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Reclaiming her Reputation

  •  
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New work celebrates the passion of Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis
by Kit Van Cleave

Which two women were involved in what has been called “the greatest love story of the 20th century”? Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi?

The title must go to Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis, whose passionate affair created both an international scandal and reverberations into celebrity today. Violet and Vita were both born to distinguished, aristocratic British families, had beautiful mothers, lived in wealth, and believed they were destined for each other. But while they were engaged in flamboyant escapes to the Continent, much of society at the time saw the pair as playing out an almost Keystone Kops scenario.

Taking it much more seriously was Violet’s mother, Alice Keppel, mistress of England’s King Edward VII, eldest son of Queen Victoria. (That’s the same Victoria who, when Parliament was determining legal punishment for male homosexuals, reportedly said that punishing lesbians was not necessary because women didn’t “do that.”)

Violet first met Sackville-West when she was 10 and Vita 12; they subsequently attended school together. At 14, Violet declared her love for Vita, and thereafter, as Melanie Curtis has written, “she fought hard at great cost for Vita”—for years. As their romance developed, the women created alternative characters—Vita as Julian, a soldier, and Violet as Eve. They rebelled against the narrow lives their families constructed for them, and first escaped to Paris together in November 1919.

Their public affection in France drew attention and, given their connections with the English upper class, was soon reported back to Mrs. Keppel. They were forced to return home, and encouraged to keep apart. Vita’s husband, Harold Nicholson, who was bisexual and a ranking government official, had no real problem with his wife having another alliance, particularly since he was out of the country much of the time on business. But discretion would have been demanded—not suggested—by both Nicholson and Mrs. Keppel, as well as Vita’s mother, Lady Sackville-West.

The pair kept dressing as a heterosexual couple and returning to Paris—for two months in 1919, and again in l920. This time, Nicholson and Violet’s chosen (by her mother) husband, Denys Trefusis, jumped in a two-seater plane and went to retrieve the lovers from a Paris hotel room. There, Denys inferred Violet had slept with him, though she had only agreed to marry him as a cover, with the agreement that he would never request sex from her.

Vita’s reaction was immediate and hysterical. She stormed, she raged; she said she would never see Violet again. Everyone caught ships back to England (sometimes the same one, by accident). Six weeks later, Vita returned to Violet in France, and in 1921 the pair escaped again. But their affair was winding down—on Vita’s side, at least—as she soon became the lover of writer Virginia Woolf. For Violet, Vita remained the great love of her life, though when she was finally forced to give up her dreams, she did have other relationships.

In his well-regarded Portrait of a Marriage, Vita’s son Nigel Nicholson used his mother’s journals and letters to recount the life of his parents. The book held Violet responsible for much of the scandal, as did other writers who noted that Sackville-West was married, had two children, and still lived and successfully worked in England. Violet was sent away by her mother to live in Europe—first in France, then in Italy.

Violet Trefusis has long been painted as a seducer and literary poseur by various writers close to the Nicholsons. However, renewed interest in her writing is outlined in Michael Holroyd’s new A Book of Secrets. Holroyd’s research led him to Tiziana Masucci, the Italian translator of Violet’s works in French. When Vita and Violet finally parted (for 30 years), Trefusis continued writing in a variety of genres, in both French and English. Many are now published in English for the first time, and critics are paying more attention to her works. She will now have her say at last, just as does her matrilinear relative, the Duchess of Cornwall, Camilla Parker-Bowles.

Kit Van Cleave is a freelance writer living in Montrose. She has published in local, national, and international media.

A Book of Secrets: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers
by Michael Holroyd
2011 • Farrar, Strauss and Giroux (us.macmillan.com/fsg.aspx)
Hardcover • 272 pages • $26

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