Our book today is Vita Sackville-West’s brilliant, problematic 1931 novel All Passion Spent, which she published in the unexpected critical and financial afterglow of her brilliant, not-at-all-problematic novel The Edwardians. The two books were a formidable announcement of assured powers, the type of shot across the literary bow that customarily changes both the landscape and the shooter (as indeed famously happened with another one-two punch of novels written by a very different author in 1930 and ’31). And yet, nobody reads Vita Sackville-West anymore, and any presence she has on college syllabi is more to prove some splinter-studies point than to celebrate her literary worth. Her posthumous fate has been the reverse of her friend Virginia Woolf’s, and the explanation has always eluded me. It’s simply insufficient to say Woolf is the better writer and leave it at that; Sackville-West wrote a third again more novels than Woolf, but if they’re across-the-board lesser quality as a species, it’s only by a whisker (especially if we recall that, pace Woolf, it takes more than a recondite style to make a good book) – and I don’t even agree to that.
No, I think it boils down to the Edwardians – not the novel, but the ‘long’ version of the era, and all the artistic types who got their labyrinthine genesis during those years. The ‘long’ Edwardian era has always seemed to me to be characterized not by action but by an almost craven re-action, in which so many things from Victorian times were not only rejected but inverted – in this case, the prolific-author paradigm associated with Dickens and Trollope. Suddenly, the literary reaction was a conception of author-as-sufferer that tended to convey an aura of extra legitimacy to smaller bodies of work. Anthony Burgess quips somewhere that it was Forster who ruined things for prolific authors by making ‘serious author’ synonymous with eking out eight novels and then dying. I think Woolf benefits from that new paradigm in ways that have nothing to do with the quality of her work, and if I’m right, that same paradigm has worked against Vita Sackville-West, who, in addition to these two great novels, wrote some obviously tossed-off novels, some utterly delightful gardening-books, and at least one truly great travel-memoir, all while conducting an active and public social life. That clearly goes against the grain of the whole bogus writing-as-agony pose pioneered by those pesky Edwardians and perfected (if that’s the right word) in the present day by frauds like Jonathan Franzen, and it may account for the odd eclipse covering authors like Sackville-West (or, for that matter, Burgess). The idea that they somehow weren’t serious dies hard.
This novel, All Passion Spent (thought I’d forgotten, didn’t you?) should dispense with that idea. It opens with the death of ninety-four-year-old Henry, first Earl of Slane, and it immediately gives Sackville-West occasion to indulge in the character-cutting that was her signature strength as a writer:
It was difficult to get a yes or a no out of the man. The more important a question was, the more flippantly he dealt with it. “Yes,” he would write at the bottom of a memorandum setting forth the advantages of two opposite lines of policy; and his myrmidons passed their hands over their brows, distraught. He was destroyed as a statesman, they said, because he always saw both sides of the case; but even as they said it with exasperation, they did not mean it, for they knew that on occasion, when finally pushed into a corner, he would be more incisive, more deadly, than any man seated four-square and full of importance at a government desk. He could cast his eye over a report, and pick out its heart and its weakness before another man had had time to read it through. In his exquisitely courteous way, he would annihilate alike the optimism and the myopia of his correspondent. Courteous always, and civilised, he left his competitors dead.
Once Lord Slane himself is dead at last, a quiet emancipation unfolds inside the heart of his elderly wife Edith, Lady Slane. She finds herself surrounded by her appalling children (themselves all in their sixties) and immediately caught up in their obtuse, stuffy assumptions about her. But she’s done every conceivable social duty and finds she has no desire to do more – her courteous defiance hits her children like an affront:
“About the house, Mother,” began Carrie. “Would to-morrow suit you to see it? I think I have a free afternoon,” and she began to consult a small diary taken from her bag.
“Thank you, Carrie,” said Lady Slane, setting the crown upon the surprises she had already given them, “but I have made an appointment to see the house to-morrow. And although it is very nice of you to offer, I think I will go there alone.”
She leaves the family home and takes a small house in Hampstead, and there she muses not only on the physical vagaries of old age itself (something our author evokes throughout with extremely thoughtful skill):
This consciousness, this sensation, of age was curious and interesting. The mind was as alert as ever, perhaps more alert, sharpened by the sense of imminent final interruption, spurred by the necessity of making the most of remaining time; only the body was a little shaky, not very certain of its reliability, not quite certain of its sense of direction, afraid of stumbling over a step, of spilling a cup of tea; nervous, tremulous; aware that it must not be jostled, or hurried, for fear of betraying its frail inadequacy.
… but also on the nature of a long life full of memories:
Sitting there in the sun at Hampstead, in the late summer, under the south wall and the ripened peaches, doing nothing with her hands, she remembered the day she had become engaged to Henry. She had plenty of leisure now, day in, day out, to survey her life as a tract of country traversed, and at last become a landscape instead of separate fields or separate years and days, so that it became a unity and she could see the whole view, and could even pick out a particular field and wander round it again in spirit, though seeing it all the while as it were from a height, fallen into its proper place, with the exact pattern drawn round it by the hedge, and the next field into which the gap in the hedge would lead.
For a book with such a deceptively simple premise, there’s quite a bit more than this going on in All Passion Spent (indeed, the book’s title gets more ironic with every passing page) – there are dramas, and suitors past and present, and the whole thing is so assuredly autumnal that the reader is constantly surprised that Vita Sackville-West was forty, not eighty, when she wrote it. The quirks the author imports to Lady Slane can be irritating at times, but no more so than the quirks of a great many Woolf characters who are much better known to the intelligent reading public. Sic transit gloria mundi, I suppose, but in this case – as in so many cases here at Stevereads – I could wish it weren’t so.