Affair steamier than fiction: Vita Sackville-West’s and Virginia Woolf

The scandalous literary love affair steamier than fiction: A new film details how in the 1920s Vita Sackville-West’s lust for married Virginia Woolf led to heartache and suicide

  • Virginia Woolf not taken by Vita Sackville-West when they met, December 1922
  • Yet she acknowledged there was something so compelling about Vita, 6ft tall
  • The attraction was reciprocated and Vita made the first move after three years 
  • It was a sensational affair between sexually-voracious Vita and discreet Virginia 
  • Film, Vita & Virginia, charts the liaison of women which would shock even today

When Virginia Woolf met Vita Sackville-West for the first time at a dinner party in December 1922, she was not entirely taken with her fellow writer and member of the Bloomsbury Set.

In her diary, she described her as ‘florid, moustached, parakeet-coloured, with all the supple ease of the aristocracy but not the wit of the artist … She is a grenadier; hard, handsome, manly; inclined to double-chin’.

And yet she acknowledged there was something so compelling about Vita, 6ft tall and ten years younger, that it made Virginia feel ‘virgin, shy and schoolgirlish’.

The sensational affair between the sexually-voracious Vita — she had more than 50 female lovers — and the equally liberated, but more discreet and emotionally fragile, Virginia is the subject of a new film starring Elizabeth Debicki as Woolf (left), and Gemma Arterton (right) as Sackville-West. The film, Vita & Virginia, charts the passionate liaison of two women whose conduct would shock even today

The attraction was reciprocated and it was Vita, married to diplomat and author Harold Nicolson, who eventually made the first move after three years of flirtation, consummating their passion at the home in Richmond, South-West London, that Virginia shared with her husband, the Left-wing writer Leonard Woolf.

‘How right I was to force myself upon you . . . and to lay the trail for the explosion which happened on the sofa in my room here when you behaved so disgracefully and acquired me for ever,’ Vita wrote.

For several years their passion burned fiercely and inspired Virginia’s novel Orlando, about a sex-changing aristocrat who travels through time, enjoying relationships with men and women.

The sensational affair between the sexually-voracious Vita — she had more than 50 female lovers — and the equally liberated, but more discreet and emotionally fragile, Virginia is the subject of a new film starring Elizabeth Debicki (The Night Manager) as Woolf, and Gemma Arterton (former Bond girl Strawberry Fields) as Sackville-West. The film, Vita & Virginia, charts the passionate liaison of two women whose conduct would shock even today.

For several years their passion burned fiercely and inspired Virginia’s (pictured) novel Orlando, about a sex-changing aristocrat who travels through time, enjoying relationships with men and women

Vita and Harold, who later became an MP, had long enjoyed an open marriage. They wed in October 1913 when she was 21 and already in a relationship with one of her bridesmaids. After their two sons were born, their relationship settled into a deep friendship while Harold pursued affairs with men, including composer Ivor Novello, and Vita with both sexes.

The only child of a baron and his cousin, Vita had been raised in the splendid surroundings of 400-year-old Knole House in Kent, her family’s ancestral home. But it was an unhappy childhood, with her father a philanderer. Vita wore boys’ clothes from an early age and had known she was gay from the age of 12.

There was a serious scandal when Vita embarked on an affair with her friend, the socialite Violet Trefusis, who’d had a crush on her since they were teenagers. In 1919, she even interrupted Violet’s honeymoon with husband Denys to insist she slept with her instead.

In a letter she wrote later, she said: ‘I treated her savagely . . . I made love to her. I had her, I didn’t care, I only wanted to hurt Denys . . . ‘

Their affair culminated in Vita, dressed as a man, ‘eloping’ with Violet to France a year later. Their furious husbands flew out to bring them home, threatening the disgrace of divorce if they did not return.

Another scandal ensued when Vita’s eye fell upon Dorothy Wellesley, the Duchess of Wellington. The resulting affair ended the Wellesleys’ marriage.

Her next lover was a man, Geoffrey Scott, whose wife left him because of his infatuation with Vita. Then she took up with another woman, Pat Dansey, who threatened to blow her brains out when Vita’s passion cooled.

Incredibly, Vita’s own marriage weathered these affairs and she would often discuss them with Harold — but it is the affair with Virginia Woolf that dominates.

Soon after that first meeting, Vita confided to Harold that she was falling under her spell.

‘At first you think she is plain,’ she wrote to him, ‘then a sort of spiritual beauty imposes itself on you, and you find a fascination in watching her . . . Darling, I have quite lost my heart.’

Virginia in her turn was awed by Vita’s success as a writer, although scathing about her literary talent. Vita wrote best-selling novels, while Virginia’s more cerebral works had not yet received the recognition that would come later.

It soon became clear that Vita wanted something more than professional friendship.

Vita’s (pictured) own marriage weathered affairs and she would often discuss them with Harold — but it is the affair with Virginia Woolf that dominates

Although flattered, Virginia was reserved at first. She’d had a traumatic childhood, losing her mother at the age of 13, then her father, and had been sexually abused by her two half-brothers. But Vita’s confidence, her ability to dominate a room and flout convention, captivated Virginia and her inhibitions began to melt.

Their letters became playful, Virginia writing, ‘Dear Mrs Nicolson, (But I wish you could be induced to call me Virginia).’

Vita wrote back: ‘My dear Virginia, (You see I don’t take much inducing. Could you be induced likewise, do you think?)’ Leonard, who had helped Virginia through bouts of depression and suicide attempts, tolerated the affair as it seemed to bring her happiness.

While he had always been protective of Virginia, Vita encouraged her to enjoy herself, to go to parties and have more fun than she ever did with the intellectual Bloomsbury Set — which Vita nicknamed the ‘Gloomsbury’ Set.

Doctors had also warned Virginia that writing was bad for her emotional health: Vita disagreed, urging her to write more.

Indeed, Virginia produced her most famous books during their relationship: Mrs Dalloway, To The Lighthouse and Orlando. But in 1926, Harold was posted to Persia and Vita travelled with him. She wrote to Virginia of her longing: ‘I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia.’ And complaining: ‘I miss

you horribly.’ Yet it was inevitable Vita would stray. As another girlfriend, Olive Grinder, told her: ‘You do like to have your cake and eat it — and so many cakes, so many, a surfeit of sweet things.’

On her return to England, Vita went to stay with Virginia at the Woolfs’ house in Sussex, and she encountered a young Mary Campbell.

Soon they were spending nights together. When Mary’s husband Roy, a poet, learned of the liaison, he was consumed with jealousy. He went for Mary with a knife then threatened to commit suicide. Mary, undeterred, wrote to Vita that she wanted nothing more than to be ‘naked except for a covering of your rose leaf kisses’.

Unnerved by the ‘muddle’ she had created, Vita confided in Virginia, but if she had hoped for sympathy, she was disappointed. Virginia was deeply hurt because she knew that Mary Campbell wasn’t Vita’s only infidelity.

It was time, Virginia decided, to deliver some home truths, telling her that she was incapable of real commitment.

Vita was cut to the quick: ‘I felt suddenly that the whole of my life was a failure.’

In October 1928, when their relationship was more or less over, Orlando was published, with its sexually-fluid, free-loving protagonist.

In the years that followed, the relationship mellowed into a deep, loving friendship. They wrote and visited each other, and Virginia kept a room in her Sussex home for Vita, filling it with flowers.

To Vita she wrote: ‘Dearest, let me have a line … You have given me such happiness …’

Vita replied: ‘Oh dear, how your letter touched me this morning. I nearly dropped a tear into my poached egg … I love you too; you know that.’

But the relationship was not enough to keep Virginia’s depression at bay, and in 1941 she killed herself, wading into the River Ouse with rocks in her pockets. She was 59.

A distraught Vita wrote to Harold: ‘I think I might have saved her if only I had been there.’ But in Virginia’s note to Leonard she had written: ‘If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.’

Similarly, Vita wrote to Harold before her death in 1962 of her enduring love for him over 49 years of marriage in which they had created a magnificent home and garden at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent: ‘I love you, much more than I loved you on October 1, 1913.

It was love, not lust, that had triumphed in the end.

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