LOVE THROUGH LETTERS: VIRGINIA WOOLF AND VITA SACKVILLE-WEST
Love relationships that don’t comply with society’s hegemonic standards have been censored and harassed for ages and as a result, these relationships are concealed from the public for fear of rejection or repudiation. It’s not easy to suppress feelings, thus the traces of the attachment start to appear on the margins of everyday life, in the gaps between what’s expected. Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West are an example of this. For them, a dinner party or a social gathering were perfect opportunities for their relationship to grow: a chance to see their loved one.
One of the means for their relationship to unfold is through letter: it is an intimate space where feelings can be truly expressed. Nothing escapes the realms of the letter, and what goes on in there can be kept a secret, hidden from the judging eyes of society. This way, the rejected bond finds a way to continue flourishing.
Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West
Vita was married to Harold Nicolson, but they had quite a liberal marriage: they both had affairs outside of their relationship, sometimes with men; others, with women, and they always shared the details. Their bond had no restraints: they could do as they pleased, knowing that the love between them remained the same. On the other hand, Virginia was married to Leonard Woolf; they both loved each other profoundly but didn’t maintain a sexual life. Nonetheless, they stayed together until Virginia’s death.
Virginia Woolf had been warned about Vita’s reputation when she met her at a dinner party in 1922: “she’s a declared lesbian, be careful”, noted her brother-in-law Clive Bell. But Virginia, always witty, always radical in her thoughts, responded that she couldn’t resist herself, being quite the snob. They both made an impact on each other, and that dinner party was the starting point of their relationship.
Theirs was an epistolary love, a written bond, at a time when Victorian morality governed society. I ask myself today, were they able to enjoy their love at a time like that? Fortunately, they were both part of social circles where they could enjoy some liberty regarding love affairs.
Vita had a healthy and honest relationship with her husband, and Virginia belonged to the Bloomsbury Group –with her sister Vanessa Bell– which favored more informal views on personal relationships and individual pleasure. A well-known quote about the group, by Dorothy Parker, is “they lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles”. Besides, both Leonard and Harold were aware of the affair between the two women and didn’t put up any resistance to the blossoming of their love.
Vita showed herself as an enigmatic and sensual person, her liberal views often intimidated Virginia Woolf. Nonetheless, they discovered in each other a safe space to express their feelings and overcome their troubles.
Their love letters appeared as a unique opportunity to achieve freedom and improvement, in every meaning of the word: Vita offered Virginia –who was constantly suffering from severe depression and nervous breakdowns– a solution for her pain: she helped her escape from her thoughts, enjoy the outdoors, experiment with her sexuality, and confront past trauma.
Virginia Woolf had suffered sexual abuse from her stepbrother Georges Duckworth all her childhood. She was left with a severe trauma that resulted in her not having any type of sexual intercourse with her husband Leonard. She found any physically demonstration of affection unbearable since they triggered the ghosts that haunted her.
Vita helped her overcome this, and on the night of December 17th 1925, they slept together for the first time. They became lovers until, approximately, 1935 when they finally broke up, mostly due to social and political differences: Vita did not agree with Virginia’s feminist views expressed in Three Guineas. However, the breakup wasn’t problematic: their friendship and profound love remained until Virginia’s death, and even after it.
The revolutionary, beautiful, and original novel Orlando, written by Virginia, is yet another record of their passionate bond. The novel tells the life story of Orlando, who transforms from man to woman and lives through the passage of centuries. It is a hybrid between novel and biography, and the protagonist is inspired by Vita: the book features photos of her posing as Orlando.
The novel explores the range of possibilities within human sexuality, and it was groundbreaking for the time. The ideas expressed in Orlando are aligned with what Virginia proposed before in her essay about feminism A Room of One’s Own: the hope for the existence of a human being capable of overcoming the differences between male and female. Also, the possibility of reconcilement and balance between both spectrums, which would lead to a more perfect and complete artistic creation, built on opposites.
Virginia and Vita’s love, unique, tender, and beautiful, will stay inscribed forever in the correspondence they exchanged throughout the years. Their letters have been collected in the book ‘Love Letters: Vita and Virginia’, from Penguin Books.
This epistolary exchange portrays an intense relationship of unconditional love, infused with humor at times, but also defined by a tragic intimacy. It allows us to take a glimpse at the development of the relationship between two women that loved each other regardless of the time.