Gardens, Vita, and Virginia


All photos by Phillip Trey

The style of the gardens behind the wall and tower are blended seamlessly – a mix of meandering precise paths. Some straightforward, others curving off in a new direction. Maze-like hedges hiding statues and special views, overgrown benches and manicured lawns, small pergolas and colorful flowers. Snaking vines and uniform trellises throughout the property are like bones forming a rib cage, overlaid with sinuous blood vessels. All of it with a purpose. Somewhere I found with breathtaking beauty, and full of a history I was dying to know more about.

Sissinghurst Castle is a place I have heard of many, many times. It is also a place that has passed through many hands over the years, but it is Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson that are responsible for the beauty the grounds encompass today. Vita described the garden undertaking as, “something more than merely interesting. It is great fun and endlessly amusing as an experiment, capable of perennial improvement, as you take away the things that don’t fit in, or that don’t satisfy you, and replace them by something you like better.” It was their home and passion project, and a place I discovered after learning more about the life of Virginia Woolf. And a place I visited thanks to my mother’s own passion for literature and the writings of both Vita and Virginia.

Vita often gets categorized as one of Woolf’s lovers, and her own accomplishments in art and life can be overshadowed – although I would say my fascination with the life of Vita rivals mine with Virginia at this point. Both women had relationships with other women outside of their marriages – a secret not well kept for 20th century England (Harold taking male lovers as well). Both were talented writers. And both were ahead of their times. Yet it was Vita that was recognized as successful during her lifetime, something Virginia achieved to a lesser extent while she was alive.

I’ve often idealized (idolized) Virginia Woolf, and I don’t feel I’m alone in that sentiment. I even plan on getting the first line from her novel Mrs. Dalloway as a tattoo – “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” I grew up seeing her name on my mother’s bookshelves which included her novels, volumes of her letters, her diaries, and some biographies. Just this month, a biopic love story film was announced on the horizon starring Eva Green and Gemma Arterton about the pair. Two women far too pretty to play the pair, yet that’s how Hollywood works. It is proof fascination with their lives endures. As a queer kid myself, I have often built up the relationship between Virginia and Vita. The trappings and danger of heteronormative society. I imagined their relationship as an escape from their families, their husbands, the lives they were expected to lead as opposed to the ones their hearts desired. Sometimes I even imagined that if I were born at the same time, that I would only be so lucky to have found some ways out from the expected lifestyle of the time. But their lives, like their tenuous affair, was more complicated than that.

I learned while at Sissinghurst, and also later thanks to Victoria Glendinning’s biography, Vita: The Life of Vita Sackville-West, that Virginia would often ridicule Vita over her lineage, among many other dissimilarities between the two. Virginia even writes in her diary from 1922 about their first meeting:

I am too muzzy headed to make out anything. This is partly the result of dining to meet the lovely gifted aristocratic Sackville West last night at Clive’s. Not much to my severer taste – florid, moustached, parakeet coloured, with all the supple ease of the aristocracy, but not the wit of the artist. She writes 15 pages a day – has finished another book – publishes with Heinemanns – knows everyone – but could I ever know her?

In 1923, Virginia writes that, “Two nights ago the Nicolsons dined there. Exposed to electric light eggs show dark patches. I mean we judged them both incurably stupid.” Virginia is also quoted in Glendinning’s biography that she “still questioned Vita’s poetry, and even her intelligence. ‘She never breaks fresh ground. She picks up what the tide rolls to her feet.’” Knowing all this, it almost seems like the two would never have gotten along, let alone sparked a love affair. The friction from the two being raised in separate classes was palpable, and I have to wonder how much of Virginia’s animosity was derived from her disdain for the aristocracy.

Vita grew up at Knole Manor (another place I’ve visited), which is one of the calendar castles – meaning it has over 365 rooms. After her father passed away, she and her mother were no longer welcome at Knole. Ownership passed to a cousin who no longer wanted them. Many years later, Vita and her husband Harold would purchase the ruins of Sissinghurst Castle (an ancestral home for Vita) and began a lifelong effort to restore the property, and for Vita, to find a home that reminded her of where she grew up – and what she had lost along the way, simply for being a woman.

That dream lasted generations now. Vita’s granddaughter, Juliet Nicolson recently released a book of her own about her struggles with alcoholism and her strained relationship with her mother, the daughter-in-law of Vita. In an interview with the Dailymail, she had this to say about the grand home she grew up in, “When I have been unhappy, it has been the most important thing in my life. In a way, I can’t imagine dying anywhere else.” As for her famous lineage, Nicolson had this to say on about her grandmother:

She was very selfish [...]. She behaved outrageously to Harold, my father and his brother [Nigel and Ben Nicolson] by threatening to leave them, but she was also magnificent and funny and seductive. [...] Even as a child, I could recognise that seductiveness. I understood why people were magnetised by her. Heterosexual women suddenly threw everything up in the air and wanted to get into bed with her.

Amongst the criticism from Virginia for the higher class of society Vita had belonged to, there was also love. Nicolson goes on to say in her interview that, “It is romantic, too. Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando is all about Knole. As a woman, Vita could not inherit Knole and, by writing the book, Virginia was giving Knole back to Vita. One of the best things a lover or a friend could possibly do is give you back a place you lost.” Again, their feelings muddled by society, by insecurity, and by love itself.

There is such beauty in the gardens of Sissinghurst Castle – somewhere I would return to in a heartbeat given the chance. Inside the tower, you can listen to Vita herself read her poem titled “Sissinghurst,” view her writing desk and personal sanctuary away from the main home, it even houses the Hogarth Printing Press, which was what Leonard and Virginia Woolf used to publish their own works. It’s one place in this world where I felt something real in the air. The buzz of nature, the history found in the renovated ruins, the tumultuous love and histories of the many families and literary legends that had been there, wandering the growing gardens that Vita chose to plant herself. There is also a beauty of finding an idol in place and in truth. Of finding them at home, and realizing how human they really were.

Stay Backwords,

Phillip Trey

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