Herstory at its fucking finest.
In celebration of LGBT History Month
“I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia. I composed a beautiful letter to you in the sleepless nightmare hours of the night, and it has all gone: I just miss you, in a quite simple desperate human way. You, with all your undumb letters, would never write so elementary a phrase as that; perhaps you wouldn’t even feel it. And yet I believe you’ll be sensible of a little gap. But you’d clothe it in so exquisite a phrase that it should lose a little of its reality. Whereas with me it is quite stark: I miss you even more than I could have believed; and I was prepared to miss you a good deal. So this letter is really just a squeal of pain. It is incredible how essential to me you have become. I suppose you are accustomed to people saying these things. Damn you, spoilt creature; I shan’t make you love me any more by giving myself away like this — But oh my dear, I can’t be clever and stand-offish with you: I love you too much for that. Too truly. You have no idea how stand-offish I can be with people I don’t love. I have brought it to a fine art. But you have broken down my defenses. And I don’t really resent it.”
Vita Sackville-West playing it cool, 1927.
This letter from Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf is my favourite expression of love, ever. It has no melody. It’s not romantic. It brandishes no threats of suicide or eternal devastation should the recipient reject it. It’s self conscious, confused, cringeworthy – and if it were a human, it would have massive sweat patches. It doesn’t mention roses or stars or other universal signals that this ‘ere is a revered manifestation of someone’s real luv. All it does is say “hey, you, I love you, and I kind of sort of maybe hope you kind of sort of maybe love me too?”
It really is the most romantic thing I’ve ever read. And it exists as a product of one of my favourite, as a self confessed patriot of “oh-fuck-mance” as opposed to romance, herstorical relationships. I love Virginia, to me she represents the kind of eloquence that could only have ever existed before RudeTube. But in this ditty, she’s the other half. The half that fascinates me and will monopolise a great deal of love in this love letter to my favourite love letter is Vita.
I read an article recently which endeavoured to explain why rom-coms are so shite. Aside from the calibre of acting that a “multitude of Jennifers” (UGH UGH UGH) presents, and other variations of supposed cinematic decline, the author offered this;
“Among the most fundamental obligations of romantic comedy is that there must be an obstacle to nuptial bliss for the budding couple to overcome. And, put simply, such obstacles are getting harder and harder to come by. They used to lie thick on the ground: parental disapproval, difference in social class, a promise made to another. But society has spent decades busily uprooting any impediment to the marriage of true minds. Love is increasingly presumed—perhaps in Hollywood most of all—to transcend class, profession, faith, age, race, gender.”
The thing is, that’s bollocks. Love doesn’t transcend all. And the fact that rom-coms are unwilling to venture beyond the possibility of a happy ending (or death) is the reason why rom-coms are shite. Love isn’t eternal, it’s subject to weathering and things beyond anyone’s control – like chance encounters and external pressures – and none of that ever just goes away like it does in films. Love isn’t always blissful or miserable, sometimes it’s boring or okay or taken for granted. And a lot of the time, it doesn’t matter what you do, it ends. And not with a bang. Or tragedy. But with someone not returning someone else’s text or an argument in Pizza Express.
That’s why I think Vita’s letter encapsulates everything that love really is. Virginia’s flowery pros are perfection – but the perfect description of something that’s utterly imperfect doesn’t fit. Love is sweaty.
Virginia and Vita first met at a dinner party in 1922, which is the Bloomsbury equivalent of meeting someone at a hipster’s house party; booze and sex under the guise of sophistication. After learning that Vita was a writer, Virginia asked her to publish a novel with her small press. Their work relationship soon developed into a friendship.
Vita was from an aristocratic family, the Sackville-West’s of Sevenoaks in Kent where they lived in their ancestral home called Knole house. Vita and her husband, who were both bisexual and both writers, had an open and seemingly happy marriage. Virginia wasn’t impressed by Vita when they first met, she felt her inferior intellectually and creatively, but as their friendship deepened she fell in love with Vita’s openness, her family history, her beauty. The two became lovers.
The affair continued for years. Virginia was so smitten by Vita, that when she travelled she’d beg her to come home, she became jealous and paranoid about her age and her maturing looks. What made matters worse is that Virginia was one of many women whom Vita had been, or was, or would be, in love with. Knowing she would always have to share her was painful, because for Virginia, the relationship was all consuming. The result of this unrequited dedication was Orlando – once described by Vita’s son, Nigel as, “the longest and most charming love letter in literature, in which she explores Vita, weaves her in and out of the centuries, tosses her from one sex to the other, plays with her, dresses her in furs, lace and emeralds, teases her, flirts with her, drops a veil of mist around her“.
The day that Vita gave Virginia her support to go ahead with Orlando, is the day she relinquished control of her own legacy. Had it not been for the novel, Vita’s relationship with Virginia would have been one in a catalogue of passionate affairs with culturally significant women. But Orlando would come to define, not just their relationship, but Vita, her work, her sexuality, her life. Anything before or after Virginia pales in comparison. Our feelings and what we know about Vita have been fed to us through Virginia’s words.
Though the affair ended somewhere around 1928, the two remained lifelong friends. And after Virginia’s death Vita only ever spoke of her with the greatest affection and admiration. Speculation about what Vita would be to us now without Orlando, whether she fully understood the impact it would have on her reputation, it’s all unnecessary in a way. Because I like to think she made a sacrifice for love. Vita essentially became Orlando, so Virginia would always have a piece of her.
And she really didn’t resent it.