Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West

Vita in 1910 and in 1913 (with Harold Nicolson, Rosamund Grosvenor, and her father Lord Sackville)

Vita in 1919, in 1924 (photo by Hoppe), and in 1925

Vita on her way to Persia in 1926 and Virginia at Rodmell in 1926 (as photographed by Vita)

Virginia at Knole in 1927 and Vita as Orlando in 1928 (as photographed by Leonard Woolf)

Virginia and Vita with Vita's sons Ben and Nigel at Sissinghurst in 1932

Vita in 1928, in 1933, and in 1934 (photo by Coster)

Virginia and Vita at Monk's House in 1933 (as photographed by Leonard Woolf)

Vita in her tower study at Sissinghurst in 1939 (Virginia's photo on her desk)

Vita in 1942 and in 1955 at Sissinghurst

Video with BBC recording of Vita speaking about Virginia's Orlando.

Doing It in Bloomsbury

... if you'll make me up, I'll make you.
     —Virginia Woolf to Vita Sackville-West (23 Sept. 1925, 3:214)

A young lady rushed up to me in Pasadena and said she was writing a book about you and me. Isn't that nice for us?
     —Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf (28 March 1933, 367)

In April 1929, soon after their affair had ended, Virginia Woolf wrote to Vita Sackville-West: 'I told Nessa [Woolf's sister, Vanessa Bell] the story of our passion in a chemists shop the other day. But do you really like going to bed with women she said — taking her change. "And how d'you do it?" and so she bought her pills to take abroad, talking as loud as a parrot' (5 April 1929, 4:36). Thus was Virginia Woolf outed, albeit to a very small group of eavesdropping villagers. Woolf turns the incident into copy for the amusement of Sackville-West, who appreciated the thrill of courting exposure mixed with the nostalgia of remembering their secret past.

Woolf's mock chagrin at her sister's tactless questions distracts from the curious nature of Bell's enquiry. There is a widely repeated but probably apocryphal story that, when confronted with the possibility that two women could engage in erotic activity, Queen Victoria found it unimaginable: what could they do to one another? But that was in 1885. Bell and the other members of the Bloomsbury Group openly defied all that Queen Victoria stood for in politics and personal relationships. There is no evidence that Vanessa Bell, who was fifty at the time, was naive. On the contrary, she invited her husband's mistress to stay for weekends. She lived, at various times, with her male lover's male lovers, one of whom married their daughter.....

The other question that is avoided by the anecdotal form in which Woolf describes the scene in the chemist's shop is how Woolf answered Bell's question. To Sackville-West, Woolf need not repeat the answer. Sackville-West knew exactly how they did it. In her letters she was more forthcoming than Woolf was about the details of the affair: 'she does love me, and I did sleep with her at Rodmell [the Woolfs' house in Sussex]; she wrote to her husband, Harold Nicolson, on 28 June 1926 (150). The Nicolsons habitually shared the news of their affairs with each other, his exclusively with other men and hers primarily with other women. But when Woolf and Sackville-West wrote to each other, they evoked the moments of their physical intimacy through pet names and symbolic references. 'And to think,' Sackville-West wrote twelve years after their affair had ended, 'how the ceilings of Long Barn [Sackville-West's home] once swayed above us!' (19 Dec. 1938, 417). Their letters describe their love and longing for each other but not their erotic practice.

How, then, did Woolf answer her sister? Did she say that when she was with Sackville-West the ceiling swayed above their heads? Or did she use the excuse of the crowded chemist's shop to defer responding? Bell's question suggests an open curiosity it would be a shame to leave unsatisfied, but Bloomsbury's women seem to have been chronically unsatisfied....

Sackville-West, who never became a part of Bloomsbury, introduced the pleasures of sapphism into Woolf's life and into her writing. Critics typically credit Woolf with influencing Sackville-West, but I will argue throughout this book that their influence on one another was reciprocal and profound. Their literary dialogue — public and private — was bent on resisting the repression of women's desires. Woolf brought to their exchange formal experiments in representing subjectivity; Sackville-West brought an insistence on the presence of desire, particularly women's erotic desire for one another. In all that they wrote during their affair — essays, literary criticism, novels, poems, and most especially biographies and letters to each other — Woolf and Sackville-West struggle to articulate their desire for one another and to resist the social pressures that work to repress women's desire altogether. Woolf and Sackville-West were engaged in a collaborative project — a partnership — in which they promised that, as Woolf wrote to Sackville-West: 'if you'll make me up, I'll make you' (23 Sept. 1925, 3:214). In this book, I have tried to recover the shared fantasy they created as a result of this promise. It is a fantasy they developed, I believe, most overtly in the letters they wrote to one another and in the biographies they wrote of other women writers. Their letters are promises to imagine each other. The biographies they wrote imagine other women. Through this public and private literary partnership they created desiring women. They knew exactly how to do it.

...Before their first meeting on 14 December 1922 Sackville-West was, according to Woolf, 'one of those scribbling Sapphists.' Within two years she was 'My dear Vita' (8 Jan. 1924, 3:83) and after that 'My Dear Honey' (31 Jan. 1927, 3:319). As their intimacy increased, Woolf did not hesitate to express her own love and longing. She happily behaved like one of the scribbling sapphists she had once mocked.

...In their letters Woolf and Sackville-West imagined each other. As they took photographs of each other — but almost never appeared in one together — so, too, did they pose and frame each other. How they imagined each other affected how they saw themselves. Sackville-West wanted Woolf to respect her as a writer. Woolf struggled to see herself as a sexual being. Both asked the impossible. Imagining their lives spilled over onto their thinking about the construction and representation of gender, sexuality, and subjectivity.

—Selection from Karyn Z. Sproles, Desiring Women: The Partnership of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006), Chapter 1, pp.3-17.

Virginia Woolf & Vita Sackville West video tribute

Virginia Woolf
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Last modified on April 25, 2013 by Kay Keys (