VITA SACKVILLE-WEST, English writer, and gardener, died (b. 1892); The same-sex relationship that had the deepest and most lasting effect on Sackville-West’s personal life was that with novelist Violet Trefusis, daughter to courtesan Alice Keppel. They met when Sackville-West was age twelve and Trefusis ten, and attended school together for a number of years. A relationship started while both were in their teens. Both married, but by the time both of Sackville-West’s sons were no longer toddlers, she and Trefusis had eloped several times from 1918 on, mostly to France, where Sackville-West would dress as a young man when they went out. The affair eventually ended badly, with Trefusis pursuing Sackville-West to great lengths, until Sackville-West’s affairs with other women finally took their toll, but Trefusis refused to give up.
Also, the two women had made a bond to remain exclusive to one another, meaning that although both women were married, neither could engage in sexual relations with her own husband. Sackville-West received allegations that Trefusis had been involved sexually with her own husband, indicating she had broken their bond, prompting her to end the affair. By all accounts, Sackville-West was by that time looking for a reason, and used that as justification. Despite the poor ending, the two women were devoted to one another, and deeply in love, and continued occasional liaisons for a number of years afterward, but never rekindled the affair.
Vita’s novel Challenge also bears witness to this affair: Sackville-West and Trefusis had started writing this book as a collaborative endeavor, the male character’s name, Julian, being Sackville-West’s nickname while passing as a man. Her mother, Lady Sackville, found the portrayal obvious enough to insist the novel not be published in England; her son Nigel, however, praises her: “She fought for the right to love, men and women, rejecting the conventions that marriage demands exclusive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?”
The affair for which Sackville-West is most remembered was with the prominent writer Virginia Woolf in the late 1920s. Woolf wrote one of her most famous novels, Orlando, described by Sackville-West’s son Nigel Nicolson as “the longest and most charming love-letter in literature”, as a result of this affair. Unusually, Orlando’s moment of conception was documented: Woolf writes in her diary on October 5th 1927: “And instantly the usual exciting devices enter my mind: a biography beginning in the year 1500 and continuing to the present day, called Orlando: Vita; only with a change about from one sex to the other” (posthumous excerpt from her diary by husband Leonard Woolf).