Vita Sackville-West's erotic verse to her lover emerges from 'intoxicating night'
Scholar finds writer's poem to mistress Violet Trefusis as it falls out of book during conservation work at her Sissinghurst home
from The Guardian, Tuesday 30 April 2013 06.24 AEST by Maev Kennedy, Tuesday 30 April 2013 06.24 AEST
Courtesy of the Smith College Libraries
When Vita Sackville-West married the diplomat Sir Harold Nicolson in the chapel of the palatial family home at Knole in Kent in 1913, the society column-writers enthused over the 21-year-old bride's beauty and her magnificent wedding gown. But as a poem going on display this week for the first time makes clear, there was more to the marriage than a conventional fairytale romance.
Sackville-West's erotic verse, written in French to her lover Violet Trefusis and translated by Harvey James, the scholar who found it, contrasts daytime strolls through floral meadows with “intoxicating night” when “I search on your lip for a madder caress/ I tear secrets from your yielding flesh.”
Nicolson and Sackville-West went on to create one of the most famous gardens in England at their home at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent, now, like Knole, in the care of the National Trust, but both had many same-sex affairs during their long marriage, which only ended with her death in 1962.
Their tangled love life overlapped with the Bloomsbury Group of writers and artists. Sackville-West's most famous affair was with Virginia Woolf, who immortalised their relationship and her family background in the 1928 novel Orlando.
Knole, said to have a room for every day of the year, including one with silver furniture, was lost to an uncle because Sackville-West's parents had not produced a son – a loss Nigel Nicolson, who wrote a classic account of his parents in his book Portrait of a Marriage, described as the tragedy of her life.
Sackville-West also wrote extensively and the poem, which fell out of a book in her writing room at Sissinghurst as her library was being catalogued, was written just five years after her marriage, when her on-off affair with Trefusis resumed. Trefusis, daughter of Alice Keppel, the lover of King Edward VII, also had literary pretensions, and described how her lover's “profound, hereditary Sackville eyes were as pools from which the morning mists had lifted”.