The Steamy Love Letters of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West (1925–1929)

woolf love letter

Every­one loves a love story—especially a love affair. We may think our­selves above a juicy scan­dal…, but who are we kid­ding? Trag­i­cal­ly, how­ev­er, for many famous peo­ple of the past—from Oscar Wilde to Alan Tur­ing to Tab Hunter—affairs could not only end careers and rep­u­ta­tions, they could end lives. Peo­ple who would much rather not have to hide their love have been forced to do so by rigid social pro­pri­ety, reli­gious moral­ism, and repres­sive law.

In oth­er famous cas­es, however—like that of Vir­ginia Woolf and her friend and lover Vita Sackville-West—an affair doesn’t end in tragedy but sim­ply in a cool­ing of pas­sions into a beau­ti­ful, last­ing friend­ship.

While prud­ish out­siders may have been scan­dal­ized, nei­ther Woolf’s nor Sackville-West’s hus­band found the rela­tion­ship shock­ing. Leonard Woolf, his wife report­ed, regard­ed the affair as “rather a bore… but not enough to wor­ry him.” Vita and her aris­to­crat­ic hus­band Harold Nicol­son, writes the Vir­ginia Woolf blog, “were both bisex­u­al and… had an open mar­riage.” Fur­ther­more, the bohemi­an artis­tic cir­cle in which the Woolfs moved—the Blooms­bury group—hard­ly trou­bled itself about such mun­dane goings-on as a steamy affair between two mar­ried women. So much for social scan­dal and soap-oper­at­ic the­atrics.

But while their love was not for­bid­den, what pas­sion they had while it last­ed! One need only read their let­ters to each oth­er, col­lect­ed in The Let­ters of Vita Sackville-West to Vir­ginia Woolf. Many of those epis­tles doc­u­ment the heat­ed peri­od between the mid-1920s, when their affair began, and 1929, when it end­ed on ami­able terms (in a friend­ship the let­ters doc­u­ment until Woolf’s sui­cide in 1941).

“I am reduced to a thing that wants Vir­ginia,” writes Sackville-West in a 1926 let­ter to Woolf, “You have bro­ken down my defences. And I real­ly don’t resent it… Please for­give me for writ­ing such a mis­er­able let­ter.” The brief, ago­nized let­ter cap­tures the exquis­ite pangs and pin­ions of roman­tic infat­u­a­tion. Woolf, in response, is the more reserved, but also the more col­or­ful, with play­ful, cryp­tic images that hint at who knows what:

“Always, always, always I try to say what I feel,” she writes, “I have missed you. I do miss you. I shall miss you. And if you don’t believe it, you’re a longeared owl and ass…. Open the top but­ton of your jer­sey and you will see, nestling inside, a live­ly squir­rel with the most inquis­i­tive habits, but a dear crea­ture all the same—”

In her diary, Woolf described Sackville-West on their first meet­ing in 1923 as “a pro­nounced sap­phist…. Snob as I am, I trace her pas­sions – 500 years back, & they become roman­tic to me, like old yel­low wine.” Woolf was ten years old­er than Sackville-West, and seemed to feel infe­ri­or to her lover, com­par­ing her­self unfa­vor­ably in a sexy 1925 diary entry:

Vita shines in the gro­cers shop in Sevenoaks…pink glow­ing, grape clus­tered, pearl hung…There is her matu­ri­ty and full-breast­ed­ness: her being so much in full sail on the high tides, where I am coast­ing down back­wa­ters; her capac­i­ty I mean to take the floor in any com­pa­ny, to rep­re­sent her coun­try, to vis­it Chatsworth, to con­trol sil­ver, ser­vants, chow dogs; her motherhood…her in short (what I have nev­er been) a real woman.

The two had oth­er lovers, and Woolf, “as the old­er woman in the rela­tion­ship,” the Vir­ginia Woolf blog writes, felt “unwant­ed and dowdy” as Sackville-West strayed. But though the love affair end­ed, it not only pro­duced a close friend­ship, but a nov­el, Woolf’s Orlan­do, which Vita’s son Nigel called “the longest and most charm­ing love let­ter in lit­er­a­ture.”

Their love and friend­ship will also soon pro­duce a film, Vita and Vir­ginia, direct­ed by Chanya But­ton and writ­ten by Dame Eileen Atkins. And, if you were won­der­ing what Vita and Virginia’s pas­sion­ate exchanges would sound like in a 21st cen­tu­ry idiom, have a look at “The Col­lect­ed Sexts of Vir­ginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West” at The New York­er. The elo­quence of an epis­to­lary romance may be a thing of the past, but email and text have their own effi­cient charms:

Vita: Hey girl
Vir­ginia: Hey
Vita: Sup?
Vir­ginia: In bed
Vita: Hot
Vir­ginia: Come vis­it?
Vita: Mmm can’t. Have a toothache.

Cute. But what could ever replace one of Woolf’s last let­ters to her friend and for­mer lover, writ­ten in 1940 while Britain endured Ger­man air bom­bard­ments: “there you sit with the bombs falling around you. What can one say– except that I love you and I’ve got to live through this strange qui­et evening think­ing of you sit­ting there alone. Dearest—let me have a line…You have giv­en me such hap­pi­ness….”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Vir­ginia Woolf’s Hand­writ­ten Sui­cide Note: A Painful and Poignant Farewell (1941)

Vir­ginia Woolf Loved Dos­to­evsky, Oscar Wilde Some­times Despised Dick­ens & Oth­er Gos­sip from The Read­ing Expe­ri­ence Data­base

Vir­ginia Woolf Offers Gen­tle Advice on “How One Should Read a Book”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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