Where writers write: Vita Sackville-West’s tower writing room

Where writers write: Vita Sackville-West’s tower writing room

Vita Sackville-West, black and white image, head and shoulders, wearing hat and tie-scarf

It’s a long way from a shed, or even a lodge. Vita Sackville-West’s writing room was in a twin-turreted, Elizabethan tower at Sissinghurst Castle, in Kent.


Sound like a fairytale? ‘It was Sleeping Beauty’s castle with a vengeance’, Sackville-West said in 1950, recalling the wet, April day twenty years earlier she first set eyes on Sissinghurst. It also needed ‘a great deal of laborious tidying up’.

What had once been a Tudor palace fit for a queen — Elizabeth I did stay there once, for three days — was now in ruins. Not a single room was habitable and, as for the garden, there wasn’t one. A rubbish dump, of chicken wire, bottles and tins, it was a tangle of brambles. And the moat was silted up.

Where did Vita Sackville-West live?

But in 1930, Vita Sackville-West was looking for a project. Long Barn, the house in Sevenoaks she and her husband Harold Nicolson bought in 1915, was no longer ideal. Hearing rumours the meadows around it were to be sold to a battery chicken farmer, they’d decided to move.

She was also no stranger to life in a palace – a much grander one at that. Born in 1892, the only child of Lord and Lady Sackville, she grew up at Knole.

Knole and the Sackvilles

Writers's rooms: Vita Sackville WestKnole, Sevenoaks.

Originally an archbishop’s palace, the vast, Kentish house of Knole is one of the largest in England. Built over 4 acres, legend had it there were 365 rooms, until the National Trust took ownership in 1947 and bothered to count. Turns out it’s more like 400, 15 of which are open to the public.

The inspiration for Chevron, the grand house in her novel, The Edwardians, Knole was Vita’s passion. ‘I loved it,’ she wrote in Knole and the Sackvilles, ‘and took it for granted that Knole loved me’. But when it came to its inheritance, the laws of primogeniture were against her. Born a boy, it would have been a different story.

Vita Sackville West’s Sissinghurst

Sissinghurst Castle was her substitute, her consolation prize. ‘I think we shall be very happy here,’ she said to her 13-year-old son, Nigel, that Spring day in 1930. He looked at her appalled. ‘Yes, I think we can make something rather lovely out of it’.

Which, of course they did. They repaired the surviving buildings: two bedrooms for themselves in one of the cottages; one each for sons Ben and Nigel in another; then set about creating the famous Sissinghurst Castle Garden. Owned now by the National Trust, it’s flooded with visitors year-round.

No fan of the twentieth century, Vita Sackville-West’s heroes were Elizabethan: Shakespeare, Sir Philip Sidney — and Knole. If Sissinghurst had been just rubble of bricks with no history, she wouldn’t have fallen so hard for it. Or, so fast.

But Sissinghurst seeps history. That it shared a similar moment of sixteenth century splendour to Knole, fed her imagination from the moment she arrived. It also inspired a poem she wrote shortly after they bought the place, which opens:

A tired swimmer in the waves of time

I throw my hands up: let the surface close:

Sink down through centuries to another clime,

And buried find the castle and the rose.

Sissinghurst, 1931

Rising ‘tall and damask as a summer flower’, the slim, brick tower lies at the poem’s heart. It was to the tower she’d retreat after gardening all day, and write half the night ‘in the high room where tall the shadows tilt’.

Vita Sackville-West's writing room, the tower at Sissinghurst

Sissinghurst Tower

In 1930, while the cottages were being restored, the family slept on camp beds in a room on the first floor of the tower. One morning, so the story goes, they were ‘breakfasting off sardines and honey on a packing case’ when Harold loosened a brick in the wall with his butter knife.

Vita peered through the hole into the turret room next-door. ‘That will be my library; and this,’ she waved a teaspoon around the room, ‘will be my sitting room’.

A month of two later it was. And remained hers for the thirty two years that followed, until her death in 1962. She wrote twenty books in her beloved eerie. And from 1946 to 1961 her popular weekly gardening column for The Observer.

Electricity was eventually installed in the tower and a brick fireplace built. But Vita rarely lit it. To keep warm while working, she’d shrug on extra layers of clothing or drape herself in blankets. On the rare occasions she did switch on the electric fire, she’d restrict its use to one bar.

Vita Sackville West’s writing room

Shy in person, she was fluent when writing. Not just in English either; in French and Italian, too. Pages and pages of her manuscripts are completely without correction.

The same is true of the dozen or so novels and plays she wrote in her teens and acted out alone in the attics at Knole. It was only when she was writing poetry there would be many drafts. But as she explained in an essay she wrote for the New Statesman, ‘poetry requires a magic which mere prose is unable to provide’.

‘Prose is a poor thing, a poor inadequate thing compared with poetry which says so much more in shorter time,’ she goes on, before concluding, ‘writing, is indeed a strange and difficult profession’.

She was reticent about her writing. Often, the family wouldn’t know the subject, or title, of her work in progress till it was in print. Few were ever admitted to her tower room.

The boys would go to the foot of the staircase in the opposite turret to shout that lunch was ready, or that she was wanted on the phone. But by an unspoken rule, they never climbed the stairs. After his mother’s death Nigel Nicolson realised that in thirty years, he’d been inside it only half a dozen times.

Vita’s writing room preserved

Even now, while the tower is open to the public, Vita Sackville-West’s writing room is off-limits. Climb the seventy-eight stairs to the top and you may glimpse it, through a wrought iron gate. It’s to preserve it, says the National Trust; even the carpet is original.

During her lifetime, Vita refused ever to renew the decor, even when the wallpaper began to peel and the tassels to fray. Her possessions must grow old with her, she said. She liked being surrounded by evidence of time passing.

Now time stands still. A pair of steps lie abandoned in the turret library. Over four thousand books still line the shelves, organised by subject, they range from astronomy to Renaissance poetry and from 1930s gender theory to gardening.

Lying in a corner, is the Gladstone bag Nigel Nicolson spotted when he was taking a last look round Vita’s writing room after her death. Opening it, he found her unpublished memoir. Believing she wrote it with its eventual publication in mind he waited until his father had died. Adding excerpts from letters and diaries, plus his own take on his parents’ marriage, Portrait of a Marriage appeared in 1973.

Vita Sackville-West’s writing desk

Vita Sackville West's writing room

Over on the battered oak writing table there are biros, paper clips, spectacles and soil samples. A chewed amber cigarette holder along with a miniature calendar of Alsatian dogs. A photograph of Harold sits on one side of the desk, on the right, a same-sized portrait of Virginia Woolf.

Elsewhere in the room is a stone from Persepolis, crystal rabbits from Violet Trefusis, Pepita’s dancing slipper, furniture sourced by Virginia Woolf and embroideries worked by Gwen St Aubuyn. Filled with romantic relics, it’s a shrine to Vita Sackville-West’s complicated, colourful life.

Even in her writing room, Vita Sackville-West’s work seems overshadowed by the sensational story of her life and love-affairs. Compared with the numbers who tramp round Sissinghurst and Knole, or watched Portrait of a Marriage and the Vita and Virginia movie, few people read her books nowadays. Many are out of print and even second-hand copies of some are hard to come by.

Vita Sackville-West’s writing

A poet, novelist, travel writer, biographer, journalist and historian, Vita Sackville West was as prolific in genre as she was in works. Awarded Companion of Honour for her services to literature in 1947, she published over thirty-five books in her lifetime.

Histories, Knole and the Sackvilles and The Diary of the Lady Anne Clifford, were perhaps inevitable given her ancestry. But her biographies of embattled women: Aphra Benn, Joan of Arc and Pepita — are more than mere routine re-tellings of the facts and are still much admired. Her travel writing — Passenger to Teheran and Twelve Days show her perception; her imaginative ways of looking.

As for her poetry, ‘out of date, rubbishy’ she called it. She was, after all, writing traditional poems on traditional themes at a time when the likes of T S Eliot, and Auden were showily experimenting. Yet she won the Hawthornden Prize not once, but twice for her verse. First for The Land in 1927, then for her Collected Poems in 1933.

From 1946 to 1961 she wrote In your Garden, a weekly column in The Observer. It became a gardening classic. She may have had Sissinghurst’s acres, but she was able to address readers with smaller patches, or no garden at all. But then she was no armchair gardener. She did all the hard jobs, from the finger-nail to the back breaking.

And her novels were popular. Written as a sort of joke, her take-down of aristocracy, The Edwardians, published by the Hogarth Press in 1930, was an instant success. It famously paid for the Woolfs’ Frigidaire. While Seducers in Ecuador (1924) outsold Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.

Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf

Vita Sackville-West's writing room. Vita with Virginia Woolf

Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf met first at a Bloomsbury dinner party in December 1922. Their affair, (although more mental and spiritual than physical) began in 1925 and ended in 1928. It was not Vita’s first.

When she married Harold in the chapel at Knole in 1912, she was already involved with another woman And before Virginia, of course, there was Violet Trefusis.

Both Harold and Vita were bi-sexual, their marriage as open as the lines of communication between them. And Vita, according to her son Nigel, ‘was always in love’. She had several other lovers while she and Virginia were intimate.

Donkey west

Virginia thought ‘donkey West’ as she called Vita rather stupid. ‘In brain and insight she is not as highly organised as I am’, she wrote in her diary. But was apparently dazzled by her presence. ‘She shines in the grocer’s shop at Sevenoaks with a candle-lit radiance’, she continues, ‘stalking on legs like beech-trees, pink glowing, grape clustered, pearl hung’.

Vita, on the other hand, thought Virginia ‘dressed atrociously’, but was entranced by the brilliance of her mind. ‘I think she is one of the most mentally exciting people I know,’ she wrote to Harold in December 1925, adding ‘I love her, but couldn’t fall “in love” with her, so don’t be nervous’.

‘I’m not really bothered about Virginia,’ Harold replied in January 1926. ‘I think you are probably very good for each other.’ He was right.

Vita was the more popular and better-selling author in the 1920s, and her books made money for the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press. But Virginia did not admire her work. In a letter to Jacques Raverat (having again extolled the virtues of Vita’s legs, ‘running like slender pillars up into her trunk’) Woolf said:

Why she writes, which she does with complete competency and a pen of brass, is a puzzle to me. If I were she, I should merely stride, with eleven Elk hounds behind me, through my ancestral woods.

Their relationship, however, provoked in each some of their best writing.

Seducers in Ecuador

‘You asked me to write a story for you’, Vita wrote to Virginia in July 1924 and promptly produced Seducers in Ecuador. Fantastical and darkly comic, the novella takes readers on a voyage with Arthur Lomax and his coloured, perspective-altering specs. The most experimental of Vita’s fictions, it’s the one in which Virginia’s influence shows best. And Woolf, in fact, thought the novella so good, she admitted being jealous of it.

Orlando

Vita’s effect on Virginia was Orlando. Dedicated to V. Sackville-West, it was inspired by the story Vita told of herself: her history; the scandals; her ancestry and Knole. And just as Vita’s attention turned to other lovers, Virginia reclaimed and rewrote her.

A novel calling itself a biography which mocks biography-writing, Orlando weaves Vita in and out of centuries, tosses her from century to century and gender to gender before ending with a photograph of her in the garden with the dogs.

Published in 1928, it was a best-seller. The sales tipped Woolf’s income over the magical £500 a year she declared a woman needed to earn to write full-time. And she started planning a new room of her own.

That Christmas she gave Vita a gift of the manuscript. She loved it. But it was more than that, as Nigel Nicolson saw. ‘The novel identified her with Knole for ever. Virginia by her genius had provided Vita with a unique consolation for having been born a girl, for her exclusion from her inheritance.’

Vita gave Virginia a string of amber beads.

Vita Sackville-West books

If you’re new to Vita Sackville-West’s work and wondering where to start, try these. (Click on an image to buy from an independent bookseller.)

Vita Sackville-West biography

Who was Vita Sackville-West? If it’s her life that interests you, start with these. (Click on an image to buy from an independent bookseller.)

Read more posts in my Where writers write series.

Summary
Vita Sackville-West's tower writing room
Article Name
Vita Sackville-West's tower writing room
Description
Vita Sackville-West's wrote in an Elizabethan tower at Sissinghurst Castle. Charlotte Peacock takes a look at her writing room and her work.
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