Jan. 21, 2013
I like trees because they seem more resigned to
the way they have to live than other things do.
Here the oak and silver-breasted birches
Stand in their sweet familiarity
While underground, as in a black mirror,
They have concealed their tangled grievances,
Identical to the branching calm above
But there ensnared, each with the others' hold
On what gives life to which is brutal enough.
Still, in the air, none tries to keep company
Or change its fortune. They seem to lean
On the light, unconcerned with what the world
Makes of their decencies, and will not show
A jealous purchase on their length of days.
To never having been loved as they wanted
Or deserved, to anyone's sudden infatuation
Gouged into their sides, to all they are forced
To shelter and to hide, they have resigned themselves.
On this day in 1926, 33-year-old novelist Vita Sackville-West (books by this author) wrote an impassioned love letter to 43-year-old novelist Virginia Woolf (books by this author). Vita was a distinguished English writer, had been married for more than a decade, loved her husband, and was attracted to other women. All of these things applied to Virginia Woolf as well.
The two women had met through the Bloomsbury Group of London, which gathered to discuss things like philosophy, literature, and art. Their romance started cautiously, but by the time Vita composed this letter four years after they'd met, she was deeply smitten, languishing and lovesick. She was on a bumpy train ride from Milan to Trieste 85 years ago today when she wrote:
"I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia. I composed a beautiful letter to you in the sleepless nightmare hours of the night, and it has all gone: I just miss you, in a quite simple desperate human way. You, with all your un-dumb letters, would never write so elementary a phrase as that; perhaps you wouldn't even feel it. And yet I believe you'll be sensible of a little gap. But you'd clothe it in so exquisite a phrase that it would lose a little of its reality. Whereas with me it is quite stark: I miss you even more than I could have believed; and I was prepared to miss you a good deal. So this letter is just really a squeal of pain. It is incredible how essential to me you have become. I suppose you are accustomed to people saying these things. Damn you, spoilt creature; I shan't make you love me any the more by giving myself away like this — But oh my dear, I can't be clever and stand-offish with you: I love you too much for that. Too truly. You have no idea how stand-offish I can be with people I don't love. I have brought it to a fine art. But you have broken down my defences. And I don't really resent it. However I won't bore you with any more.
We have re-started, and the train is shaky again. I shall have to write at the stations — which are fortunately many across the Lombard plain. ...The waterfalls in Switzerland were frozen into solid iridescent curtains of ice, hanging over the rock; so lovely. And Italy all blanketed in snow.
We're going to start again. I shall have to wait till Trieste tomorrow morning. Please forgive me for writing such a miserable letter."
The following January — a year later — Vita wrote to Virginia:
"My darling, I hoped I should wake up less depressed this morning, but I didn't. I went to bed last night as black as a sweep. The awful dreariness of Westphalia makes it worse: factory towns, mounds of slag, flat country, and some patches of dirty snow. ... Why aren't you with me? Oh, why? I do want you so frightfully. I want more than ever to travel with you; it seems to me now the height of my desire, and I get into despair wondering how it can ever be realised. Can it, do you think? Oh my lovely Virginia, it is dreadful how I miss you, and everything that everybody says seems flat and stupid.
I do hope more and more that you won't go to America, I am sure it would be too tiring for you, and anyway I am sure you wouldn't like it. ...
So we bundle along over Germany, and very dull it is — Surely I haven't lost my zest for travel? No, it is not that; it is simply that I want to be with you and not with anybody else — But you will get bored if I go on saying this, only it comes back and back till it drips off my pen — Do you realise that I shall have to wait for over a fortnight before I can hear from you? poor me. I hadn't thought of that before leaving, but now it bulks very large and horrible. What may not happen to you in the course of a fortnight? you may get ill, fall in love, Heaven knows what.
I shall work so hard, partly to please you, partly to please myself, partly to make the time go and have something to show for it. I treasure your sudden discourse on literature yesterday morning, — a send-off to me, rather like Polonius to Laertes. It is quite true that you have had infinitely more influence on me intellectually than anyone, and for this alone I love you."
Shortly after she received this letter, Virginia Woolf came up with the idea for a new novel, inspired by Vita, who often liked to dress up in men's clothes. That novel was Orlando: A Biography (1928), about a transgender writer who lives for hundreds of years. Vita's son Nigel wrote, "The effect of Vita on Virginia is all contained in Orlando ... in which she explores Vita, weaves her in and out of the centuries, tosses her from one sex to the other, plays with her, dresses her in furs, lace and emeralds, teases her, flirts with her, drops a veil of mist around her." He calls Orlando "the longest and most charming love letter in literature."
They ended their affair in the late 1920s but stayed friends until Virginia Woolf's death in 1941. There's a book out from Oxford University Press that chronicles their relationship: Vita and Virginia: The Work and Friendship of V. Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf (1993), written by Suzanne Raitt.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®