BEHIND THE MASK by Matthew Dennison
Kirkus Star


The Life of Vita Sackville-West
Age Range: 1892 - 1962
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A passionately delineated portrait of the savage writer, fiercely private lover of women, and eccentric denizen of Sissinghurst.

There are many moments in this breathless biography of Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962) when British journalist and biographer Dennison (The Twelve Caesars: The Dramatic Lives of the Emperors of Rome, 2013, etc.) is so caught up in his narrative that he neglects to fill in the blanks for readers unfamiliar with his enigmatic subject, the British novelist and poet known mostly for her ardor for Virginia Woolf and as a gardener at Sissinghurst later in life. Nonetheless, on the whole, the author ably illuminates the life of his fiery subject. She was a creature of the ancient aristocratic order who pined forever for the loss of the Sackville ancestral home, Knole House, in Kent, which her profligate mother, Victoria, nearly lost in 1912 due to its massive financial drain but which essentially passed by inheritance laws to the nearest male heir. Growing up in Knole shaped Vita’s extravagant, secretive persona, and Dennison constantly returns to her duality of nature, male and female, that she would try to resolve in her writing. An only child to her overbearing mother, she adored playing dramatic roles, cross-dressing, and wearing masks. The two great loves of her life allowed her to indulge her passion for concealment: her homosexual diplomat husband, Harold Nicholson, and the relentless lover of her mid-20s, Violet Keppel, who christened Vita “Mitya” or “Julian” as they danced scandalously across Europe. Dennison downplays Vita’s relationship with Woolf as a smoldering and significant writerly friendship. His narrative is utterly absorbing in its attention to the minutiae of property, inheritance, houses, clothing, and letters. All the while, the author extracts from Vita’s writing rich autobiographical detail.

A lively, vigorously written biography of a singular character that beckons readers urgently back to Sackville-West’s writing.

Pub Date: June 9th, 2015
ISBN: 978-1-250-03394-9
Page count: 384pp
Publisher: St. Martin's
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 2015


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