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Vita Sackville-West

A 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 environment. 

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.

In 1913, 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 London Observer.

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 trees.

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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