I read Vita Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent in a completely heavenly way. I was recovering from a Friday night hangover and the husband had vanished off to lug a load of sandbags around in an architectural manner. I made a pot of coffee, a huge bowl of muesli (my Achilles’ heel, see my last post) dotted with leftover strawberries from the night before, and climbed back into bed where I lay reading All Passion Spent from start to finish, as the sun streamed through the windows and my headache gently evaporated. I can think of no better way of spending a Saturday morning.
I came to All Passion Spent with a feeling of relief, of at last, finally, phew. I have wanted to read something by Vita Sackville-West for such a long time. First at university, when studying Woolf, there she was, endlessly popping up her elegant head and begging for a little more attention than there was time for. Then for my literary hen party (more details here) we had a beautiful afternoon strolling around her home, Sissinghurst. I since learnt that we were taken for a troop of literary lesbians, come to pay our respects to this ultimate literary lesbian. Apparently they get quite a few such groups, and rather fewer hen parties.
The gardens at Sissinghurst are famously beautiful, and they are definitely the most beautiful gardens I’ve seen anywhere in the world. They make the little rusty bathtub with its heroic raspberry bush on my windswept roof terrace look rather miserable, actually, but no matter. To go there is to enter garden heaven. I remember reading about Vita Sackville-West’s gardening in Alexandra Harris’s remarkable book Romantic Moderns:
To plant bulbs in the middle of a war was to assert one’s firm belief in the future. She made a point of planting a slow-growing magnolia in spring 1939, wanting to believe that there would be someone there to see it in a hundred years time.
I think it’s a wonderful – and a very feminine – way of asserting one’s defiance.
So it was with joy that I climbed back into bed with my copy of All Passion Spent and a feast of a breakfast. Every page, sentence and word were a delight to read.
The book opens with the death of Lord Slane, a great statesman, leaving his children, who are mostly in their sixties and perfectly ghastly, deciding what to do with their newly-widowed mother, Lady Slane. They devise a frightful scheme whereby she will be parcelled off between them, paying each of them for her keep for a few months of the year. Lady Slane, ‘the very incarnation of placidity’, quietly defies them and plants a slow-growing magnolia.
Not really. She quietly defies them and says she’s going to move into a little house up in Hampstead. Back then, in 1931, Hampstead was rather less chi-chi and rather more bohemian than it is today, and to these residents of Chelsea’s Elm Park Gardens, it might as well have been Peckham. We get a lovely scene of Lady Slane shuffling off on the underground (she is eighty-eight after all) up to Hampstead, her mind running off along little paths as the stops go by.
Lady Slane saw the house thirty years ago, but by some miracle, it is still there, waiting – as it were – for her to rent it. The eccentric Mr Bucktrout, owner and agent, is happy for her to rent it, so long as he can come round for tea once a week. So Lady Slane settles down up in Hampstead, and the rest of the book is given over to this quiet ending of her days, with the company of Mr Bucktrout, her loyal French maid, a jack-of-all-trades, and Mr Fitz-George – a long-lost acquaintance who first met her when she was the very beautiful Vicereine of India.
You’ve probably gathered that there’s not a tremendous amount of action. Most of the narrative is given over to Lady Slane’s memories, as she sifts through parts of her life, making her peace with it, looking back at who she was and what she’s become. This reflective nature of the prose allows for some interesting meanderings on various ideas. For instance, we get this on happiness:
But what was happiness? Had she been happy? That was a strange, clicking word to have coined – meaning something definite to the whole English-speaking race – a strange clicking word with its short vowel and its spitting double p’s and its pert tip-tilted y at the end, to express in two syllables a whole summary of life. Happy. But one was happy at one moment, unhappy two minutes later, and neither for any good reason; so what did it mean? It meant, if it meant anything at all, that some uneasy desire wanted black to be black, and white, white; it meant that in the jungle of the terrors of life, the tiny creeping creatures sought reassurance in a formula …
That night, I stayed up embarrassingly late leafing through a volume of my (heavenly) collection of Virginia Woolf’s letters, picking out the ones to Vita Sackville-West written at around the time of All Passion Spent. For, as well as being her lover, Woolf was Vita Sackville-West’s publisher; indeed, the Hogarth Press made quite a sum of money from both All Passion Spent and her previous novel The Edwardians, which were both bestsellers. I hoped Virginia Woolf might have written some thoughts on All Passion Spent, or offered some advice, one writer to another. But then I found the following letter to Vita on Friday 25th April 1930, sent from Monk’s House:
“I don’t think I can stand, even the Nicolsons, on happiness for three quarters of an hour” I said at 8.15.
“Well, we can always shut them off” said Leonard. At 9 I leapt to my feet and cried out,
“By God, I call that first rate!” having listened to every word.
This is (for a wonder) literally true. How on earth have you mastered the art of being subtle, profound, humorous, arch, coy, satirical, affectionate, intimate, profane, colloquial, solemn, sensible, poetical and a dear old shaggy sheep dog – on the wireless? We thought it a triumph: Harold’s too.
Evidently, Vita and her husband Harold Nicolson were on the BBC radio discussing happiness. I suspect that some of the ideas they talked about then, might have seeped into her musings on happiness in All Passion Spent. And Woolf’s litany of affectionate praise for Vita Sackville-West’s art on the wireless is, I think, apt for her writing as well.
I could go on about All Passion Spent for yonks – her thoughts on growing old, on being young, on being a woman, on frustrated dreams, on money, on family … but I shall confine myself to one last particularly lovely passage. Do forgive the very long quotation, but as Virginia Woolf said, she is ‘a dear old shaggy sheep dog’ and it is a very very long sentence which needs to be written out in full. I think it one of the most beautiful passages I’ve ever read:
She remembered how, crossing the Persian desert with Henry, their cart had been escorted by flocks of butterflies, white and yellow, which danced on either side and overhead and all around them, now flying ahead in a concerted movement, now returning to accompany them, amused as it were to restrain their swift frivolity to a flitting around this lumbering conveyance, but still unable to suit their pace to such sobriety, so, to relieve their impatience, soaring up into the air, or dipping between the very axles, coming out on the other side before the horses had had time to put down another hoof; making, all the while, little smuts of shadow on the sand, like little black anchors dropped, tethering them by invisible cables to earth, but dragged about with the same capricious swiftness, obliged to follow; and she remembered thinking, lulled by the monotonous progression that trailed after the sun from dawn to dusk, like a plough that should pursue the sun in one straight slow furrow round and round the world – she remembered thinking that this was something like her own life, following Henry Holland like the sun, but every now and then moving into a cloud of butterflies which were her own irreverent, irrelevant thoughts, darting and dancing, but altering the pace of the progression not by one tittle; never brushing the carriage with their wings; flickering always, and evading; sometimes rushing on ahead, but returning again to tease and to show off, darting between the axles; having an independent and a lovely life; a flock of ragamuffins skimming above the surface of the desert and around the trundling wagon; but Henry, who was travelling on a tour of investigation, could only say ‘Terrible, the ophthalmia among these people – I must really do something about it,’ and, knowing that he was right and would speak to the missionaries, she had withdrawn her attention from the butterflies and transferred it to her duty, determining that when they reached Yezd or Shiraz, or wherever it might be, she also would take the missionaries’ wives to task about the ophthalmia in the villages and would make arrangements for a further supply of boracic to be sent out from England.
But, perversely, the flittering of the butterflies had always remained more important.
All Passion Spent is in many ways a fictional counterpart to Woolf’s polemic A Room of One’s Own, in which Woolf argues, among other things, that a woman cannot write fiction without money and a room of her own. She also writes about how the literary tradition is male rather than female and complains that the very sentence which was used so effectively by men was ‘unsuited for a woman’s use’. She argues that a woman’s experience is different from man’s, that what women want to write is different from what men want to write and so they need to find new tools of expression, ‘knocking that into shape for herself’.
Woolf wrote of the moment as ‘an incessant shower of innumerable atoms’, but I rather prefer Vita Sackville-West’s expression of it as ‘the flittering of the butterflies’, darting beautifully and playfully around the male cart which presses ever directly onwards.
And indeed we find this image of the butterfly moment appearing elsewhere in Vita Sackville-West’s writing. Here it is, in Twelve Days in Persia, which she wrote a couple of years earlier:
It is necessary to write if the days are not to slip emptily by. How else, indeed, to clasp the net over the butterfly of the moment? For the moment passes, it is forgotten; the mood is gone; life itself is gone. That is where the writer scores over his fellows: he catches the changes of his mind on the hop.
Fine inspiration for any writer.