BRODERIE ANGLAISE by Violet Trefusis


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This book by the expatriate Englishwoman Trefusis, published in the original French in 1935, appears now in English for the first time and gives us a new twist on that old rag, Bloomsbury gossip. It would be sad were prospective readers to be put off by Victoria Glendbinning's rather patronizing introduction to this book as ""a considerable literary curiosity."" Most of the novel's interest derives from who it depicts, and perhaps Glendbinning (the biographer of Vita Sackville-West, lover to both Violet Trefusis and Virginia Woolf) is jealous: it must be a shock to a biographer to see one of her marginal subjects seize the pen and, however posthumously, speak for herself. Broderie Anglaise is, in fact, a texture of layered jealousies: between novelists, and between women who have loved the same person. Violet Trefusis loved Vita Sackville-West, aristocratic heir to Knole House, even as Vita won Virginia Woolf's heart and body. At the outset of Orlando, Woolf depicted Vita as a pretty youth in love with a Russian princess, based on Violet Trefusis, who jilts him. In Trefusis' novel Vita is again changed into a young man, one John Shorne, with ""a hereditary face which had come, eternally bored, through five centuries."" The main character is Alexa, molded on Woolf--a spinster novelist, and John's lover. ""Her passion was like a prince's palace in which she would never be completely at home."" The relationship is dampened by the memory of John's first love Anne (read: Trefusis), a nymph who cruelly jilted him. And now Anne comes to tea: Alexa finds her a bit too plump, ""simple and natural. . .perhaps not very intelligent,"" yet she admires the earthy common womanliness that Alexa will never have. Anne has read Alexa's book (read: Orlando), and now sets the record straight: it was John, in fact, who jilted her, because his mother,""the ogress,"" dictated that he should never marry. They part friends--Alexa offers to write an article on Anne's new novel, and gives John the cold shoulder. So: with its shrewdly observed characters and sometimes witty dialogue, this is a revenge piece on Sackville-West, and surprisingly kind to Woolf, though it does give her ""what for"" for Orlando. In a sense, it shows us the better Woolf that might-have-been: since, if one reads her diaries, it's pretty clear she was not generous to young literary women.

Pub Date: Nov. 13th, 1985
Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich