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$1 reviews are posts about books I find (or Hanna finds for me) on the $1 used book carts at the bookstores we visit around Boston.

This past Sunday I happened, for one reason or another, to spend a lot of time in transit on the T here in Boston and anticipating this I had dropped a battered first edition of Nigel Nicholson’s Portrait of a Marriage (1973), about his parents Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson. I had read it once before, a number of years ago, and have also seen the 1990 television adaptation starring Janet McTeer and David Haig (which I highly recommend). But it was fun to read the book again.

This time around, I was struck by a couple of things that I thought might interest y’all (mild historical spoilers ahead for those of you who care).

The first is that, reading with my historian’s (not to mention archivist’s) eyes, I am freshly astonished by the rich depth of the documentary record. Portrait of a Marriage, for those of you who don’t know or need a refresher, takes as its core text and autobiographical narrative written by Vita Sackville-West in her late twenties and discovered by her son, Nigel Nicholson, after her death. It tells the story of her early life, marriage to Harold Nicholson, and her tumultuous romance with Violet Trefusis that threatened to end their marriage but ended by confirming its centrality in her life. This autobiographical text, written when the crisis was still fresh in Vita’s mind, is placed in historical and biographical context by sections authored by Nigel Nicholson and drawn from a seemingly limitless supply of primary source material including family diaries, correspondence, newspaper accounts, photographs and paintings, and oral testimony. This is apparently a family that saved everything rather obsessively. I am not sure if this was because, as part of the titled classes in Britain, they felt somewhat obliged to document their private lives for the (eventually) public record, or whether Vita and Harold’s lives as writers and (in his case) a civil servant fostered the urge to record and preserve, but the Nicholson family has — in the generations since — given rise to a number of authors, many of whom have tackled autobiographical subjects and draw upon the family’s historical record. Portrait is an early example of this type of writing and I think as an example of family autobiography is a remarkable one.

My second observation, during this reading, was the way in which Vita describes her relationships with Violet and Harold, respectively, and the way they are compared within the sections written by Nigel — who is drawing heavily on family narratives concerning the events described. The marriage which this book seeks to provide a portrait of is the relationship between Harold and Vita — for it is that relationship which is seen to have endured and, in a sense, “won out” (maintained priority) in their lives in the face of competing sexual attractions: Vita’s to other men and several women, including Violet whose story is most central to this book (more below), and Harold’s relationships with men. These relationships were openly acknowledged between the couple and at times other family members, and appear to have in some measure been essential components of their shared life: some part of the glue that held them together.

The stability of this marriage — centered as it was around shared family life and a commitment to Knole and Sissinghurt Castle — is contrasted with the vicissitudes of Vita’s lesbian relationships (all comparatively short-lived), most notably her stormy relationship with Violet Trefusis whom she had known since childhood and loved passionately for a period of time in her twenties.

Vita and Violet fell deeply in love after Vita’s marriage to Harold and the birth of her children (according to Vita’s autobiography, Violet had been pursuing her since before the marriage, though Vita seems to have remained semi-oblivious, partially because she was involved in a relationship at the time with a woman named Rosamund (who was crushed when Vita announced her impending marriage). During the intense period of their relationship, Violet actively fantasized about the two going away together to the continent and living their lives together, free from Vita’s ties to family and to place and in an openly-acknowledged committed relationship. Vita, by her own account, seems to have been seduced willingly by this vision of a shared future and the couple ran off together for extended holidays on several occasions, living as a couple and ignoring the pleas of both families for them to return to England and the responsibilities that awaited them there.

It would be likely unfair to see Harold and Vita’s relationship as the key factor in putting an end to that alternate life; Violet sounds like a volatile person, impractically-minded and impatient, who tried a number of back-handed ways of separating Vita from her family life including a sham marriage to a man whom she made promise never to pressure her into sexual relations. But what I found myself wondering, as I read the story, was whether any of the players involved at the time could have imagined an end to the story that had involved Vita and Violet as the couple at the center of the tale. Whether the women, as a couple, could have — in another historical or cultural context — have been the pivotal relationship, the pairing at the center of domestic life.

As I say, it is perhaps an unfair question, given that Violet seems to have viewed Knole as a rival for Vita’s affections and had no interest herself in rural life. But aside from the specific personalities in question, I have a sense from the overarching family narrative that it never would have occurred at the time to this cast of characters (the drama played out in the late 1910s) that a solution might have been found that would not have forced Vita to make a choice between her familiar responsibilities (and, to be fair, clear desires) and her love for Violet. In another time and place it might have been more possible for the pair (and those around them) to incorporate Violet into family life rather than seeing her as a threat to it. And, too, if that had been more possible perhaps Violet would not have felt so desperate as to resort to the manipulative behavior she seems to have engaged in.

I don’t mean to belittle the love and liking that Vita and Harold clearly (through family testimony and personal correspondence) to have felt for one another — yet I mourn the fact that the love and liking of Vita and Violet faced such overwhelming odds — odds that likely contributed to its eventual unraveling.

image credit: image of Vita Sackville-West snagged from the blog Tasting Rhubarb which offers a review of a recent book on the Sissinghurst garden.

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