Vita's Talent Was in Her life.(BOOKS)

Article excerpt

Byline: Martin Rubin, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Tall, dark, and (in some people's eyes) handsome, the English aristocrat Vita Sackville-West considered it a great misfortune she was not born a man, not so much because she was a rather masculine woman who was attracted to other women as because being born female deprived her of the right to inherit Knole, the historic house which had been in the Sackville family for centuries.

Although she pursued a number of love affairs, her unorthodox marriage to diplomat and writer Harold Nicolson proved, in the eyes of the couple and their children, a notable success. An outdoorish woman who loved gardening, she enjoyed a career as a novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, and garden writer and was also the model for the gender-shifting hero/heroine of her friend Virginia Woolf's novel "Orlando."

To the extent that Vita Sackville-West is known today, it is largely because of "Orlando" and, even more, "Portrait of a Marriage," her son Nigel Nicolson's groundbreakingly frank account of his parents' unconventional life together. The burgeoning fame of her friend and lover Virginia Woolf, endlessly driven by the growth of feminist literary criticism, has also given Miss Sackville-West (she vastly preferred this appellation to Mrs., or later Lady, Nicolson) a little extra exposure to the spotlight.

As a devoted wife and mother who was also a dedicated philanderer - mostly with other women, but at least once with a man - yet managed to juggle all this with maximum satisfaction and minimum destructiveness to all concerned, she is inevitably a figure who fascinates.

But "Vita Sackville-West: Selected Writings," as presented by Mary Ann Caws, is not another portrait of the Nicolson marriage, or indeed, of Vita's arresting personality or the life she led. Rather, it is an attempt to provide an overview of her writing, fiction and nonfiction. This is perhaps a necessary corrective, since her later fame as a figure has tended to eclipse the fact that once she was famous as a writer.

The author of many bestselling novels as well as short stories and poems, she was also a frequent broadcaster on the BBC radio's cultural programming. And for many who were unaware of her literary output, she was England's leading writer of gardening advice, whose columns ran in London's Sunday "Observer" for many decades. Indeed, the garden she created at Sissinghurst, the ancient house in Kent which she and her husband restored so lovingly, serves as a monument to her distinctive horticultural taste. Perhaps recognizing this, professor Caws has somewhat coyly dedicated this volume "To Sissinghurst."

The author has given a representative sampling of the wide variety of the genres in which her subject operated, excerpting several novels, giving us some short stories, poems, and letters, plus some of the gardening columns and parts of her most celebrated travel book, "Passenger to Teheran" (1926), among other offerings. She has also given in full the diary Miss Sackville-West kept during a lecture tour of the United States in the winter of 1933, as well as a brief selection from her diaries as a young woman.

There is nothing wrong with Ms. Caws's methodology and this book certainly serves as an adequate tour d'horizon of her subject's oeuvre. Yet the picture which emerges is on the whole less attractive and compelling than the figure glimpsed elsewhere, most notably in the selections from her letters included in her husband's published "Diaries" and in her correspondence with Virginia Woolf which was published two decades ago.

Ms. Caws provides a handful of letters to Virginia Woolf, but they are on the whole lackluster; there are so many better ones she might have chosen. I think especially of her spirited rejection of her feminist friend's espousal of women's superiority to men. …