I have carried out a great deal of research on Virginia Woolf over the last few years, but had not read anything about her for quite a while. When I spotted the gorgeous National Trust published hardback of Sarah Gristwood’s Vita & Virginia: A Double Life in my local library, then, I picked it up and borrowed it immediately.
The premise of the book is an examination of the brief love affair which Virginia Woolf and fellow author Vita Sackville-West embarked upon in the ‘heady days of the 1920s’, and their friendship which endured until Woolf’s tragic death in 1941. Gristwood presents quite extensive biographies of both women, particularly given that her biography is a relatively slim volume. Vita & Virginia has been split into three distinct sections – ‘1882-1922 Moments of Being’, ‘1922-1930 Orlando’, and ‘All Passion Spent’. These sections are sandwiched between an introduction and a short piece entitled ‘Afterlife’, in which Gristwood examines the legacy left by both women.
In her introduction, Gristwood writes: ‘… Virginia told a friend, just months before her death, that apart from her husband Leonard and her sister Vanessa, Vita was the only person she really loved.’ She goes on to note: ‘The bond that endured between those two women was predominantly, though not exclusively, one of the heart, and of the mind.’ The two found solace in having similar professions, and also in how much admiration they held for one another.
Firstly, Gristwood details Vita’s rather unconventional childhood, before moving onto Woolf’s, which was shaken with many tragedies. She examines the writing careers of both women, and the personal struggles which they faced at various points. Also mentioned are Woolf and Sackville-West’s other affairs and infatuations. The detail which has been included is rich, and there is certainly no lack of amusement. Gristwood writes, for example, that ‘When Leonard was away, a playful contract required Virginia… that she would rest for a full half hour after lunch, be in bed by 10.25 every night, have her breakfast in bed and drink a whole glass of milk in the mornings.’
Of course, Gristwood devotes a whole chapter to how the two women met, and how their relationship went on to develop: ‘Vita would encourage her to be a little more adventurous on even the most practical levels – to dress more smartly and spend money. Later in her friendship with Vita, Virginia would acknowledge how Vita opened new horizons for her.’ The start of their relationship appears to have been a real period of growth for them both.
Throughout, Gristwood quotes extensively from Virginia’s diary, and from the correspondence between the two women. Contextually, too, Vita & Virginia is very well placed; Gristwood writes about the political climate, the growing fear of war, and the preparations made for this by both families.
Vita & Virginia is essentially part biography, part guidebook to the National Trust protected properties which both Woolf and Sackville-West inhabited throughout their lifetimes. Of Knole in Kent, passed down through the male generations of the Sackville-West family, for instance, Gristwood understands that the property ‘was a whole world, a small village in itself’ to the young Vita. Vita & Virginia is filled to the brim with beautiful photographs and illustrations, many of their various dwellings and glorious gardens, which are lovely to linger over.
Vita & Virginia is fascinating. As something of a Woolf scholar, I did already know a lot of the information which Gristwood relays, but there were elements here that proved to be refreshingly new to me. I found the biography a delight to read. Vita & Virginia provides a wonderful introduction to the lives of both Woolf and Sackville-West, and the way in which their relationship evolved over time. Despite running to less than 200 pages, Gristwood’s well written book feels thorough. Her omniscient, almost neutral tone suits the book so well, and she gives so much for the reader to consider.