BOOK REVIEW: Vita & Virginia by Sarah Gristwood

The Blurb (from Goodreads):

Virginia Woolf is one of the world’s most famous writers, and a leading light of literary modernism and feminism. During the 1920s she had a passionate affair with a fellow author, Vita Sackville-West, and they remained friends until Virginia’s death in 1941. The hero of Virginia’s novel Orlando was modeled on Vita and the book has been described as "one of the longest and most charming love letters in history." That’s on top of the more than 500 letters they wrote to each other. Vita was also a highly regarded and award-winning novelist before the War, but she is most famous today as the co-creator of the garden at Sissinghurst, one of the most influential and visited gardens in the world. This double biography of two extraordinary women examines their lives together and apart.

My Thoughts:

This is a beautifully presented and illustrated double biography of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, friends, lovers, muses and rivals.

I’ve always been fascinated by their story, which I’ve read about in snippets elsewhere. This is the first book I’ve read that chronicles both their lives in equal measure.

In her introduction, Sarah Gristwood writes: ‘Virginia told a friend, just months before her death, that apart from her husband Leonard and her sister Vanessa, Vita was the only person she really loved … The bond that endured between those two women was predominantly, though not exclusively, one of the heart, and of the mind.'

Virginia was born in 1882 into a literary and artistic family, with an older half-sister born to her father, three older half-brothers born to her mother, as well as a sister and two brothers. Molested by one of her half-brothers as a child, and grieving the early death of her mother and half-sister, Virginia was unhappy and troubled.

Vita was born ten years later, at Knole in Kent, in 1892. Her grandfather was the Lionel Sackville-West, second Baron Sackville, and Knole had been given to an ancestor by Elizabeth I in the 16th century. Her grandmother was a Spanish dancer named Pepita. Vita’s mother, the illegitimate offspring of this unlikely liaison, married her cousin, her father’s nephew and heir. As an only child, and a girl, Vita could not inherit the house she grew up in, and this was to be the defining tragedy of her youth.

The two found solace in their writing.

They met in December 1922, and had a passionate affair. Vita inspired the gender-shifting protagonist of Virginia’s novel Orlando, described as ‘one of the longest and most charming love letters in history’. Their passion did not last, but their friendship did – Vita went on to have other lovers and to build her famous garden at Sissinghurst Castle, while Virginia wrote other books and struggled with her depression and manic moments.

A great deal of the allure of this book comes from the many quotes from the two women’s letters and diaries, and from the many gorgeous illustrations of their houses and gardens, no doubt facilitated by the book being published by the National Trust which protect properties the two women once lived in. To see their living-rooms and writing-rooms and gardens – preserved as they were when Virginia and Vita lived there – adds such intimacy and warmth. I have longed wanted to visit Sissinghurst Castle and Monk’s House; after reading this book, they are top of my list.

You might also like to read my review of Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis:

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Kate Forsyth
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