Friday, 6 June 2014

Fourteen Friends by James Lees-Milne: Vita Sackville-West

published 1996




In the portrait Vita sits slender and upright in a bottle green striped jacket with open collar, her right hand on hip, her left holding a morocco-bound book across a mustard-coloured skirt. The brim of an enormous bright red felt hat shades her dark eyes and eyebrows, long fine nose, sensual lips and cleft chin: the likeness of a young woman, strikingly handsome and noble. Her husband Harold Nicolson described it rather absurdly as ‘so absolutely my little Mar. She’s all there - her little straight body, her boyhood of Raleigh manner and above all those sweet gentle eyes.’ There was nothing sweet about Vita, and the whole pose is swashbuckling, Orlando-like, determined, almost challenging. Yet Harold was right about her gentle, doe-like eyes, which in the picture are so shaded by the formidable red hat as to be barely visible. The almost aggressive pose of the figure, never apparent in Vita’s middle age when I first met her, may explain the arrogant image which some acquaintances who did not know her well mistakenly conceived. Although proud she was an extremely shy woman.



observations: James Lees-Milne did two useful things: he worked for the National Trust for years, and he kept diaries which are apparently endless, full of dull people, and strangely mesmerising to read. Sometimes you need something comfortingly boring, something that’s not going to provoke much thought other than ‘who are all these people and why did they live lives of undeserved luxury and have so many servants?’ Then, JL-M is your man.

This book consists of pen portraits defined exactly by his title. All of them could do with a good edit. Here is a sentence about Vita’s mother:
Lady Sackville set out to prove (what was the case) that both Henry and she were the illegitimate children of her father’s elder brother (the previous Lord) by a Spanish dancer, Pepita from Malaga.

Apart from the bizarreness of the situation, it doesn’t make any sense. I think the word ‘father’ should read ‘father-in-law’. Maybe? But that’s more thought than anyone involved in the creation of this book has given it.

Lees-Milne loved Vita S-W dearly – she was an older friend and mentor to him – and he obviously admires her very much, and thinks she doesn’t have the reputation she deserves. For blog purposes I have read a lot by her recently (click on labels below), and think she is justly forgotten. Her poems in particular (though featured in Philip Larkin’s book of 20th century verse) have little to recommend them. The widely-praised long poem The Land reads like a rustic parody by Stella Gibbons, you keep expecting sukebind and some clettering. However, in fairness, it is still a million times better than her contemporary Edith Sitwell’s similarly themed Rustic Elegies.

Another Sitwell, Sachaverell, also features in this book, and some other half-forgotten literary figures. James L-M comes over as snobbish, smug and pompous, and at moments quite deluded. His being childless himself doesn’t excuse a strange attack on the parents of one of his friends, who he says sniffily, ‘thought fit to call the boy home’ to South Africa. The ‘obscure reason’ for this was that the 14-year-old (at school in England) was suffering from a serious eyesight problem, threatening him with complete blindness, and they wanted to oversee his medical care. There is, I think, an unpleasant implication that the boy would be better off with English doctors, but it’s the complete lack of understanding of family feeling that is so strange.

Just about worth reading, because among the 14 friends are some interesting people.

And the picture by William Strang, in the Kelvingrove art gallery in Glasgow,is wonderful.

Another picture of her was used for this blog entry.

10 comments:

  1. Moira - I love the straightforward way you put that! 'Comfortably boring' expresses it perfectly! And now I want to know who all those people were... And I see another look at Vita Sackville-West made its way to the blog,too... :-)

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    1. Thank you! I don't know why I'm so fascinated by rich aristocratic people of the mid 20th-century - my politics are, shall we say, quite other. But I can't stop reading about them...

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  2. Looks like a young Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen. Can't quite make my mind up on the expression, perhaps their thong is hitched up too high and is chafing!
    Not one for me thanks.

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    1. No, I kind of knew it wasn't for you, and not even entering into the question of thongs. Didn't mention the Mitfords though.....

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  3. I think that Vita Sackville-West is interesting to many people, in fact, many of the wealthy intellectuals, artists and writers fascinate many of us. Maybe also for some women, there was a hint of women's independence in her and other true stories, an omen of the coming women's liberation movement.

    Of course, the British suffragist movement had been going on for years, and even though wealthy, privileged women organized and were active in it, it's still fascinating.

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    1. Yes I agree, and the books and the authors of the time are a great way to study the attitudes of both women and men.

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  4. Moira: I loved the red felt hat. It drew me immediately and Vita (thought it seems she was rarely referred to by just her first name) wears it with suitable hauteur.

    I looked up the photo in the other posting. I would not have realized they were the same woman if the photo and the painting were put before me uncaptioned.

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    1. Bill, absolutely, I don't think many people would match one with the other. She looks so relaxed in the later photo - I think she had a fairly tumultuous life, but by the time of that photo times were calmer and she was loving her gardening. She wrote a book called All Passion Spent, which I don't like at all, but it's a great title.

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  5. Not one for me either. But still, a very interesting post.

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    1. Thanks Tracy - I do enjoy doing posts on obscure books that I think other people probably won't read....

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