We’ve made it a bit of a Valentine’s Day tradition here at the Free For All to share with you some literary love letter (or love letters from the literary) as our contribution to your Valentine’s Day celebrations. This year, we bring you a brief correspondence from the long relationship between novelist and essayist Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West.
The beautiful relationship between Virginia and Vita began in December 1922, when Vita was invited to a dinner party at Virginia’s house, and continued to grow and develop over the course of nearly twenty years. It would appear that there was an immediate affinity between the two women that would develop in the coming weeks and years into a force that would change them both for the better.
Despite the class and age differences between the two women (when they met, Vita was 30 and Virginia nearly 40), they had far more in common that it might at first appear: both women suffered from sheltered upbringings and emotionally distant parents, and both embodied identities that went beyond traditional heterosexuality, though the language was not readily available to help them identify at the time. Both women were married to men, but both experienced emotional and sexual relationships outside of their marriages. As Vita’s son wrote years later of the two women and their marriages:
Their marriages were alike in the freedom they allowed each other, in the invincibility of their love, in its intellectual, spiritual and non-physical base, in the eagerness of all four of them to savour life, challenge convention, work hard, play dangerously with the emotions — and in their solicitude for each other.
They were also both devoted writers; it was, perhaps, a test of their friendship that they didn’t see eye-to-eye in terms of literary matters, but still supported each others’ literary endeavors whole-heartedly. Vita chose to publish her books with Hogarth Press, the publishing company that Virginia and her husband founded, and the revenues from those books allowed Virginia the financial freedom to publish her more experimental works, such as The Waves.
Vita was also instrumental in helping Virginia come to terms with herself and her past. As their friendship developed, Virginia confided in Vita that she had been abused by her step-brother as a child, and Vita became instrumental in helping her work to heal those wounds and accept herself. Moreover, Virginia’s father had diagnosed her as ‘nervous’ as a child, and stated that writing would only result in a breakdown. Virginia grew up obsessed with physical fitness, believing it was the only key to remaining healthy. Vita was the first person to encourage her writing and her self-esteem, urging her to see that her writing came from strengths, rather than being a source of weakness. The results were truly moving. While they were traveling in Paris, Virginia purchased a mirror, saying she felt she could look in a mirror for the first time in her life.
Years later, Virginia would present Vita with her novel Orlando, a brilliant, satirical, and stunningly beautiful story about the adventures of a poet who changes sex from man to woman and lives for centuries, meeting the key figures of English literary history. The character of Orlando was based on Vita, and embodied not only her queer identity, but also her passion for life, her social skills, and the wicked sense of humor that both women shared.
According to some sources, the two ended their friendship over their views over the political decisions that led to the outbreak of the Second World War–Virginia was a staunch pacifist, while Vita supported German rearmament. The love between them, however, endured. After Virginia Woolf’s death by suicide in 1941, Vita’s friendship remained constant. She wrote heartfelt condolence letters to Virginia’s husband and sister, commemorating Virginia’s individuality and spirit in a way that only someone who loved her profoundly could do:
The loveliest mind and spirit I ever knew, immortal both to the world and us who loved her. … This is not a hard letter to write as you will know something of what I feel and words are unnecessary. For you I feel a really overwhelming sorrow, and for myself a loss which can never diminish.
Here, we present a letter from Vita to Virginia, along with Virginia’s response, written while Vita was traveling in Italy. This set of letters is beautiful, not only because it conveys their depth of their feelings for each other (and the pain that being separated caused them)–there are also some wonderful observations on the power of true love to cut through our façades and to see through our masks. Their plain, honest admission of missing each other is in itself moving, but it’s also fascinating to see both women admit to not being able to pretend around each other. That kind of inherent honesty is pretty rare in relationships, and it’s that beautiful honest that we celebrate today.
Those looking for more information on the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West should check out the recently-released book of their correspondence, as well as: Bloomsbury Women: Distinct Figures in Life and Art, and A Secret Sisterhood: The literary friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, & Virginia Woolf. For more biographical and primary source references, check out:Vita and Harold: The Letters of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson, The Letters of Virginia Woolf, and Virginia Woolf: A Portrait.
From Sackville-West to Woolf
Milan [posted in Trieste]
Thursday, January 21, 1926
I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia. I composed a beautiful letter to you in the sleepless nightmare hours of the night, and it has all gone: I just miss you, in a quite simple desperate human way. You, with all your un-dumb letters, would never write so elementary phrase as that; perhaps you wouldn’t even feel it. And yet I believe you’ll be sensible of a little gap. But you’d clothe it in so exquisite a phrase that it would lose a little of its reality. Whereas with me it is quite stark: I miss you even more than I could have believed; and I was prepared to miss you a good deal. So this letter is just really a squeal of pain. It is incredible how essential to me you have become. I suppose you are accustomed to people saying these things. Damn you, spoilt creature; I shan’t make you love me any the more by giving myself away like this—But oh my dear, I can’t be clever and stand-offish with you: I love you too much for that. Too truly. You have no idea how stand-offish I can be with people I don’t love. I have brought it to a fine art. But you have broken down my defences. And I don’t really resent it …
Please forgive me for writing such a miserable letter.
From Woolf to Sackville-West
52 Tavistock Square
Tuesday, January 26
Your letter from Trieste came this morning—But why do you think I don’t feel, or that I make phrases? ‘Lovely phrases’ you say which rob things of reality. Just the opposite. Always, always, always I try to say what I feel. Will you then believe that after you went last Tuesday—exactly a week ago—out I went into the slums of Bloomsbury, to find a barrel organ. But it did not make me cheerful … And ever since, nothing important has happened—Somehow its dull and damp. I have been dull; I have missed you. I do miss you. I shall miss you. And if you don’t believe it, you’re a longeared owl and ass. Lovely phrases? …
But of course (to return to your letter) I always knew about your standoffishness. Only I said to myself, I insist upon kindness. With this aim in view, I came to Long Barn. Open the top button of your jersey and you will see, nestling inside, a lively squirrel with the most inquisitive habits, but a dear creature all the same—
Note: Long Barn was the name of the country home that Vita Sackville-West and her husband owned in Kent.