Intended as ‘a romantic adventure story’, Challenge was Vita Sackville-West’s second work of fiction and was completed in 1920. It follows her first novel, Heritage, which had ‘met with unusual acclaim’ according to her son. Due to personal turmoil – the author’s affair with Violet Trefusis reaching its ‘peak’ – however, Challenge was not published in the United Kingdom until 1974, ‘for fear of the scandal it would cause’. It has recently been reprinted by Virago.
The novel itself is semi-autobiographical. Echoes of both Violet and Vita are realised in the characters of Eve and Julian respectively. Challenge, according to Nigel Nicolson, was essentially Sackville-West’s ‘declaration of defiance… She wished to publish it as a memorial to what she had endured, as her statement of what love could and should be’.
The novel takes place upon a fictional Greek island named Herakleion, which is peopled by a ‘diplomatic, indigenous, and cosmopolitan society’. It is ‘a little place’ where ‘one forgets that one is not at the centre of the world’. Challenge opens with a character named Madame Lafarge and her daughter Julie, neither of whom are central characters. Instead, Sackville-West has used them to give an overview of the historical and political background to ‘the Islands’.
Julian Davenport and his father, William, are soon introduced. Despite his current studies at Oxford University, Julian was raised on the island and likes to think he knows the ins and outs of the society around him. He is a very privileged young man, just nineteen years old when the novel begins and ‘no longer permitted to be a boy’. The Davenport family ‘for three generations had been the wealthiest in the little state’. A rather old-fashioned uncle of Julian’s tells him rather patronisingly: ‘You don’t belong there, boy… You’re English. Bend the riches of that country to your own purpose… Impose yourself. Make ‘em adopt your methods. That’s the strength of English colonisation’.
This edition includes an introduction by author Stella Duffy, as well as the original foreword written by Sackville-West’s son, Nigel Nicolson, which was first added to the book in 1974. Duffy believes that ‘in many ways, Sackville-West has written a classic Greek drama’. In her introduction, she also states that she sees the main protagonists in the following way: ‘Eve as all-knowing, all-entrancing femme and Julian as passionate, political butch’. Julian believes Eve to be ‘spoilt, exquisite, witty… detached from such practical considerations as punctuality, convenience, [and] reliability’, whilst Eve concurrently views Julian with the utmost disinterest.
The third person omniscient narrative is split into three different sections, one of which follows Julian and another, Eve. The storyline itself is weighted down by political occurrences and social beliefs, and is also rather heavy with regard to the historical context. The account of the love which occurs between Julian and Eve is built up rather too gradually, and their tale is often sadly overshadowed by the context in which it takes place.
Sackville-West’s prose is rich and descriptive from the outset, and she is certainly at her best when describing the lush scenery of the island, which becomes a character in itself. Her character descriptions are inventive – Julian’s ‘black wavy hair grew straight back, smoothed to the polish of a black greyhound’, Madame Lafarge’s bust is ‘generously furnished’, her husband is ‘majestically bearded’ and another man has a ‘wrinkled saffron face’.
Despite, or perhaps due to, the prose style, however, the novel is rather difficult to get into. Some of the conversations throughout seem a little disjointed, particularly when important comments are made by one character and ignored by another.
To conclude, Challenge is unfortunately a rather disappointing novel. Sackville-West is at her best when writing about England with its vast expanses of countryside and grand estates, and not of a country which she has never visited. There is not the same sense of wonder or similar dazzling prose which fills novels such as All Passion Spent and Family History. It is a real shame, but Challenge seems to be lacking in something fundamental.