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.