Tuesday, 17 August 2010


I definitely became very Vita-ish, there's no denying it.  And who who wouldn't? Climbing the creaking wooden steps to her writing room in the tower at Sissinghust I was filled with excitement (and annoyance if I'm honest, that I wasn't on my way to have tea with her, but had to share her with the hordes - probably a very Vita like emotion.) Peering through the archway into her double room - where she famously tumbled Violet and later Virginia - felt a tiny bit voyeuristic, to be honest...but I soon got over it.  The divan looked small and shabby, the room was gloomy (the windows too high to be distracted with the glorious views) the writing desk small, and the hearth looked inadequate for anything but a mild autumn day, and how on earth would you carry anything up there? (answer of course - you didn't.  You had servants) A rush up the spiral steps to be blown around by the teasing wind of an English August afternoon and the magical view of her garden.  Bee-hives, apple trees, statues, riots of flowers, and of course the famous White Garden. I was practically elbowing other Vita acolytes out of my way to rush down the tower again and explore the grounds.
Heroically ignoring the many broken armed tourists (really, at one point I thought there was some sort of one armed convention going on the amount of splints, plasters and slings I saw) I whizzed up and down walkways of  pleached limes, box hedges, parterres, and burst upon the White Garden - and oh, my goodness, it was like being on the inside of a glass of champagne.  Bubbly and frothy and exciting and joyous.... and satisfyingly formal.  This wasn't a garden to lounge around in with flip flops, oh no.  Or to share, I suspect.  This was a private joy made by the woman who wore pearls casually 'the size of pigeons eggs' around her aristocratic neck, who treasured a priceless Doges ring, who was daughter of the estate known as Knole, and who fascinated some of the most fascinating people (men and women) of her time.
What was it about her that held people in thrall?  Staring at her portrait inside the main house, it's hard to tell.  Certainly she was beautiful, although the ravages of time were not kind to her, but perhaps she didn't care by then, living for her garden and her writing. The grandness helped of course (what first attracted you to the millionaire?) But really, I don't mean the wealth - I mean the grandness of her very being.  This is the woman who had Leopards as part of her heraldic past, who once saw a stag breathing hot air into a frosty room at the end of a corridor in the enormous Gothic castle of her childhood home, it's antlers wreathed in ivy, snow falling outside, with the caress of ermine at her neck.  Goodness, me the glamour of it all! Hers was a stern beauty worn carelessly, issues ordered from her lips, without a doubt or hesitation that they would be carried out.
But then - the revelation of her intense love of her family.  The love certainly of her husband, her sons, her friends was not something that I had suspected till I read Portrait of a Marriage by Nigel Nicolson. I could not imagine Vita being, well, being cosy. Choosing jewels in Paris - yes.  Striding in daring trousers through fields with a dog? Yes.Toasting crumpets round the nursery fire? No.  But is would seem that I was wrong, this book sets it all straight.
There are wonderful letters, snippets of history, and the remarkable tender portrait of a woman who we think we know.  But we don't.  Do read it.
Poor old Violet Trefusis doesn't come over too well in it, but I shall deal with her at a later date.
A keeper.

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