March 9, 2013
Victoria Mary “Vita” Sackville-West was a poet and novelist, who won the coveted Hawthornden Prize twice, but is probably best known for her weekly garden columns in British newspaper, The Observer, and for the garden she wrote about, at her home, Sissinghurst Castle.
Sackville-West was born on Mar. 9, 1892, in one of England’s largest homes, Knole House in west Kent, which her ancestor, Thomas Sackville, who was an author, playwright, Chancellor of Oxford University, real estate investor, and a cousin to Queen Elizabeth, acquired in 1566. Vita was the only child of Lionel Edward Sackville-West, 3rd Baron Sackville and his wife, Victoria, who were cousins. When her father died, he followed the Salic law of primogeniture, a rule of patrilineal male inheritance, and left the house and 1,000 acres to his nephew; leaving his daughter with no claim on the estate.
In 1913, when she was 21, Vita married Harold George “Hadji” Nicolson, a writer, diplomat and politician, and accomplished diarist. His diaries, published by their son, Nigel, are considered a remarkable window into British political history from World War I to World War II, when Hadji served as diplomat in Persia and Berlin, a government minister, and a Member of Parliament. They lived in Constantinople and Tehran, and attended the coronation of Reza Shah in 1926.
Vita began publishing poetry when she was 17, and published her first novel, “Heritage,” in 1919. She and Hadji were fringe members of the loosely defined Bloomsbury Group, which was a group of writers, intellectuals, philosophers and artists that had significant influence on literature and culture in the first half of the 20th century.
Vita won the Hawthornden Prize in 1927 for her narrative poem, “The Land,” and won the award again in 1933 for her “Collected Poems.” She is the only two-time winner. She published 17 novels, her most famous are “The Edwardians” and “All Passion Spent,” and several biographies, and was made a Companion of Honour in 1947.
Her literary fame was amplified by the famous affairs she carried on with several women, including author Virginia Woolf, who wrote “Orlando” as a story of their affair. She and Hadji had an open marriage and both had same-sex affairs. Their son Nigel published “A Portrait of a Marriage,” which examines the interesting and complicated relationship of his parents. "She fought for the right to love, men and women, rejecting the conventions that marriage demands exclusive love, and that women should love only men, and men only women. For this she was prepared to give up everything… How could she regret that the knowledge of it should now reach the ears of a new generation, one so infinitely more compassionate than her own?"
Her passion extended to gardens, and in 1947 began writing the weekly “In your Garden” column, and became a founding member of the National Trust’s garden committee in 1948.
On the 50th anniversary of her death, The Telegraph wrote: “While her writing sought to imitate the human heart, in all its nuances and strangeness, in her gardening she captured a simpler, more straightforward love: the countrywoman’s love of the land and its husbandry, the artist’s love of form and colour.”
Her garden at Sissinghurst Castle is one of the most popular gardens in England.
She died at Sissinghurst on June 2, 1962, a month after her husband.