Magazine article The Spectator

'Behind the Mask: The Life of Vita Sackville-West', by Matthew Dennison - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Behind the Mask: The Life of Vita Sackville-West', by Matthew Dennison - Review

Article excerpt

Behind the Mask: The Life of Vita Sackville-West Matthew Dennison

Collins, pp.364, £25, ISBN: 9780007486960

Visitors to the National Trust's Sissinghurst -- the decayed Elizabethan castle transformed by Vita Sackville-West in the early 1930s -- are regaled by picturesque extracts from Vita's landscape poems, and moving professions of love to and from her husband Harold Nicolson. Matthew Dennison's title, Behind the Mask , indicates his ambition to get beyond such projections to something more real. But the metaphor is unfortunate. There was no single image that Vita adopted or which others imposed on her -- nor a single real self which has been concealed until now.

Dennison knows this. He interprets Vita in terms of a split between the reserve inherited from her English father Lord Sackville and the passion inherited from her mother, the illegitimate daughter of a Spanish dancer and another Sackville (Vita's father's uncle). The autobiographical 'Ruth' of Vita's first published novel, Heritage, is 'cursed with a dual nature, the one coarse and unbridled, the other delicate, conventional, practical, motherly, refined'. Vita herself acknowledged that 'My whole curse has been a duality with which I was too weak and too self-indulgent to struggle.'

But Dennison also finds two other aspects of Vita's family determinative. One is the selfishness, prodigality and snobbery of her parvenu mother Victoria, who presents a model of painfully broken marriage to her undermothered daughter. The second is Knole, the Elizabethan mansion in which Vita grew up and which she increasingly thought of as her lover. Her inability to inherit it because of her sex is posited as the cause of a lifelong obsession, and as encouraging her self-projection as the man who would have inherited it.

Vita's copious writings -- novels, novellas, poems, biographies and travel writing -- have now been largely forgotten, and were falling out of favour even in her lifetime. Dennison interprets them as autobiographical, and therefore sees them as fair game to chop up and scatter through his biography in corroboration of his points, always explaining 'who' in life is 'who' in fiction. Vita is usually a male character. Because Dennison's interests are as much psychoanalytic as narrative, his structure is not only chronological but thematic, and the chapters are based on titles of her works. This produces a degree of repetition.Nor are his psychological inferences invariably convincing. The Spanish/English binary has limited explanatory power. He observes that, since Vita understood love and suffering to be inextricable, 'the surprise is that she herself remained highly sensitive and easily wounded'. One wonders why.

Yet this carefully researched book is intelligently and elegantly written, frequently using what Vita's sometime lover Virginia Woolf, in A Room of One's Own , calls 'a man's sentence' -- balanced, oratical and confident. He makes illuminating references not just to Vita's writing but to others'; Woolf's Orlando (a tribute to Vita which she gleefully accepted), Vanity Fair (in which Vita, significantly, liked Becky Sharp), and Anna Karenina (which Vita reread during a particularly fraught elopement with her lover Violet Keppel). …

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