Especially in such challenging times, Emma and I want to wish all our readers well. We are so thankful for the online community that has grown with this blog since its beginning six years ago, and hope that posts like the one you are about to read will offer some inspiration and interest over the difficult months ahead.
In our co-authored book A Secret Sisterhood: The hidden friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf, the two of us suggest that physical intimacy between female writers has tended to receive greater attention than their intellectual bonds. Here on Something Rhymed, we’ve therefore focused on the platonic friendships of female writers. Yet archaeologist and historian Rebecca Batley piqued our interest when she pitched a piece on famed lovers Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis. Rebecca explained to us that the relationship between these two aristocratic women was also founded on a mutual literary influence, which endured for a lifetime.
Violet Trefusis is mostly known today for a slim volume of her published love letters addressed to Vita Sackville-West, aristocratic author of novels such as All Passion Spent (1931) and creator of the famed gardens at her ancestral home of Sissinghurst.
But this wild, lyrical and deeply passionate correspondence is as much a record of a longstanding literary alliance as a chronicle of a love affair. For like Sackville-West, Trefusis was an accomplished author – although her seven novels and two memoirs are now largely forgotten and out of print.
Trefusis and Sackville-West met as children in 1903 at a social gathering, their families moving in royal circles. Sackville-West was brought up in a home bestowed on her family by Elizabeth I. Trefusis’s mother – incidentally, the great grandmother of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall – was mistress to King Edward VII.
Their schoolgirl attachment was both passionate and literary from the start. Both had creative aspirations from a young age and bonded over their love of books. In their correspondence they frequently quote contemporary works of literature, and recommend authors to each other. To them beauty was God, and the pursuit and creation of it drove all their work.
It is utterly impossible to separate the women’s personal connection from their literary one. The two women were deeply in love and sustained a passionate affair for many years, culminating in an infamous elopement to France. Equally important, though, during this period both women began to write in earnest.
Sackville-West would publish poetry as early as 1909, words that Trefusis alternately inspired and advised upon. The letters between her and Sackville-West during this time are littered with advice, and writing tips are swapped back and forth with great frequency. In August 1918, Trefusis wrote that she discussed ‘these things only with you, my views on religion, Epicureanism, writing, ethics and so forth’. Sadly, her husband would later burn many of the letters from Sackville-West to her, so the extant correspondence does not present a complete picture.
By the 1920’s, however, Sackville-West was working on her autobiography, which her son Nigel Nicolson would incorporate into his infamous Portrait of a Marriage after both his mother and Trefusis were dead. Here, Sackville-West’s words chronicle her love affair with Trefusis and her decision to remain married to her husband, Harold Nicolson. In the words of Sackville-West’s son, the book is a remarkable recording of ‘the violence of her passion’ for Trefusis.
Trefusis’s most well remembered work is Broderie Anglaise which was written alongside and in response to Sackville-West’s Challenge, a novel that chronicles their love affair in fictional form. While the publication of Challenge was blocked, to Sackville-West’s frustration, by her mother, Trefusis’s Broderie Anglaise was well received at the time, but is today regrettably remembered only for its complex relationship with Sackville-West’s Challenge and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando – a novel that completed their real life ménage à trois.
In Orlando, Trefusis is portrayed as Sasha, Sackville-West as Orlando. Trefusis had encouraged Sackville-West to explore her perceived androgyny and Woolf transferred this brilliantly into fiction at a time when she was embarking on her own love affair with Sackville-West and feeling cripplingly jealous of her lover’s longstanding passion for Trefusis.
Despite Woolf’s concerns, Sackville-West would not sacrifice her correspondence with Trefusis, with whom she continued to exchange affectionate letters long after their romantic affair had ended – both women using their correspondence as the touchstone of their lives and careers.
This ‘literary encounter’ undeniably developed around the singular relationship sustained by these two remarkable authors, who would time and again explore and dissect their personal relationship in their work.
These two women were, are and became far more than the sum of their romantic relationship, their lifelong literary alliance at turns inspiring and frustrating – both for them and for those who read them today.
Rebecca Batley is an archaeologist and historian. She has been fascinated by the life and works of Violet Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis since stumbling across a book of their letters as a teenager. You can find out more about Rebecca at her blog TheTravellingHistorian. She is also on Twitter @TheTravellingH2.
A final note: Emily is now back from her period of maternity leave and will be taking over the running of Something Rhymed for the next few months while Emma concentrates on some personal writing projects. Emily is extremely grateful to Emma for holding the fort during her absence. As ever, if any of our readers has an idea for a post they’d like to write on female literary friendship, please get in touch via the Contact Us form. Do read the submission guidelines first, which are available here.