Violet to Vita: The Letters of Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West 1910-21 (part 2)

edited by Mitchell A Leaska and John Phillips

published 1989

25 January 1918

Once upon a time there lived an artist and a woman, and the artist and the woman were one. In the course of time the woman married; she married the prince of her dreams, and irrevocable, changeless contentment descended upon her. The artist was temporarily forgotten: wrapped in comfortable torpor, the artist slept, and the woman gloried in her womanhood and in the happiness she could give.

One day the artist awoke to find the chamber of her slumbers shrunken and distorted, the windows had become so small, she could scarcely see out of them, the brocades were faded; damasks and satins hung like limp ghosts on limp nails…. Stricken with panic she rushed to her window; she saw a woman playing on a smooth lawn with a laughing child. Presently, they met; they confronted each other, the woman serene, loving imperturbable, the artist defiant, jealous, irritated beyond endurance. And the artist stood and jeered at the woman. Poor artist: Dishevelled, irresponsible gypsy, it was more than she could bear – Now the woman belonged heart and soul to her husband and her children, but the artist belonged to no-one, or rather to humanity. Fancy one, she roams the earth, here today, gone tomorrow – the world is stuck with the useless flowers of her favour…

The combination of the woman and the artist had produced a species of mentality as rare as it is sublime; an artist whether it be in painting, in music or in literature, must necessarily belong to both sexes, his judgment is bisexual, it must be utterly impersonal, he must be able to put himself with impunity in the place of either sex.

observations: This is Violet Trefusis writing to her lover Vita Sackville-West, again - see another letter here

This week I looked at Harriet Lane's marvellous Her, and was very interested in what the book (which is primarily a thriller with excellent social observation and comedy) had to say about women's careers, and motherhood, and particularly about women artists. So that reminded me of this, which although it was written nearly 100 years ago still seems to have something to say,

Violet is very pro-women, although you don’t think of her as a great feminist. But this particular passage could have been written today, there is nothing in it that wouldn't make sense to a modern woman. She is of course rather sadly looking at Vita. Her concern about domesticity reflects her concern and fear that Vita will choose husband and children over Violet, as well as over art – and that is pretty much what Vita did in the end.

It is also true that in my (important) opinion, Vita was not a great artist at all, and Violet is a much better writer. It is also true that neither of them was particularly burdened by domesticity, as there was plenty of money and a large number of servants cushioning both of them.

Claire Messud's 2013 The Woman Upstairs looked at women as artists, on the blog here - many people found the book very telling on the subject, though I didn't myself.

Virginia Woolf - another of Vita Sackville-West's lovers - had her own strong views about women and their place in the world. This blog entry from Orlando is particularly interesting. 

The picture is a portrait of Violet Trefusis by John Lavery.

I have been covering a lot of books by and about Trefusis and Sackvill-West on the blog this year: click on the labels below to summon the entries.


  1. Hmm... not for me, but we've established that. Looking forward to Thursday.

    1. Yes, fair enough, and I hope the Christie Collection will be more to your taste.

  2. Interesting post about a fascinating relationship. I absolutely love that period in time.

    1. It can be particularly fascinating to read contemporary diaries and letters, because you know they're saying what they were really thinking then - no hindsight.

  3. Moira - As I read that bit you shared, I was thinking about how resonant it is, even in today's world. Balancing one's own creative endeavors with family obligations is still very difficult at times, and it's interesting the way it's described here. Metaphorical but at the same time very real.

    1. Indeed, Margot, some things don't change do they....


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