Dress Down Sunday: Violet to Vita

the book: The Letters of Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West 1910-21

edited by Mitchell A Leaska and John Phillips

published 1989


20 August 1918

It was charming of you to send me the eau de toilette… I will try not to get really suspicious until you send me either a diamond dog-collar or a tiara. Darling, you see the grades, I’ll translate:

Eau de toilette






---[all mean] slight flirtation!


Cigarette cases


Faberge trifles 



Dressing table things

--- [all mean:] in danger of becoming serious

observations: This is Violet Trefusis – featured recently with her book Echo - writing to Vita Sackville-West –whose book The Edwardians provided a couple of entries: you can find out more about their lives in those posts. Violet’s letters to Vita from their teenage days as friends, through to the end of their dashing affair, are collected here, and make for operatic reading. 

But they are of course incomplete – Vita’s letters back are not in the collection, and when the two were together (short dashes to the continent here, a week in a cottage there, an attempted elopement just in passing) then obviously they weren’t writing to each other. So it’s a less than perfect picture. But you do get the feel for Violet – truly unconventional and rebellious, madly in love – versus Vita: feeling strongly, but quite safe and happy with her husband and children, and with many other lovers in her future, including Virginia Woolf.

Violet loved playing with the idea that their relationship was just like that between a man and a woman. She gave Vita various masculine names, such as Dmitri and Julian, and in a letter the following year imagines Julian (and Vita used actually to dress up as a man in this role) and a life together: ‘He should flirt to his heart’s content. He could patronize every cocotte in the neighbourhood. He could lead honest women astray… he could be the most marvellous, irresistible unscrupulous scoundrel on the face of this earthy, and I should absolutely worship him….’

In 1920 Trefusis was propositioned by a wealthy man who wanted to set her up as his mistress. She writes a very funny letter to Vita explaining this, in the manner of a professional courtesan giving up her respectable younger male lover:
After all, we have both always known I was predestined to become Z’s mistress – it is merely a matter of time. It is very soothing to have hit upon one’s real metier at last. … Write to me sometimes: I shall often think with regret of the happy times we have spent together. I shall always have a soft corner in my heart for you.
The letter is clever and hilarious: the next day she felt obliged to send a telegram to Vita explaining that it wasn’t serious – but it’s not clear if that’s because of a reply from Vita, or because she feared a misunderstanding.

The top picture shows 1918 lingerie, on sale in London – picture from the New York Public Library. The second one, 
Intimate Reflection in the Mirror on the Dressing Table by Konstantin Somov, is from the Athenaeum website


  1. Moira - What a great book to highlight. Letters tell us, as little else can, so much about the relationship between people. And they give such a fascinating, human picture of an era. And I do like that concept of 'grades.' It's just such a perfect look at romance of the day - a sociological 'snapshot.'

    1. Yes, there's something unfakeable about real, contemporary letters, isn't there? These ones make for fascinating reading...

  2. Sounds very interesting. I like the letter you featured. And both images are very nice.

    1. I've been reading a lot by and about these two women, Tracy, and this book was a nice accompaniment.

  3. Moira: Who would not be anxious to open the mail if such letters might be there. I cannot help but note how much more literate and entertaining they are than the emails, texts and twitters I see exchanged in current court cases.

    1. I suppose they also thought their letters were private, and as we know, our emails texts and twitters tend not to be,,,

  4. I hope Violet took the money - but I bet she didn't! Do writers of historical fiction read contemporary letters?

    1. No, I think she was far too honourable. Good point about the historians - as I said above, there's something unfakeable about letters. I think David Kynaston uses them to great effect in his books about the 1950s.


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