Near Sevenoaks in Kent we find the house formerly owned and occupied by writer Vita Sackville West and her husband Harold Nicolson. Now handed over to the safekeeping and care of the National Trust (something Vita once swore she would never do!) this house and its much beloved White Garden is a place which has inspired many. And I am among them.
I learned much of what I know about Vita from two books: “Portrait of a Marriage” written by her son Nigel Nicolson, and “Orlando” by Virginia Woolf, in which the central character is based upon Vita, and which has been called “the longest love letter in literary history”.
Though Vita was herself a prolific writer, she is not considered among the great novelists or poets. Instead she is known for the profound influence she had on many who encountered her and became entranced by her bold and flambuoyant personality. The idea behind Orlando serves as a metaphor for Vita’s character: “an English nobleman who lives for hundreds of years before falling asleep and waking up as a woman”.
Vita was a member of the early 20th century Bloomsbury Set, and courted controversy through her lesbian love affairs with Violet Trefusis and Virginia Woolf. When my parents were young, Vita would have been well-established as a scandalous figure in the media – though I never took the opportunity to ask them what their views had been of her behaviour.
In many ways Vita’s character shines out to me through all that I have read of her. Snippets I remember are that her mother was a Spanish dancer (immortalised, by the way, in a Tussauds wax figure at the Edwardian Weekend House Party at Warwick Castle – she occupies the lace-festooned lady’s boudoir).
Vita’s father was Lord Sackville West. Of her siblings, Vita was the one who most deeply loved and appreciated Knole House, her childhood home; yet she was prevented from inheriting it by the law of inheritance which demanded that it should go to the first son. This was the reason of course why she eventually bought the house at Sissinghurst.
Vita for me is an exhuberant, emotional, colourful character whose abundant imagination eventually found expression in the White Garden at Sissinghurst.
Harold and Vita were a perfect garden creation team. Harold was concerned with the overall design whereas Vita’s wild imagination led her to insist on planting in huge clusters. She hated regimented rows. She believed in great mass of each kind of plant, thus creating the life-enhancing White Garden.
Vita’s original idea was for pure white but she was eventually persuaded to include greys and light blues and light greens as well. This garden stands for her eccentric and individual character; one of the greatest memorials to her romantic spirit.