little more than one year before the birthday of American authoress Dorothy
Parker in New Jersey, Victoria Mary Sackville-West made her world debut in
Knole Castle, Sevenoaks, Kent, England. The date was March 9, 1892. She was the daughter of Lionel
Edward, the third Baron Sackville, who raised her in an extremely wealthy
Sackville-West didn't get along well with her mother, Victoria Josepha
Dolores Catalina Sackville-West, an illegitimate child of Sir Lionel
Sackville-West. She dreaded her mother's short temper and constant
criticisms. "I used to be taken to [mother's] room to be 'passed'
before going down to luncheon on party days..." she said, "and I was always
wrong and miserable, so that parties used to blacken my summer."
Sackville-West spent most of her childhood in the family
castle, with its 52 staircases and 365 rooms. To amuse herself, she
began to write. By the time she turned 18, she had completed eight
novels and five plays.
Sackville-West married diplomat and critic Harold Nicolson,
with whom she lived a long time in Persia followed by a stint at
Sissinghurst Castle in Kent. At first, she played the role of a
dutiful wife, but when Hadji, as she called him, admitted to having a male lover, she told him of her own same-sex passions and began a
notorious affair with Violet (Keppel) Trefusis. Their marriage of convenience
lasted throughout their lives, despite their frequent affairs, although her husband's were
far less passionate than hers.
Around 1918, Sackville-West began
appearing in public
dressed as a man. The first time she put on men's pants, she said, "I
ran, I shouted, I jumped, I climbed, I vaulted over the gates. I felt
like a schoolboy." In 1923, art critic Clive Bell introduced
her to Virginia Woolf, and the two soon became lovers. Woolf's
novel, Orlando, about a character who lives for centuries as both a
man and a woman, took its inspiration from Sackville-West. In turn,
Woolf published her lover's novel, The Edwardians (1930), which
became a best seller.
Sackville-West wrote many other novels, plays,
poetry, and biographies. But she's remembered mostly for her garden
writing. Her weekly column ran for nearly 15 years in the
At the time, gardening was considered a man's hobby, and
most members of Britain's upper class eschewed performing manual work.
But Sackville-West wrote about the joys of rooting around in the dirt, pulling
weeds, and arranging flowers. Through her column, she awakened in the
British people a desire to return to the soil. In the process, she
started several gardening trends, including creating single-color gardens,
planting wildflower gardens, and planting climbing roses at the base of apple
Although she thought of her gardening column as the least
important of all her writing, she received a medal from the Royal
Horticultural Society in 1954 and later wrote to her husband, "I
was rather pleased but even more astonished. It is all due to those
beastly little Observer articles... Haven't I always said that one
got rewarded for the things that one least esteemed?"
Vita Sackville-West, who once said, "I suppose the pleasure
of country life lies really in the eternally renewed evidences of the
determination to live," succumbed to cancer on June 2, 1962. She was
69 years old.
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