Words by Saskia May
‘I am glad that our love has weathered so well’, renowned modernist writer Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary in October 1940. Woolf was, of course, referring to her friend and lover, the acclaimed writer, aristocrat – and sapphist- Vita Sackville-West.
In February 2021 Penguin published an edition of Vita and Virginia’s letters, which traverse almost twenty years and offer an enlightening and deeply immersive look into the lives, loves, and literary works of the two authors. We learn about Woolf’s recurring bouts of illness, her writing of Mrs Dalloway (1925), To The Lighthouse (1927), and Orlando (1928), and Vita’s travels, for her husband Harold Nicholson was a diplomat and posted in Teheran from 1925 to 1927. From flirtation and humour, to philosophical ponderings over the war, class, and feminism, the letters never fail to amuse, to dazzle, and to intrigue.
It all began when Vita and Virginia first met at a rather dire dinner party in 1922, with Vita already a famous writer whilst Virginia, one of the Bloomsbury set, was just becoming recognised for her work. On the 15th of December 1922, Virginia noted in her diary how she regarded Vita with disdain, for whilst she had ‘all the supple ease of aristocracy’, she had ‘not the wit of the artist’. On the 19th of December, Vita noted her feelings towards Virginia, ‘I’ve rarely taken such a fancy to anyone…I have quite lost my heart’. Yet over the coming years, their mutual regard for one another grew as they discussed not only their literary work but their growing adoration for one another, with Woolf writing in a letter in February 1927, whilst Vita was travelling in Teheran, ‘Yes yes yes, I do like you. I am afraid to write the stronger word’. Woolf’s love for Sackville-West was so great that she went on to use her as her muse, revealing to Vita in the October of 1927 that her affairs and aristocratic lineage had inspired her to begin to write the fictional biography Orlando, which became a bestseller.
So how to go about bringing the letters to life? Virginia’s London home, 52 Tavistock Square, where she often wrote to Vita from, founded the Hogarth Press with her husband Leonard, and wrote most of her work, was tragically bombed during the Blitz of 1939. Yet Sussex students can still visit another of Woolf’s homes, Monk’s House in the village of Rodmell, Lewes. For a more adventurous trip, there is Sissinghurst Castle in Sevenoaks, the beautiful home and garden of Vita and Harold, where in Vita’s writing room in her ‘red tower’, there lies a picture of Virginia on her desk.
According to Sackville-West in 1923, Woolf had ‘already said – or rather, written – all that there is to be said about letters’. For Woolf, letter writing is ‘the humane art which owes its origin to the love of friends’. Vita and Virginia’s love, captured and expressed in these letters, has weathered extraordinarily well, for whilst their love for one another is a universal sentiment, it is so marked in its nuance. This edition of Vita and Virginia’s love letters offers us not only a glimpse of a complicated and beautiful connection but expresses a love that even one hundred years later, still feels radical and engaging.