Matthew Dennison knew that to write a good biography of Vita Sackville-West, he would have to extract her from the long shadow of her lover and longtime friend Virginia Woolf. Sackville-West was the more popular writer of the two during their lifetimes, penning fiction bestsellers and poetry that even helped bolster Woolf’s Hogarth Press, but “posterity has turned the tables,” as Dennison explains. “Now Woolf is this giant figure and Vita is regarded as this aristocratic dilettante, really.” Woolf scholars and fans might know that Sackville-West is the secret subject of Orlando: A Biography. But as a writer in her own right, she has all but disappeared. Her legacy centers on the extensive gardens she cultivated at a castle named Sissinghurst in Kent, England towards the end of her life. In Behind the Mask: The Life of Vita Sackville-West, Dennison moves the spotlight to right where his subject would most appreciate it: on her writing and her obsession with Knole, the estate where she spent her childhood.
“She wasn’t a great writer; she was a good writer,” says Dennison. Sackville-West knew this. So did Virginia Woolf. Out of jealously with Sackville West’s popularity, Dennison speculates, Woolf often let her friend know that they both knew. Dennison for his part gives Sackville-West’s writing a lot of credit, arguing that her Georgian pastoral poetry was simply out of step with the modernism flourishing around her, causing its reputation to suffer in the long run. In short, she was a “damned out-moded poet,” as she wrote of herself in her Collected Poems.
But to Dennison, Sackville-West’s poetry has “insight, verve and colour.” He would never have proposed her biography to his publishers if he didn’t like her writing. “She inspires such diverse responses in people that it would be very difficult to write about her if you didn’t somehow meet her halfway and feel sympathetic towards the things that mattered to her,” he explains. The most important of these: an ancient estate that belonged to one side of her family, the Sackvilles, called Knole. “Her life is overwhelmed with this love affair she has with Knole,” he says. “She describes Knole in different poems as her mother, her lover, her child, her parent. When Knole was given to the National Trust she described the sensation like rats’ teeth closing on her wrist.”
Woolf corresponded regularly with Vita as she was going through her separation with the estate, and perceived the preternatural influence it had on her friend who would never inherit it. In Behind the Mask, we see how this inspired Orlando. “The novel imagines Vita-Orlando as the sum of all her ancestors, every Sackville rolled into one through three centuries and returns Knole to Vita as hers by right of temperament as well as birth,” Dennison writes. In Orlando, Woolf folds place into person with lines like these:
Sights disturbed him, like that of his mother, a very beautiful lady in green walking out to feed the peacocks with Twitchett, her maid, behind her; sights exalted him—the birds and the trees; and made him in love with death—the evening sky, the homing rooks; and so, mounting up the spiral stairway into his brain—which was a roomy one—all these sights, and the garden sounds too, the hammer beating, the wood chopping, began that riot and confusion of the passions and emotions which every good biographer detests.
But there we go letting Woolf rob attention from Vita again. Yes, Orlando is about Vita, but it’s also very much about Woolf. Dennison knows the pitfalls. “You encounter Woolf as Vita’s biographer; you see a different side of Woolf and it’s not always a very attractive side,” he says. A former lover and lifelong friend of Sackville-West, Woolf was perhaps too close to make a complete portrait of Sackville-West, which wasn’t her project anyway.
Dennison tries to fill in the biographical gaps with Sackville-West’s own words, using her own fiction as a primary source for autobiographical information. A risky move for a biographer, but when he first started researching for the biography, Dennison quickly discovered that Vita revealed very little in her personal diaries. Then, looking over her published novels and poetry, he decided that that’s where her autobiography was. “In the slightly haphazard way in which she worked, I think she did put an awful lot of herself [in her work], sometimes subconsciously, other times more consciously,” he says.
Dennison combed through her fiction for the emotional traces of Vita’s many love affairs with female companions, her problems with her mother, her open marriage with her husband, Harold Nicolson, and the great tragedy of her life, being separated from Knole. His methods result in a biography that largely pays homage to the way Vita saw herself. “Firstly as a Sackville—as a member of this great aristocratic dynasty—and secondly as a poet—a poet was what she really desperately wanted to be.”
Alexia Nader is a writer living in San Francisco and a senior editor at The Brooklyn Quarterly.