Like many people, I first heard of Vita Sackville-West when reading about Virginia Woolf and their relationship. Sackville-West was a poet, author, gardener, and someone who, quietly, lived outside the norms of society. Her marriage to Sir Harold Nicolson remained open, but only to women. Portrait of a Marriage is part autobiography and part biography. It was inspired by a journal, Vita’s son, Nigel Nicolson, found among her possessions after her death.
Nicolson presents Portrait of a Marriage in five sections. Sections one and three are the complete journal left by Vita. Sections two and four are written by Nigel and support Vit’s writing with other first and second-hand accounts. They include letters from Vita’s lovers as well as letters and note from family and her husband. Vita’s teenage to adult relationship with Rosamund Grosvenor (which ended when Grosvenor married) and centers mostly on her relationship with Violet Trefusis. The last section is again written by Nigel and includes the Virginia Woolf affair and more on family matters.
Portrait of a Marriage provides a unique look at relationships and marriages in a time that we think as more conservative than today. Same sex relationships and even the questioning of gender roles are examined in their time period. Vita does say that she thought of herself as a boy growing up. In Passenger to Teheran, a memoir of her travel to Iran to reunite with her husband, she does not reveal her sex until the very end of the book. It has the sense of reading a male account of travel. Aside from its importance as a biography, it is also important as part of the LGTBQ history.
Vita Sackville-West is an interesting read even when writes a journal. It is difficult to rate a book that is a journal. It is the writer’s actual thoughts at the time and not meant to be a published work. Without a doubt, Sackville-West excels even in this format. Nigel Nicolson compiles supporting evidence. Credit must be giving to Nigel Nicolson on several accounts. First, it is his mother he is writing about and at the time, his mother’s and even his (published in 1973) her orientation was not accepted. Secondly, Nicolson waited to publish this book until all members who are in it were dead. He did not try to sensationalize his mother or her lovers or embarrass family members. It is very tastefully done. I have read a few of Vita Sackville-West’s books in the past mostly as a spinoff on reading Virginia Woolf. However, Vita Sackville-West is worthy of reading and study in her own right. A remarkable woman who is underrated in our time.
(personal book that I own and read not for review)