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By Becca Hamilton.
“I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia… It is incredible how essential to me you have become.”
Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West's great love affair flourished across years, evidenced (for us to swoon over) across hundreds of pages of correspondence. Newly published by Vintage, Love Letters: Vita and Virginia documents the pair's relationship chronologically through these letters, not only to each other, but to their husbands, friends, and in newly collated (and much more intimate) diary entries, widening the window into the world of the two formidable women.
Adeline Virginia Stephen, born in London in 1882, was of artistic heritage. Her sister was an artist, and together they formed the heart of the intellectual circle known as the Bloomsbury Group, in the early twentieth century. She, like Vita Sackville-West, would later marry; Virginia's husband was a politically active writer, Leonard Woolf, and Vita's the diplomat Harold Nicholson.
Vita was ten years Virginia's junior, and would come to serve as the muse behind Woolf's groundbreaking novel Orlando; born into aristocracy, Vita frequently expressed her frustration that, as a woman, she would never inherit the sprawling family estate Knole. Virginia's groundbreaking feminist work A Room of One's Own would later advocate for women's financial independence, perhaps also highlighted by Vita's grudge against the restrictions upon her gender.
It was no secret then, that Orlando - a romp across English literary history - was Virginia's representation of what she called Vita's "romantic", albeit frustrating, heritage. It was, and still is, a visionary work; fluid in identity and sexuality, the titular character Orlando is an ever-shifting portrait of an aristocrat, eventually inheriting an estate that bears an uncanny resemblance to Knole, living in a body that flexes the theories and expectations of how we think about gender and sex, even today.
Love Letters collates the intimate moments of influence they asserted across each others lives. Even knowing little about Woolf and Sackville-West's publications, there was still a great enjoyment and delight for me teasing out moments of inspiration across their letters, finding an offhanded admission in one letter from Virginia to Vita that she had started writing something new, and the acknowledging wry smile of recognition in Vita's epistolary response. They inspired each other, and were often frank and open about this valuable part of their relationship.
And so, both women's lives, intertwined and individually, staked out new ground for women at the start of the twentieth century. And yet the book's preface, written by the indomitable graphic novelist Alison Bechdel, is a testament to the affair's lasting significance. There is a "dogged fortitude", Bechdel writes, in the exchanges, as both women navigated grief, sickness, discontent, and unease, as fascism's descent spread across Europe began.
I first read exchanges between the pair, just as Bechdel did, in my early university days. The language of their exchanges haunted me; "I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia," wrote Vita in 1927. "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 have broken down my defenses. And I don't really resent it."
It's delicious evidence of an illicit, heart-achingly desperate love between two women. It still brings a heat to my cheekbones; as Bechdel succinctly asserts, they embody something we long for in a partner of our own. Now, rereading the collection almost a century on from their first writing, the significance of their passion drifting into something more comfortable and quieter, in spite of the challenges they faced, is perhaps all the more dazzling. As letters, there is something paced by the nib on paper, a slowness of thought, an intoxicating hunger across time and continents as the pair longed for each other. Reading it now, we also long to bear witness to the pair's comfort in each other. Some of my favorite moments were the letters to others slipped into the collection, where they admit to others having spendt evenings curled up beside one another. Of course, as is the case with the letters, the thing we long for most - the image of the pair together - is never truly obtained. The moments when they are reunited? Here, as Bechdel writes, the writing stops. There are only the sleepless nightmare hours of the night, the inner thoughts and memories of two women apart and in love.
Vita and Virginia's letters persist today as evidence that it was always there. From the outset of the letters, the pair are unequivocally clear about what they love about the other, a dynamic mix of tenderness and care and, eventually, physical affection. Yet, we must not forget that the pair fell in love at a time when British society was socially conservative. Male homosexuality was a criminal offence, and although no equivalent legislation targeted gay women, in 1921 politicians voted to criminalise "sexual acts of gross indecency" between women. The legacy that this collection reiterates is that love persists; across time, across continents, across illness and sacrifice and punishment. It is an intimate, exhilarating read, and a delightful example of not only romance, but of women's lives, and of the enduring literary legacy of a formidable, talented pair.