Book Review: Behind the Mask: The Life of Vita Sackville-West

Behind the Mask by Matthew Dennison

Behind the Mask: The Life of Vita Sackville-West by Matthew Dennison is a well-researched biography the English writer, poet, gardener, and traveller. Dennison is the author of five works of nonfiction. He read English at Christ Church, Oxford, as Douglas Jerrold Scholar, and afterwards the History of Decorative Arts at the University of Glasgow. He is a journalist and regular contributor to a range of publications, including Country Life, The Spectator and Telegraph Magazine; he contributed to ‘Queen Victoria’s Children’ and ‘Royal Cousins at War’ for BBC 2 and ‘The Queen’s Longest Reign’ for BBC1.

I kind of stumbled across Vita Sackville-West while reading Virginia Woolf’s diaries and letters. Since then I have readPoems of East and West, Passenger to Teheran, and a few novels. Recently I ordered Portrait of a Marriage written by her son, Nigel Nicholson, which piqued my interest. Behind the Mask is the first biography (or biographical information) I have read that has not been written by a family member or lover, but it does use plenty of first-hand source material.

Vita was a lonely and grubby tomboy growing up and her first close relations were with girls. Her parents were distant and her mother actually ran out. Victoria, Vita’s mother, did not enjoy childbirth and refused to have another child. Some of the pain lingered on when she saw her child. Vita fell in love with the Sackville estate which was bittersweet. As a woman, Vita knew she would not inherit the estate. She grew up knowing that the estate was a beautiful dying dream for her.

Vita had many same-sex relationships, but at the time, there was no lesbianism in the social constructs of Britain. Male homosexuality was known and also a crime. Interestingly Vita married Harold Nichols, a homosexual or at least a man with homosexual needs. The two did have a platonic love and were able to hide their affairs behind the marriage. When it came to relationships, Vita was a rock star. Women fell totally in love with her and she was the one who remained cooler. Virginia Woolf was the lone exception.

Behind the Mask also covers the two important aspects of Vita’s life writing and later gardening. Vita wrote about what she knew, her life. Direct connections between her life and her writing are brought out in the book. Later in life, she took up gardening at her new estate, Sissinghurst Castle which is part of the National Trust.

Behind the Mask is a detailed look into the personal and professional life of Vita Sackville-West. Reading this book has opened up new connections to writers. Violet Trefusis, a lover of Vita’s, wrote Broderie Anglaise and was the stunning Russian Princess Sasha in Woolf’s Orlando. This biography helped clarify Orlando as well as Vita’s own writing. Also, British writer Ronald Firband satirized Vita in his 1923 novella The Flower Beneath the Foot. Vita is Victoria Gellibore Frinton, the Honourable Mrs. Chillywater. Behind the Mask moves Vita Sackville-West from the footnotes of Virginia Woolf to the forefront. An interesting woman who lead an interesting life redefining marriage, love, and life in a conservative time.

(Read for my own benefit and not for review)



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