To an even greater degree than Frances Spalding's Vanessa Bell (p. 883), this ""first full-scale life"" of a second-string...


VITA: The Life of Vita Sackville-West

To an even greater degree than Frances Spalding's Vanessa Bell (p. 883), this ""first full-scale life"" of a second-string Bloomsbury figure becomes a meticulous, un-probing, ultimately wearisome account of an ""open"" marriage complicated by homosexuality: Glendinning (Edith Sitwell, Elizabeth Bowen) makes no great claims for Vita Sackville-West's literary oeuvre--putting the biographical burden on her personality, her marital arrangements, and her famous liaisons. . . all of which have appeared to somewhat better effect elsewhere. The book is best by far in the earliest years: the socially unique life of Vita's mother Victoria, half-Spanish illegitimate daughter of one Lionel Sackville-West and bride of another (her cousin); Vita's childhood--dominated by her parents' sour marriage, her mother's emotionally enslaving ways, and the great family-estate of Knole. (""It was Vita's secret world, but it was Victoria's hobby."") And there's undeniable psychodrama in the largely familiar tale of Vita's first marital traumas: despite lack of passion, she married ""a light-hearted companion-playmate,"" diplomat Harold Nicolson; he soon revealed his homosexuality to the not-really-sophisticated Vita, who responded supportively (hence his ""almost superhuman tolerance of her behaviour to him in the following three years""); but Harold's revelations seemingly unleashed Vita's own hitherto-restrained duality--in a major, marriage-threatening lesbian affair with Violet Keppel Trefusis, a longtime chum/suitor. All that's in the first 100 pages, however. In the 300 that follow, the pattern repeats and repeats, Glendinning detailing each of Vita's half-dozen affairs (one heterosexual), the ""destructive triangular relationships,"" the oddly enduring marriage, Vita's rather callous, manipulative treatment of her lovers. (In a rare example of psychological insight, Glendinning notes that Vita-the-lover was in some ways ""enacting"" her manipulative mother.) The Virginia Woolf liaison, though blurrily drawn, offers a bit of weight--in the creation of Orlando, VW's tribute to the androgynous Vita. But the overlapping infidelities soon become flat and depressing-especially since Glendinning, with ""one of the best-documented marriages in history"" at hand, builds the dense narration primarily from excerpts: a veritable forest of quotation marks. And the later years, with reclusive Vita turning from poetry and fiction (""good,"" no better) to gardening at her own beloved estate of Sissinghurst, are slow and grim. Conscientious, competent biography in the British manner, then--but most readers will get more than enough of Vita in Nigel Nicolson's Portrait of a Marriage and in the studies of the major period figures.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 1983


Page Count: -

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 1983