Posts Tagged ‘Vita Sackville-West’

English Country Houses

January 21, 2013

There is nothing quite like the English country house anywhere else in the world.

So begins Vita Sackville-West’s proud and patriotic English Country Houses, a slim but lavishly illustrated book, first published in 1941 as part of a series called ‘Britain in Pictures’.

Britain in Pictures

This wonderfully eccentric series was commissioned by editor, writer and literary editor of the Spectator, Walter J. Turner, and stretched to 132 books, published by Collins between 1941 and 1949. They were, no doubt, commissioned in part to foster a sense of nationalism and pride in Britain and everything she stood for; a morale booster for a British people beleaguered by tough times of war and rationing. Turner got some of the best writers of the day on board – Vita Sackville-West, as you see, and also George Orwell, Graham Greene, Elizabeth Bowen and many others.

Reading through the list of titles (which you can find in full here), it’s hard not to grin at such delights as ‘British Merchant Adventurers’, ‘British Rebels and Reformers’, ‘British Sea Fishermen’, ‘Sporting Pictures of England’, ‘British Clocks and Clockmakers’, ‘British Chess’, and, perhaps most intriguing, ‘Life Among the English’ by Rose Macaulay. And, lest we forget, ‘British’ back then didn’t just refer to life on our Sceptred Isle, but volumes entitled ‘East Africa’, ‘Canada’, ‘India’ and ‘Australia’ remind us just how far British rule stretched.

I worry that like this Guardian journalist, I will find that knowing about this series will foster an addiction. Now I long to go into a second-hand bookshop and serendipitously happen across one of the other 132 titles in the series, and another, and another … Book collecting is a slippery slope.

English Country Houses by Vita Sackville-WestBut for now I am more than happy with my volume by Vita Sackville-West, kindly and thoughtfully given to me by a fellow bookseller, to whom I meagrely offered some Scottish tablet from my days in Nan Shepherd country.

So what is it that is so unique about English country houses, that sets them apart from French chateaux and German castles? In a brilliant sentence which is about as old-school English aristo as you can get, Vita Sackville-West writes:

The peculiar genius of the English country house lies in its knack of fitting in.

This encapsulates the sentiment of the whole book, which praises above all moderation, proportion and scale. I had to laugh when Sackville-West raced past the Gothic Revival:

It is surely not necessary to give more than a passing mention to the freak architecture of the Gothic Revival … [which] proved ludicrously unsuited to the English counties … we may rejoice that the whimsical air of novelty was so soon blown away.  Had the same fate attended the later purely Gothic craze, we should be spared much to-day: St. Pancras Station, the Albert Memorial, and streets of gable villas with stained glass in the doors.

Evidently, Vita Sackville-West finds this ‘freak’ architecture, these ‘crazes’, this ‘whimsical air of novelty’ terribly alarming. It certainly doesn’t match her vision of the country house, perfectly melting into the surrounding landscape. She tries to explain away the Gothic Revival as a result of boredom with tradition – classic houses ‘were safe, but they were dull.’

This is deeply revealing of the time that she wrote English Country Houses. The Blitz was from September 1940 to May 1941 – it was a time when houses were going up in flames, when buildings felt everything but ‘safe’ and ‘dull’. Confronted with whole cities blazing on the horizon, no wonder she yearned for safe and dull houses that ‘agree with’ their landscape and don’t ‘overwhelm [their] surroundings’.

From the ashes of the Blitz, rose this phoenix of a catalogue and guide to our country houses. Here Vita Sackville-West strives to preserve these houses under threat from fire and changing economic times:

with war taxation and the present rate of death duties it seems improbable that any family fortune will long suffice to retain such homes in private ownership.

Who could be a better guide than this most aristo of aristos, who could count both Knole and Sissinghurst as her homes? For not only does Sackville-West provide a lengthy catalogue of what the houses look like from the outside but she pays loving attention to their interiors and offers some affectionate remarks on the people who lived in them:

I fancy that any English aristocratic intellectual house-party in 1610 would not have differed very much from the equivalent house-party held at any time between the years 1912-1939. The Cecils must have talked in very much the same way at Hatfield in 1619 as the Cecils at Hatfield might talk in 1939, with the same mixture of political and intellectual interests, switching over from one to the other; and so, I imagine, a family party of the Sidneys at Penshurst must have run over all the happenings of life, skating gracefully from one subject to the other, never dwelling ponderously on anything, but always touching delicately and briefly, in the true sense of Humanism.

There must have been something deeply comforting about this feeling of continuity, of English people rooted in English places, in the face of so much upheaval. Of course Sackville-West was right to be sorrowful about what the future would hold for these country seats, to feel anxious that the Cecils might not still be holding intellectual house parties at Hatfield in three hundred years time. (Although, she’d be relieved to see that the Cecils are one of the few aristocratic families who have held on to their ancestral home.)

Reading English Country Houses today, it is indeed a window on to lost world. It is a magnificent catalogue of the National Trust, before the National Trust stepped in to help most of these aristos out. One feels incredibly grateful for the book, for Sackville-West to have succeeded in her last-ditch attempt to capture a precious part of British life before it pretty much disappeared. And a part of you can’t help but wish that these good old days continued and mourn the loss of this well-established, noble way of life.

But before we get too glum about what has been lost, let’s look a little more closely at the cover of the book, which shows the gates of an English country house … closed. Closed to outsiders, to those not invited to those intellectual house parties, not born into wealth and land. Let’s not forget that this life was, for the most part, terribly shut-off to the hoi polloi, unrepentantly elitist and snobby. In any case, if one ever did get through those steely gates, life was terribly elegant but, like the houses, perhaps a little ‘safe’ and ‘dull’.

For sure, we must mourn with Vita Sackville-West the loss of these houses, the inescapable sadness that comes from turning a living country house into the ‘dead thing’ of a museum, but let’s not be too sad at the loss of the Downton Abbey way of life. Now we can embrace the recklessness, irreverence and fun, which she found so alarming. And, come on, who cannot be impressed or feel even a little bit fond of the mad exuberance of St. Pancras?

St Pancras

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Emilybooks of the year

December 19, 2012

Looking back on the year, I see that I’ve developed a strange habit of reading in threes. There have been three Elizabeths, three lives, three children’s books, three of all sorts of things. Strange indeed.

So here are my favourites of the books that I’ve read over the past year, clumped, conveniently, into threes.

The Walking Book Club at Port Eliot

3 Elizabeths

I began the year reading Elizabeth Bowen’s intensely atmospheric wartime novel The Heat of the Day which set me up for a year of Elizabeths. Start as you mean to go on, I suppose. Well I went on to read Bowen’s The House in Paris, an entrancing, bewitching novel, which made a whole afternoon disappear. Best of all, it was a year in which I was given a very special edition of Bowen’s Court – EM Forster’s copy no less.

I loved Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel, a novel which every aspiring writer must read not just because it describes so brilliantly different moments of writing – the strange feverish stuffiness of writing non-stop, and the anti-climax of finishing, for instance – but because it will make you laugh hopelessly at yourself, at the sheer vanity of being a writer. We also had a splendid Walking Book Club discussing Taylor’s poignant novel about getting old, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, for which we enjoyed the illustrious company of Clare Balding. You’ll be able to listen to it on Radio 4’s Ramblings in February… watch this space!

The third Elizabeth of the year was Elizabeth Jenkins. The Tortoise and the Hare had me in tears, and Harriet had me in a nightmare. Both are utterly compelling, hellish portrayals of marriage – the first is a heartbreaking portrayal of its death throes, and the second is about a situation so horrific, it’s hard to believe that it was based on a true murder case.

3 houses

My novel, as those of you who read last week’s post will know, is centred on a house and the stories that lie within it. As a result, I have grown quite addicted to books with houses at their centre. I’ve already mentioned Elizabeth Bowen – her Bowen’s Court really is a great portrait of a house.

Rebecca is one of my all time favourite house novels. From that memorable first line, ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,’ the house threatens to overwhelm the new Mrs de Winter. The most memorable moments of the novel are firmly rooted in the house – when she comes down the stairs for the ball, looking like the ghost of Rebecca, or when Mrs Danvers nearly makes her throw herself out of Rebecca’s old bedroom window. This was one of the books we discussed when I took the Walking Book Club to the splendid Port Eliot festival, not so far from Menabilly – the inspiration for du Maurier’s Manderley. I’ve read this novel so many times now, and each time find it utterly gripping, thoroughly brilliant. Perhaps I should allow myself one du Maurier a year.

But my house of the year has to go to the ‘convenient little house’ in Hampstead, which is the focus of Vita Sackville West’s All Passion Spent. Lady Slane’s husband, a great statesman, has just died when we meet her. She defies her foul children, who want to parcel her off between them, and retires to a pretty Hampstead house that she last saw thirty years ago. This perfect, slim novel, a fictional counterpart to Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, is beautifully written, and I especially enjoyed the way Sackville-West’s love of gardening – as attested to by the magnificent gardens at Sissinghurst – periodically surfaces, when she can’t resist arranging a few flowers here, or a ripened peach there.

3 lives

The best non-fiction I’ve read this year has been about the lives of people. The strongest presence has been the poet, Edward Thomas. I read Matthew Hollis’s biography of him, Now All Roads Lead To France – a fantastic book, which managed to turn his rather quiet life into a series of cliffhangers. There was also Robert Macfarlane’s majestic The Old Ways, in which this literary lover of landscapes wrote about journeying on remarkable old paths, haunted by Edward Thomas who was a great walker as well as a great writer. And there was Nick Dear’s powerful play at the Almeida. My favourite Edward Thomas moment of the year was walking with some friends around (the aptly named) Steep, where Thomas lived, and up Shoulder of Mutton hill. It was very special to feel we were walking in his footsteps. Towards the end, we sprawled across a leafy glade and read out some of his poems, accompanied only by birdsong, the wind in the trees, and our steady chomping of Percy Pigs.

I loved reading Penelope Fitzgerald’s letters – a wonderful thick collection, which was a steady and inspiring companion for many months. And now I am reading West with the Night by Beryl Markham, who became my new heroine by about page five. She tells of her childhood in what was then British East Africa, a childhood which included such instances as hunting warthogs with local tribesmen and being mauled by a lion. She grew up to breed and train racehorses, and then became a freelance pilot. This is an extraordinary memoir, bristling with the spirit of adventure, full of the romance of a lost way of life, and somehow Markham has combined a great lyricism with edge-of-your-seat thrilling tension.

3 new novels

Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home seemed to lodge in me like a shard of glass, painful, unforgettable and darkly beautiful. Susie Boyt’s The Small Hours was a peculiar and powerful novel. It is about a strange, larger-than-life woman who decides to open a nursery school. It soon transpires that her own childhood has been difficult, to say the least. I suppose it’s what you might expect from Freud’s great-granddaughter. Emily Perkins’ The Forrests follows a family over several decades. What really stood out about it was the quality of the writing, richly detailed, making every mundane moment sing like a poem.

3 children’s books

Like everyone else I read The Hunger Games, and I loved it. It was alarmingly addictive – I have friends who began reading it one evening and had to take the next day off work, as they had to stay up all night to finish it. Cynics dismiss it as a horrid teen novel about children killing each other, but I found it thick with ideas – about CCTV, celebrity culture, society and more.

I reread The Wind in the Willows, which was truly joyful, and even inspired a walk along the Thames, for which we strove to bring all the ingredients in Ratty’s notorious picnic:

coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscresssandwidges

pottedmeatgingerbeerlemonadesodawater

And I reread A Wizard of Earthsea, an exciting quest about the battle of good versus evil, and – interestingly – the importance of language.

3 of everything else

There were of course other brilliant Emilybooks of the year, which don’t fit into these clumps of threes so neatly – Dorothy Whipple, Patti Smith, and it was certainly a year of Ali Smith, whose new book Artful – not quite a novel, not quite a collection of essays, is something entirely new and mind-poppingly impressive. It was a year of many great ladies, and, lest I forget, a few great men, (like the aforementioned Edward Thomas, Lewis Grassic Gibbon and L.P. Hartley). It has been a year of feeling terrifically happy that there are so many wonderful books to read.

Thank you for accompanying me through a wonderful year of reading. Now I have only to wish you a happy and book-filled Christmas and New Year. Emilybooks will be back in January.

All Passion Spent

July 3, 2012

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.