwardians as my first book by/about her. It was published in 1930, but it was set 25 years earlier, beginning in 1905.

The main focus of the book, Sebastian, is the heir to a dukedom and to Chevron, one of those massive English country houses that so define the era in which the book takes place. He is 19 at the commencement of the book, which means that he was born in 1886, while Queen Victoria was firmly ensconced upon the English throne. Vita Sackville-West was born in 1882, so she was a mere 4 years older than her protagonist. The book is set during the very brief reign of Edward VII, who was king between 1901, when his mother died, and 1910, when he died at age 68.

Vita herself grew up at Knoles, a massive country estate which she could not inherit because she was a woman. This was, per wikipedia, rather a source of bitterness for her.

In any case, Knole is now owned and maintained by the National Trust. P.G. Wodehouse apparently referred to it as a “calendar house” because it has a sufficient number of rooms to use a different one every day for a year.

So, that’s the backdrop of The Edwardians. Reading this book is like dropping into that world, as explained by someone who is intimately familiar with it. It’s both really interesting and somewhat appalling. The women, especially, were mere frivolous appendages, with little more to do than get dressed, a process which is described in detail in reference to Sebastian’s mother, Lucy, who is a notorious beauty.

Sebastian is a more layered and interesting character than I would have expected, given the entitlement to which he was bred. His sister, Viola, was even more intriguing, and I really wish that Sackville-West had given us a bit of her interior (and exterior) life. I assume that she didn’t give Viola her own book, but I wish she had.

I liked this book a lot, especially as an piece of enthnography. I find the English upper class to be fascinating, especially during the time period of around 1890 and 1950, and this book definitely scratched that itch.

I still have All Passion Spent and a sort of a family biography to read, and I enjoyed this one enough that I’m excited at the prospect.

Author: Vita Sackville-West

I moderate a Goodreads group where we do a quarterly “author-in-residence,” which entails choosing two authors and then the participating members can read any book (or any number of books) by that author. One of the members chose Vita Sackville-West for the first quarter of 2022. Our other author is James Baldwin. My plan is to hold off on my Baldwin books until February, to coincide with Black History Month. So, I went ahead & requested and have now received the books I plan to read for the Vita Sackville-West portion.

I haven’t read anything by Vita Sackville-West previously, and my knowledge of her basically comes from her extremely unconventional life, and her membership in the Bloomsbury Group. I’m planning to read The Edwardians, since it is also on my Classics Club 2.0 list, and if I have the energy, the very slender All Passion Spent. I also checked out what I’m hoping will be an interesting non-fiction book, A House Full of Daughters, written by her granddaughter, Juliet Nicholson, who writes non-fiction. In 2018, I read her The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm, which was published in 2006, and I enjoyed it.