As a body hers is perfection’: Alison Bechdel on the love letters of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West
The great literary love affair not only fed the visionary novel Orlando, but staked out new ground for women – and inspired the graphic novelist’s own hunt for the ideal relationship
Virginia Woolf (left) and Vita Sackville-West, c1940. Composite: AP/Getty Images
Mon 1 Feb 2021 07.00 GMT
τhen I was an undergraduate and just coming out as a lesbian, I slunk to a dimly lit, out-of-the-way place where I knew I would find other people like me – the stacks of the library. Vita Sackville-West was not the first companion I encountered there, but she was certainly the most indelible one.
I found her in Portrait of a Marriage, her son Nigel Nicolson’s 1973 book about his parents’ enduring and open relationship. I learned that both Vita and her husband, the diplomat Harold Nicolson, had numerous affairs, mostly with people of their own sex, while remaining otherwise devoted to one another, their children and their famous garden. The book also includes Vita’s own account of her obsessive love affair with Violet Keppel in the early days of her marriage to Harold. I was spellbound by the image of Vita in Paris, passing as a man by wrapping her head with a khaki bandage – not an unusual sight just at the end of the first world war – and strolling the streets with her lover. Who was this woman?
Towards the end of the book, the author provides a brief account of his mother’s affair with Virginia Woolf. I hadn’t yet read any of her work, but many of my friends had a postcard of her on their walls – the ethereal Beresford portrait taken when she was twenty. Her fragile beauty fitted the narrative of tragic and doomed feminist heroine that was cohering at this time: she was a genius; she’d been molested by her step-brother; she struggled with some kind of mental illness; and in the end, after writing a few of the greatest books of the 20th century, she had drowned herself. In some circles, more controversially, she was said to be a lesbian – a bold claim in those days.
During one thorny patch of my own intimate life, I found myself having passages quoted to me by two different women
Lesbian or not, she was quite a character. I was touched by the fact that, as children, Nigel Nicolson and his brother were instinctively drawn to Virginia. “We knew that she would notice us, that there would come a moment when she would pay no attention to my mother (‘Vita, go away! Can’t you see I’m talking to Ben and Nigel’).” I learned a bit in Portrait of a Marriageabout how Vita and Harold weathered Vita’s relationship with Virginia, but I found myself longing for more of a window into what had gone on between these two redoubtable women. I wanted the details.
My wish was granted a few years later, when an edition of Vita’s letters to Virginia was published. I had read some of Virginia’s books by then, so it was all the more rewarding to observe these two writers pushing and pulling their way to a profound intimacy – the kind of intimacy I hoped to have with someone one day. Their passion for one another felt bound up for me with the new ground they were staking out for all women: Virginia in her work, and Vita in the world. I was in my 20s then, and despite how vividly this love story sprang from the page, it felt as if it had happened quite a long time ago, in the ancient past.
In middle age, I read the letters again. If I had had any doubt as to their continuing relevance, it would have been dispelled during one thorny patch of my own intimate life, when I found myself having passages quoted to me by two different women. This time though, the thing that impressed me most was how Vita and Virginia juggled all the elements of their fantastically busy lives – public demands, creative work, family and social obligations, other relationships, including those with their husbands – while still maintaining their own intimate connection.
‘It has now been almost a century since Virginia and Vita fell in love, and strangely, that time feels much closer than it did when I was younger’ … Alison Bechdel. Photograph: Oliver Parini/The Observer
Now at the age of 60, a year older than Virginia was at her death, and 10 years short of Vita’s age when she died from cancer, I am struck by another aspect of the letters: the dogged fortitude of these women as they kept on going in the face of loss, illness, disillusionment and change. After a period of drifting apart, the two grow closer again as fascism spreads across Europe and the threat to their personal and intellectual freedom comes closer and closer to home. It has now been almost a century since Virginia and Vita fell in love, and strangely, that time feels much closer than it did when I was younger. Perhaps that’s the perspective of age, perhaps it’s because the world seems once again to be approaching an inflection point. But it’s also a tribute to how intrepidly Vita and Virginia cast off the old forms and traditions of relationships to improvise something new.
Each woman is clear about what she desires in the other – Virginia loves Vita’s body, and Vita loves Virginia’s mind
The edition of the letters that I read in my youth consisted primarily of Vita’s to Virginia, but included some extracts of Virginia’s to Vita. The new collection, while not a complete compendium of their correspondence, focuses on a more gratifying exchange of letters between the two. And even better, it includes diary entries from both women, as well as letters from Vita to Harold. These occasional shifts in point of view provide a fuller picture of the relationship, and add momentum to a narrative that’s already as gripping as a well-plotted novel.
If the correspondence between Vita and Virginia were a novel, it would be criticised for the too-obvious names of its protagonists. One surging with life force as she strides halfway across the world and back, the other living primarily in the wild reaches of her own imagination. Virginia’s marriage to her husband Leonard was a chaste one, despite her brave attempt in the beginning at “copulation”. (“Which,” Vita relays to Harold, “was a terrible failure, and was abandoned quite soon.”) But Virginia and Leonard had their own kind of intimacy. He was her first reader, and nursed her through her collapses. They had no children, but their joint enterprise, the Hogarth Press, brought many important books into the world.
When Vita and Virginia met at the end of 1922, Vita was 30 and already a famous writer. Virginia was 40, and just beginning to get recognition for her novels and essays. Vita was an aristocrat and a socialite, Virginia was a shabby inhabitant of Bloomsbury – that den of socialists, homosexuals, artists and conscientious objectors. Vita is better known now, of course, for her lovers and her garden than for her books, while Virginia has entered the canon. But at the time, Virginia was thrilled to learn that Vita had even heard of her. As the two women progress from “Mrs Nicolson” and “Mrs Woolf” to “darling” and “dearest”, and thence to a menagerie of nicknames and avatars, one of the great literary love affairs unfolds.
The letters they exchange when Vita is off on her travels are masterpieces of longing – Vita calculating the seconds until they will see each other (480,000)
Although their early letters contain sparks of flirtation, it takes a while for things to heat up. Vita became entangled soon after they met in an affair with a man – an unusual change of pace for her. And Virginia was wary of this “Sapphist” who “may have an eye on me, old though I am”. But once Virginia invites Vita to submit a novel to the Hogarth Press, and Vita dedicates Seducers in Ecuador to her, the pace of the mutual seduction picks up. In 1925, Virginia is exhausted in the wake of The Common Reader and Mrs Dalloway – books that dazzled Vita and intensified the mystique Virginia held for her. But it is only when Virginia learns that Vita will be heading off to join Harold in Teheran for several months that the prospect of her absence seems to galvanise them both.
The letters they exchange when Vita is off on her travels are masterpieces of longing. Letters from the train – a brief one from Virginia that says only: “Yes yes yes I do like you. I am afraid to write the stronger word.” Vita calculating the seconds until they will see each other (480,000). These letters are so intoxicating that when Vita finally returns to England, it’s anticlimactic. But of course that’s the nature of an epistolary narrative. The thing the reader most wants – for the protagonists to hook up at last – is the thing the reader never gets. That’s where the writing stops.
From the outset, there’s complete clarity on each woman’s part about what she desires in the other. Virginia loves Vita’s body, and Vita loves Virginia’s mind. Virginia writes in her diary: “She is stag like or race horse like … and has no very sharp brain. But as a body hers is perfection.” By “body” Virginia means not just Vita’s actual body, but, as she will later articulate, “her capacity I mean to take the floor in any company, to represent her country, to visit Chatsworth, to control silver, servants, chow dogs; her motherhood (but she is a little cold and offhand with her boys), her being in short (what I have never been) a real woman.”
Vita records her first impression of Virginia in a letter to Harold. “At first you think she is plain; then a sort of spiritual beauty imposes itself on you …” Vita will remain at great pains to convince Harold that her love for Virginia is “a mental thing, a spiritual thing if you like, an intellectual thing … ” She reports delightedly to him that conversation with Virginia made her feel “as though the edge of my mind were being held against a grindstone”. While Virginia makes a few private digs about Vita’s writing in her diary, Vita has nothing but admiration for Virginia’s work, and one of her more laudable traits is her ability to appreciate Virginia’s superior talent without envy. In fact, she would devote herself, along with Leonard, to protecting and nurturing it. She writes to Harold that Virginia “inspires a feeling of tenderness, which is, I suppose, owing to her funny mixture of hardness and softness – the hardness of her mind, and her terror of going mad again”.
It’s this dynamic of tenderness and the need to be cared for that is the real core of Vita’s and Virginia’s connection. As they approach the point where their relationship becomes physical, Virginia describes in her diary how Vita “so lavishes on me the maternal protection which, for some reason, is what I have always most wished from everyone”. Virginia’s actual mother was famously absent from her childhood, even before she died when Virginia was 13. Vita’s narcissistic mother, a formidable presence in the letters, perhaps has something to do with the way Vita uses her caretaking to keep people from coming too close. Both women are expert, actually, at calibrating just the right amount of distance to maintain. When Vita makes an offhand remark about Virginia using people for copy, Virginia takes great exception, and it’s only after a few letters that Vita manages to smooth her down again. Yet using Vita for copy is precisely what Virginia would proceed to do, in the most flagrant and fantastical way imaginable.
“… a biography beginning the year 1500 and continuing to the present day, called Orlando: Vita; only with a change about from one sex to another. I think, for a treat, I shall let myself dash this in for a week.” Although Virginia began writing Orlando in an intense, almost automatic burst in the autumn of 1927 after Vita had taken up with another woman, the book seems to have begun gestating the moment the two of them met five years earlier. Fascinated by Vita’s aristocratic lineage, Virginia had requested from her a copy of Knole and the Sackvilles, a history of her ancestral home. A few weeks later, after Vita and Harold dined for the first time with Virginia and Leonard, the bohemian Virginia writes in her diary: “Snob as I am, I trace her passions five hundred years back, and they become romantic to me, like old yellow wine.” By the time Virginia visited Knole in 1924, Orlando was an embryo. “You perambulate miles of galleries; skip endless treasures – chairs that Shakespeare might have sat on – tapestries, pictures, floors made of the halves of oaks … ”
Tried and found obscene … The Well of Loneliness.
The phantasmagorical portrait that is Orlando, the romp through English history and literature in the form of a biography that is fictional, yet true, and whose subject is fixed in neither time nor gender, defied categorisation. It was Virginia’s bestselling book to date, no doubt due in part to the gossip factor – Virginia dedicated it to Vita and even included photographs of her, so there was no secret as to who it was modelled on. But also due to the fact that it was so good, so different, so new. It’s hard to fathom how Virginia could play so freely with sexual identity in that much more conservative era, but play she did, inventing her way into the future. Orlando’s fluid morphing from male to female both anticipated and had a part in generating the later theoretical shifts that are still unfolding in how we think about sex and gender.
Orlando can be read as a lesbian love story, but one so ingeniously involutes that it escaped the fate of The Well of Loneliness – which, published in the same year, was tried and found obscene. Perhaps Virginia’s biggest triumph with Orlando, though, was the fact that Vita loved it. Despite the fact that it was motivated to a certain extent by jealousy, and that it ruthlessly penetrates to the heart of Vita’s personality, it also reflects her as the heroic nobleman Vita had always felt herself, on some level, to be. If she’d been born male, she would have inherited Knole. With her father’s recent death, the house and title had officially passed to her uncle. But in the pages of Orlando, Virginia gloriously restored them to her.
Gemma Arterton as Sackville-West and Elizabeth Debicki as Woolf in Chanya Button’s film Vita & Virginia (2018). Photograph: Piccadilly Pictures/Allstar
Film and television portrayals of Virginia and of Vita have proliferated over the years, each capturing certain attributes of their models. Janet McTeer in BBC Two’s Portrait of a Marriageembodies Vita’s Wildean androgyny. Tilda Swinton in Sally Potter’s Orlando, her magnetism. Nicole Kidman with her prosthetic proboscis in The Hours is a tormented Virginia, while Elizabeth Debicki in Chanya Button’s recent Vita & Virginia is a fey, otherworldly one. But of course even the most brilliant performance can’t convey the minds and souls of these remarkable women the way their own words do. It would be remiss of me not to observe that letter-writing, with its friction of nib on paper, its pace slow enough to allow for the formation of actual thoughts, has fallen out of fashion. If Virginia and Vita had had smartphones, what a stream of sexting acronyms, obscure emoji (Scissors? A Bosman’s potto?), Twitter links to TLS reviews, and endless snapshots of alsatians and spaniels would sift through our fingers in lieu of this magnificent paper trail. But fortunately for all of us, they wrote, and wrote, and wrote, even as their feelings shifted over the years from passion to something quieter. Their letters are ardent, erudite, moving and playful. They are filled with gossip, desire, jealousy and tips on craft. And perhaps most delightfully, they are frequently laugh-out-loud hilarious. Virginia wonders in her diary: “Am I in love with her? But what is love?” In these letters, both those questions are answered in dazzling, digressive detail