Book Review — All Passion Spent

“Nothing matters to an artist except the fulfilment of his gift.” Without it “All meaning goes out of life, and life becomes existence — a makeshift.”

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West
All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville- West is a novel on reflecting back on life. Sackville-West, was an English poet, novelist, and garden designer. A successful and prolific novelist, poet, and journalist during her lifetime—she was twice awarded the Hawthornden Prize for Imaginative Literature: in 1927 for her pastoral epic, The Land, and in 1933 for her Collected Poems—today she is chiefly remembered for the celebrated garden at Sissinghurst she created with her diplomat husband.

The introduction by Victoria Glendinning makes the observation that Virginia Woolf wrote in an androgynous style. Sackville-West wrote as a masculine woman which complimented her husband’s feminine streak. Just as Shakespeare’s Mark Antony came to bury Caesar, not praise him, Sackville-West claimed not to be a feminist. She would join in a discussion with “I am not a feminist, but….” She was not a diplomat’s or politician’s wife. She did not give up her freedom to be attached to a man in marriage. Throughout her career, she remained Vita (or V) Sackville-West and not Mrs. Harold Nicolson or Lady Nicolson. Many aspects of her life appear in her writings.

The novel opens with Lord Slane’s death. Lady Slane is surrounded by her children looking to divide up the estate and who will take charge of their eighty-eight-year-old mother. Her eldest son is sixty-eight years old. It is very much the old deciding what to do with the older. Lady Slane was the dutiful wife of the Viceroy of India and member of the House of Lords. The children wonder what will their mother do now. Her whole life was standing by her husband’s side and now that he is dead, what does she have to live for? Lady Slane surprises her children and decides that she will live by herself in essentially the suburbs. She saw an apartment thirty years ago and it never left her mind. She will take Genoux her eighty-six-year-old maid and leave. Other than that she wishes to be left alone — No children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren.

Lady Slane meets with the landlord, Mr. Bucktrout, whose name she remembered the name from thirty years ago. She becomes friends with Mr. Bucktrout an eccentric in his own ways. Bucktrout was not near the class equal of Lady Slane, but she did not allow that to interfere. This ends part one of the book. Part two consists mostly of Lady Slane’s reflections of her life. It ends with almost a poetic comparison of what she sees riding through the desert and what her husband sees. It plays well into the description of Lady Shane being intelligent, well read, and an admirer of beauty, however, she could not write a check, follow stocks, or understand her husband’s duties. There is a clear line drawn between the man’s world and the woman’s world. She recalls being the leader in “follow the leader” with her children, but faithfully followed her husband’s lead in the real world.

Part three brings closure to the book Lady Slane meets two people, one old and one new, who fill out her life story and the family’s future. She is reminded of her life and her dreams. Her husband cheated her of her chosen life as an artist although she never mentions actually painting. Her husband gave her and ample life. “According to his lights, he gave you all you could desire. He merely killed you, that’s all.” The idea of giving up a dream for a very comfortable life. The book draws to a conclusion that is fitting and well told. The novel is more than writing for writing’s sake. It examines the issues of the times and the role of women. For an eighty-year-old book ,many of the issues in the novel still exist today.

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