Vita and Virginia: The Work and Friendship of V. Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf.
In this book I shall try to re-create the particular pressures which produced Woolf and Sackville-West as wives, lesbians, and as writers. I am interested above all in the ways in which narratives of all kinds established and maintained their intimacy. My other interest is in the interactions of class, politics, and female sexual pleasure. (9)
The chapters that follow attempt to examine these issues.
Chapters I and III focus on the authors' experiences with biography and autobiography. In Chapter I, "Gallivanting with Campbell: Orlando and Biography," Raitt gives a brief analysis of the state of biography in the 1920s, revealing its metamorphosis from stuffy reverence to informal novelization. Raitt further claims that Orlando is not the "longest and most charming love-letter in literature," as Nigel Nicholson would have it, but really a subversive punishment of Vita Sackville-West, the Orlando of the title, for starting an affair with Mary Campbell (of the chapter title). Using Freud's notion that "joking is a fundamentally aggressive act," Raitt argues that biography, notorious raiser of relatives' temperatures, is similarly hostile: and that Woolf's choice of a "joke" form for her biography of the woman with whom she was so intimately and ambivalently involved, was more than a simple coincidence. It expressed the desire to hurt, as well as the desire to love. (30)
Raitt supports her argument using Woolf's and Sackville-West's letters to each other.
Chapter III, "'Maternal Explanation': Autobiography and Gender," examines the autobiographical writings of Woolf and Sackville-West, attempting to "show how, as their emotional and sexual circumstances changed, Woolf and Sackville-West continually rewrote their life stories" (62) and those of their mothers. Raitt examines Woolf's To the Lighthouse and Sackville-West's biography of her grandmother, Pepita, in light of their portrayals of the authors' mothers and the women's relationships to them, for, according to Raitt: It seems that for these women, the relationship with the mother is the site of a peculiar passion, a peculiar intensity, a peculiar fear. For the woman writing herself, and the process of her individuation, the image of the mother--the object of her primary identification--takes on a unique and ambivalent importance. (68)
Raitt finds that often this "passion" causes the authors to create textual mothers less close to real life than to fiction. The novelization occurs more often in Sackville-West's writings than in Woolf's. What Raitt argues, however, is not that these women simply put their mothers on pedestals, but that "the attempted resurrection of maternal figures in autobiography represents a woman's desire to claim her own sex, to possess and remodel the original maternal femininity against which she continually fights for self-definition" (86). Referring to Patricia Meyers Spacks, Raitt concedes that autobiography is "self-justification, mythmaking, fantasy" (73), a way of rewriting one's self and one's history.
Chapters II and IV are readings of Vita Sackville-West's early and later novels. In the former, "'Moral Eugenics': The Working-Class fiction of V. Sackville-West," Raitt looks at Heritage and The Dragon in Shallow Waters in order to classify Sackville-West as "reactionary" and "fiercely patriotic" (41) before her meeting with Woolf, as well as to document a brief history of eugenics and Sackville-West's passionate belief in the theory. It is frightening to see just how fervently Sackville-West believed in the superiority of the aristocracy.
Chapter IV, "'A Private Matter': V. Sackville-West's Later Novels," examines Sackville-West's relationship with husband Nicholson in order to suggest "she used conventional forms to say unconventional things, just as in her own life, she used marriage as a cover for her lesbianism" (ix). Raitt also compares Sackville-West's Challenge, The Edwardians, All Passion Spent, and Family History to Woolf's To the Lighthouse and Orlando, indicating Woolf's influence on Sackville-West's later more fluid and lyric style. Raitt chose to explicate these novels because they were written during Sackville-West's relationship with Woolf, but the amount of discussion allotted to each novel is uneven, ranging from six pages on All Passion Spent to one paragraph on Family History. "'The Girl Beside Me': V. Sackville-West and the Mystics," the fifth chapter, continues the examination of Sackville-West's later life and works. Here Raitt discusses Sackville-West's life from the 1930s and beyond, after she had removed herself to her castle, Sissinghurst, and become interested in mysticism. There she produced biographies of Joan of Arc and St. Teresa of Avila. Raitt challenges Lacanian theory, in which "mystic feeling is quintessentially feminine (even when the mystic is male) . . . |as~ mysticism seems to trouble, rather than to guarantee, gender" (119). She points out the connection between lesbian mysticism and autobiography as seen in Sackville-West, Woolf, and Radclyffe Hall, among others:
The pull of autobiography, and the pull of mysticism, was back towards a time when gender was in suspension, not yet resolved; but when the attentions of women were all-encompassing. It is not surprising, then, to find so many lesbians of this period viewing a shared exploration of religious feelings as an essential bond. (132)
Raitt ends the chapter looking at Sackville-West's obsessive gardening and poems of gardens in order to place Sackville-West in the context of a proprietress of lesbian pastoral, exploring the idea that in "a world before the assumption of heterosexuality" (132), an Edenic golden age of lesbianism existed. The final chapter, "'By What Name Shall We Call Death?': Virginia Woolf's The Waves," again takes up the question of identity and biography. Raitt writes:
The Waves desperately and courageously confronts the instinct for making stories, and asks why we do it, what it achieves. It explores the nature both of solitude and of intimacy, showing its six characters developing each other's identity and their own, telling stories that are simultaneously theirs and someone else's, testing the limits of the individual narrative. (146) Using Woolf's diary as a backdrop, Raitt looks at mirrored themes of death and self-identification in The Waves and in the diaries, even going so far as to speculate that:
The claustrophobic endlessness of The Waves is in defiance of a silent future. The Waves is obsessed by death as it is by the relations between people. Where Orlando, offered in place of biography, actually keeps Sackville-West's death away, The Waves--offered in place of autobiography?--perhaps kept Woolf's death, and all other deaths, at bay. (155)
Once again Raitt offers some thought-provoking possibilities, though the jump back to an examination of Woolf after two chapters devoted to Sackville-West gives a somewhat disjointed feeling to the book as a whole.
Vita and Virginia is not so much a fluid singular text as it is a series of studies linked by a common theme. Each chapter focuses on either Sackville-West or Woolf, bringing in the other more for perspective than for balance. Overall, this is not really too big a problem; it's just that the structure of the text makes the title a bit misleading. Nevertheless, Raitt probes some interesting topics, and provides thoughtful insights, especially in her reading of Sackville-West's texts. In her introduction, Raitt writes, "There is another book to be written about all the Sackville-West texts I have had to leave out" (viii). I look forward to it.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Feb 1, 1994|
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