Vita Sackville-West was a prolific author indeed, writing fiction (novels and short stories), poetry, biographical works, travel literature, and a column on gardening, amongst other things. Vita Sackville-West’s Pepita, a biography which portrays the lives of both her grandmother, Josefa, whom she never met, and her mother Victoria, was first published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s The Hogarth Press in 1937. The edition which I read was sadly not an original, but it did include rather a lovely introduction written by Alison Hennegan.
Josefa, lovingly known as Pepita to those around her, was ‘the half-gypsy daughter of an old-clothes pedlar from Malaga’, who made her fortune as a dancer, first in Madrid, and then as the ‘toast of all Europe’. In May 1852, when she was just twenty-two years old, she arrived in London, already having been married and separated. She soon met and became the ‘contented though severely ostracized mistress of Lionel Sackville-West, an English aristocrat and diplomat’. and bore him five illegitimate children, of whom Sackville-West’s mother was the second eldest.
After Pepita’s death, her nine-year-old daughter Victoria was sent to live in a convent, where she stayed until she was eighteen. At this juncture, she was summoned to Washington to become ‘mistress’ of her diplomat father’s household. She goes on to find herself ‘the volatile and wayward mistress of Knole’ in what is termed in Pepita‘s blurb as an ‘unlikely inheritance’.
In her introduction, Hennegan states: ‘For what appears to be a straightforward joint biography of her grandmother and mother becomes the means whereby Vita explores and makes sense for herself of those warring elements in her own past and temperament which most exercised and perplexed her.’ She goes on to say that for Vita, it was her ‘”Spanishness” which enabled her to accept her lesbianism comparatively easily, her “Englishness” which forbade anything as “vulgar” as a public acknowledgement of it.’ Sackville-West herself saw Pepita as a ‘gift to herself of the mother she almost had… [and] an extended love letter to the woman she wanted her mother to be.’ She writes: ‘Pepita, can I re-create you? Come to me. Make yourself alive again. Vitality such as yours cannot perish. I know so much about you: I have talked to old men who knew you, and they have all told me the same legend of your beauty’ of the section on her grandmother. She extends this rule of exploration, and the hearsay she has been told, when she writes about, and tries to understand, her mother.
Despite Sackville-West’s proclamation in her own introduction to the book that everything which she has written is true, it seems rather fanciful and unrealistic at times. Due to the style which Sackville-West has adopted, Pepita reads more like a novel than a work of biography. The historical context has been used well, and does give one a feel for the backdrop which both Pepita and Victoria lived against. Sackville-West does recognise that her portrayal of both her mother and grandmother are heavily biased as, of course, one would expect: ‘The one person who never speaks in this whole history, is Pepita herself. We see her always objectively, never subjectively… Pepita herself is never explicit. In order to understand her at all, we have to find a piece from a different part of the puzzle, and fit it in.’
What I found most interesting about this account was the effect which Pepita had upon Lionel. Sackville-West writes: ‘I mean no disrespect to my grandfather, but I do not think he was the man ever to enjoy dealing with a difficult situation: he far preferred to go away if he decently could and leave it to somebody else. Hitherto, Pepita had ordered his life, and now [after her death] there was to be an uncomfortable period of transition until Pepita’s eldest daughter was of an age to assume the same responsibility.’ The psychological effects of the First World War which Sackville-West presents are also fascinating.
There is a lot of Vita herself within the book, and not just in the fact that she is writing about her ancestry. She measures herself against her mother and grandmother at junctures, and is always passing her own opinion about their characters, or the decisions which they made. Of course she has a strong connection with both of her subjects, but there is nothing objective about this biography; there is not the level of detachment and feeling of truthfulness which I expect of works of this kind. Sackville-West does not remove her own self from the book enough for it to be anything like a full and far-reaching biography.
Pepita is a relatively entertaining book, but I feel as though it pales in comparison to much of Sackville-West’s other work. It is difficult to take Pepita at face value, and it lacks that engagement which I have come to expect from Sackville-West’s books. It is clear that her relationship with her mother was turbulent, but it feels at times as though episodes have been suppressed, or skimmed over. There is no real explanation as to their relationship which lasts long enough to be entirely satisfying. Overall, Pepita did not quite live up to my expectations.