Monday, March 5, 2012
A Book of Secrets by Michael Holyroyd
At this point, reader, I throw up my hands in despair at any of these characters behaving with proper consideration for their biographers – Victoria Glendinning, James Lees-Milne, Diana Souhami, me. A tragic love story –for this is what it is – has been made chaotic and incredible by the tumult of contradictions. Lady Sackville, who was threatening to cut Vita out of her Will and come to the aid of “little Harold”, could not help observing (with a tinge of admiration) that it was ‘quite like a sensational novel’.
Early in February 1920, the two women headed erratically for Dover. On the way Violet tried to tell Vita that on their last night together she had allowed [her husband] Denys some degree of sexual intimacy. But Vita shut her ears to this. The very suspicion drove her crazy. The choreography of their story grew wildly complex. Violet (who hated traveling alone and had never done so before) nervously crossed the channel by herself and proceeded to Amiens. Vita, preparing to follow her the next day from Dover, sent telegrams to her parents and [her husband] Harold so that they should know her plans and be able to rescue her. Instead she was unexpectedly joined by Denys whom she hadn’t telegraphed. The two of them, who had recently wished each other dead, got along surprisingly well as they they traveled to Calais together where, another surprise, they met Violet who, unable to be alone any longer in Amiens, had found her way back to Calais. The following day, after an evening in Violet’s hotel bedroom discussing French literature, the three of them hurried on by train to Amiens from where Denys, his entreaties all rejected, traveled back in despair to England.
Denys was suffering from tuberculosis, but to Alice Keppel [Violet’s mother’s] way of thinking this was hardly an excuse for his abysmal retreat from France – she had expected better from a decorated war hero. Quickly taking command, she procured an essential ingredient in a modern novel of sensation – a small aeroplane – and instructed Denys to fly back to Amiens. This development was much to the liking of Lady Sackville who inquired whether there was room in the plane for little Harold. There was and the two husbands flew off together.
The confrontation between Denys and Harold and Violet and Vita at the ruined town of Amiens was truly dreadful. Vita appeared shocked by the appalling abuse Violet kept shouting at Denys, who remained silent and pale as a ghost. “To my dying day I shall never forget the look on his face,’ she wrote ‘…If he a slipped down and died at our feet I should scarcely been surprised.’ But it was what Denys had confided to Harold on their plane journey, and which Harold now whispered to Vita, that suddenly changed the direction of events. Vita already had her suspicions – though she had tried to stifle them. Had Violet allowed Denys to have sexual intercourse with her? Did she ‘belong’ to him? Denys refused to answer these questions even when Vita promised never to ‘set eyes on Violet again’ if the answer was yes. And when she questioned Violet herself she saw a look of ‘absolute terror’ pass over her face. That look gave her the answer and it was obviously yes. Yet she knew how limp and docile Violet was in bed, how passive she could be in someone’s arms, how she permitted anything being done to her, how her abandonment suggested masochistic tendencies.
Could Denys have done to Violet some of those very things Vita herself had done? ‘I was half mad with pain,’ she wrote. Violet, now in tears, held ferociously on to her. ‘I couldn’t get away till Denys helped me,” Vita remembered. Guarded by Harold, Vita began packing – then suddenly dashed through to kiss Violet before hurrying off with him. They took a train to Paris from where Vita was to continue her journey home. But Denys and Violet, traveling separately, unfortunately took the same train to Paris …And Denys, seeing Vita in hysterics, ‘perjured himself’ (in Harold’s opinion) by assuring her that there had been no sexual relations between Violet and himself after all.
Even a sensational novelist would end the story here…
‘As soon as one had left her one wanted to go back to her,’ Vita wrote in her novel Challenge, ‘thinking that this time, perhaps, one would succeed better in seizing and imprisoning the secrets of her elusiveness.’ And so after a few weeks apart, they met at Avignon and traveled on together to Bordighera, San Remo and Venice. They were quarreling now, promising one thing, threatening another – and then Violet fell ill with jaundice, ‘a most unromantic complaint’. They could no longer be happy together or apart. “We are invited to Happiness,’ Violet wrote, ‘and we don’t answer the invitation.’ But the invitation date had passed, Vita believed. ‘We weren’t happy – how could we be?’
‘We hardly see each other now,’ Violet complained after they returned in the spring of 1920. This was partly as the result of severe policing by Alice Keppel. The scandal circulating round her elder daughter was by now extreme and the family was in danger of becoming, Mrs. Keppel feared, ‘the laughing stock of the country.’ Already decent families were refusing to invite Violet to their houses. It was essential that no further odium be added to the wretched business before Sonia married the affluent Hon. Roland Cubitt. As the date of Sonia’s marriage approached, and afterwards the news came of her pregnancy, Alice Keppel’s treatment of Violet grew harsher. ‘Her undisguised hatred of me is a terrible thing,’ Violet told Vita’…She says that her affection for me is dead, and that after Sonia’s baby is born, I may do what I like.’
Might Vita even now rescue her? ‘I can’t live any longer without seeing you,’ Violet wrote. She tried to jump out the window but was prevented by Denys, though he had advised her, since she set no value on life and was making everyone wretched, that suicide might be the ‘most decent thing one can do.’ Mrs. Keppel was inclined to agree.’ Mama made me cry and cry last night,’ Violent wrote her friend Pat Dansey. ‘She said that if she had been me she would have killed herself long ago!’
Feeling there was no one else who cared what happened, she still relied on Vita. ‘I want to reconquer all I have lost,’ she declared. The correspondence between them was crowded with resolutions, evasions, misgivings, sadness. Violet paraded her helplessness and appealed to Vita’s sense of power. It was an awful year with short haphazard meetings that opened up old wounds on parting. ‘We wanted far too thirstily to be uninterruptedly together,’ Vita explained. And so, defying everyone, they absconded one more time, staying in Hyeres and Carcassonne from January to March 1921. It was, as it always had been, like ‘two flames leaping together.’ But this journey was, in the words of Harold Nicolson’s biographer Norman Rose, ‘The last flickering of a blazing fire.’ The fire never quite went out. Meeting again some twenty years later, Vita warned Violet that ‘we must not play with fire again.’
‘ I think we have got something indestructible between us…a bond of childhood and subsequent passion, such as neither of us will share with anyone else,’ Vita wrote to Violet just at the end of World War II. Violet had always believed this to be true. But by March 1921, when Vita was finishing the narrative of their affair and wondering in ‘great unhappiness’ whether she might ‘never see Violet again’, Violet already knew the answer: ‘You have chosen, my darling; you had to chose between me and your family, and you have chosen them.’
Over fifty years later, when Vita’s novel Challenge was finally published in Britain, there appeared to be ‘nothing here for the prurient’, Paul Theroux wrote in the review for The Times, ‘one is left wondering why it was suppressed for reasons of delicacy.’ But it would have shocked Lady Sackville’s friends because they knew the dramatis personae. Had Vita made the protagonists two women, the novel might have gained a place in the history of lesbian literature as a predecessor to Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (which Vita thought ‘loathsome’). When it was eventually published in 1974, it sold well as a romantic pendant to Portrait of a Marriage. But the social climate had changed from one of deference before the aristocracy to one of incredulity. ‘The literary merits of the book are strong,’ Nigel Nicolson stated in his forward. But reviewers were unable to discover this merit. Today Challenge merely emphasizes the contrasting achievement of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. It is an inanimate book – with an interesting subtext.
Violet Trefusis’s novels ( Echo, Broderier Anglaise, Hunt the Slipper, Pirates at Play), however, coming at the end of a great tradition of the novel as social tragi-comedy of manners, added a penetrating and authentic minor variation to the genre, which might be called flirtatious tragedy. She combined French wit with English seriousness and relied, not simply on customs belonging to a social milieu that no longer exists, but on the way human nature operates in a highly mannered and amoral circumstances. She was a chronicler of the human heart. The writer who worked alone for two three hours each morning went about her business ruthlessly dissecting the women who occupy the rest of the day so emptily in smart society ‘not caring a damn for anyone.’ Unable to write at the end of her life, she is stranded: ‘utterly lost, miserably incomplete, condemned to leading a futile, purposeless existence’. As she had predicted in one of her letters to Vita.(Violet died on March 1, 1972)
A Book of Secrets; Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers by Michael Holyroyd Farrar, Straus and Giroux, N.Y. 2010