All Passion Spent, Vita Sackville-West

All Passion Spent

I have eight or 10 Viragos I bought in a job lot years ago and never got round to reading, well not until this week when one of you, Karen (Booker Talk) talked me into making a start. As you can tell from the excerpt I put up this morning (as I write)  this is wonderful writing, the very epitome of English modernism.

Twentieth century English Lit. is not my area of expertise, so I’ve been looking stuff up. One article (locked unfortunately) has modernism beginning with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) ” … experiments with linguistic ambiguity opening the door for many interpretations… explores the corruption of imperialism”. Though the big break with the past was World War I, followed by James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses (1922).

Victoria (Vita) Sackville-West (1892-1962) began writing, and began taking women as lovers, while still at school. In 1913 she married diplomat and politician Harold Nicholson, though both continued to take (same-sex) lovers. They had two children and she followed him to some overseas postings, most notably Persia (Iran) which was the scene for the excerpt. I can’t help adding that Sackville-West had a passionate affair with another married woman and the two husbands felt obliged to hire a light plane to pursue them to France.

In 1922 Sackville-West began a long relationship with Virginia Woolf, documented by VSW’s son Nigel Nicholson in Portrait of a Marriage (1973), during which time it is felt both women did their best work, surrounded by the artists and thinkers of the Bloomsbury Set. Woolf reportedly based Orlando (which I have read but don’t remember) on her friend. Sackville-West had a considerable output in fiction, poetry and non-fiction – I should have remembered she wrote The Incomparable Astrea (1927) about Aphra Benn, who pops up as well in Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929). All Passion Spent (1931) is the eighth of Sackville-West’s sixteen or so novels.

After 6 decades of marriage and a long and storied career in English politics and diplomacy, Henry Holland first Earl of Slane has died. Freed at last of the constraints of being a political wife, Lady Slane allows her mind to wander. Lady Slane – and only late in the novel do we learn her given name – is in her late eighties, her six surviving children are in their sixties, her grandchildren are grown up and so are her oldest great-grandchildren. For nearly 70 years she has shut down her mind, resisted all thoughts of her early ambition of being a painter, stood by her ambitious husband, and has been the calm if occasionally vague centre of a large and pushy family most of whom she finds she mildly dislikes.

This is not a feminist novel. Sackville-West said so. This is an investigation of how an intelligent and artistic woman was willingly subsumed into the straight-jacket of political wife, written by a woman of the same class but half her age who married a diplomat/politician and wasn’t (subsumed), in fact who married ‘badly’ so she wouldn’t be. Nevertheless, by allowing Lady Slane to reflect on how her life had got her to where she was, Sackville-West intentionally gives us enough information to draw our own conclusions.

The book doesn’t have any chapters but is divided into three sections. In the first, Lady Slane comes downstairs from viewing for the last time the body of her husband to find her four horrible older children have determined that mother is too vague to live on her own and that they will do their duty, and they may need to be recompensed, by letting her live with each of them a few months at a time. For a short while we view this scene through the eyes of Edith, the youngest, who may have been an interesting character in her own right, but this is almost the last we see of her.

Lady Slane however has already been in touch with an agent – in fact the elderly owner, Mr Bucktrout – of a house in Hampstead (which feels separate from London and a bit rural, but which I understand is quite close to the City) in which she will see out her days with her servant Genoux, who was 16 when she married at 18 Slane, then plain Mr Holland (though probably an Hon.). It is telling that it is only in these last days that Lady Slane learns that Genoux was a farm girl with seven siblings, who had been sent from Paris by an agent, to never seen them again.

In Part Two Lady Slane reflects on her married life:

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 …

Henry had treated her well and given her a fine life, she had been Vicereine of India and the wife of the Prime Minister of Great Britain, but every time she had expressed an idea he had paused to listen then passed on, unmoved – “Henry need make no bones about his creed, she must protect hers from shame and ridicule”.

Part Three, the last hundred pages (of 295), contains what little there is of plot. An old millionaire miser, FitzGeorge, a man entirely without family, calls on her, and callers, including her family are discouraged, makes enough of an impression to continue calling; he was one of the hundreds she had met in India; he had remembered and she had not. They talk and take little walks together. When he dies he leaves her his fortune, and she is able to discommode her family once again.

Right at the end, and it’s a bit neat, her great grand-daughter Deborah, engaged to a Duke, bursts in, lays her head on Lady Slane’s knee and sobs that she has broken the engagement and is going to be a pianist.



Vita Sackville-West, All Passion Spent, first pub. 1931. Virago Modern Classics, London, 1983

For another perspective see Karen/BookerTalk (here)

26 thoughts on “All Passion Spent, Vita Sackville-West

  1. (I have remembered to refresh the page before writing my comment this time, wish me luck!)
    What a wonderful post, I really enjoyed reading it.
    Last year in Auckland, we were lucky to have tickets for a stage performance of Orlando (see and if it ever tours over your side of the world make sure you don’t miss out. It was infinitely better than the film from a few years ago. And yes, it captured ambiguity just perfectly.
    At the beginning of my blogging enterprise, I was a complete ignoramus about modernism. I’d read lots of it, at university, but I didn’t really have a language to talk about it though I must have written essays about it or I wouldn’t have passed with high distinctions. (That shows you the value of academic results, eh?)
    You can see my naivete in this post but I still use it now as a reference, maybe you will find it helpful too:


    • Thank you Lisa, nice of you to say so. I don’t think I would see the play but I might read the book again.

      I had to study post-modernism for my degree. Very little of it stuck, but I soldier on. If the movement is relevant to how or why the book was written then I feel I must mention it. And anyway I’m an autodidact about nearly everything to do with literature, so am perfectly happy to look stuff up. And from now on I could add your modernism post to my list of sources, so thank you for that too.


  2. Loved reading your commentary on the context for the book. I need to sharpen up my knowledge of modernism – I think I understand it but then when I try to explain it to someone else (always the true test of knowledge and understanding!) I flounder….

    There is so much to love about this book. The early scene where her children discuss their mother and plan her future reminded me a little about the King Lear daughters deciding how their father will spend so many months with each of them. And we all know how that ended….


    • There is a lot of humour around the unlikeable older children which I didn’t really discuss. I wondered who of her parent’s generation was VSW having a dig at. And I wondered are my brothers and I, all in our sixties, like that around mum. I think not, for one thing they wouldn’t go quietly if I got all the “jewels”.

      I’m not going to go too far into lit.theory (I don’t have the grounding) but it’s interesting to see how books go together. So, for instance, Christina Stead left Sydney to be with the modernists, and you can see the similarities between her writing (some years later) and Sackville-West’s. Thank you for pushing me to read All Passion Spent, it was a very enjoyable experience – which you will see in a few days has spread into a third post.


  3. I’ve heard a lot of good things about Virago books.

    This one sounds great and thanks for the words on modernism, it’s always useful for people like me, who never studied literature.


    • Virago is one of those imprints that always catches my eye in second hand shops. I enjoyed this one very much, and as I said above, I like to put a novel in the context of it’s time. Hopefully my theorising won’t lead you too far astray.


  4. I have read Portrait of a marriage – back in the 1970s when I read quite a bit ABOUT the Bloomsbury Group – but I haven’t read any of Sackville-West’s novels. You have piqued my interest.

    I love Virago. There was a time when I would go into bookshops and just look for their spines. I bought rather a lot of them in the 1980s, and they were often on my want-lists, but I haven’t bought many lately. They were a critical back o bringing women writers back into play, weren’t they?


    • It is sad that we ever needed “a list dedicated to the celebration of women writers and to the rediscovery and reprinting of their works”. But we did. And we should all be grateful that they, Virago, expanded from early C20th English backwards to the Victorians and outwards to the whole English speaking world – including, at the end of their list, us.


  5. I am a massive Virago fan and have loads of them, having read more. I re-read this one a little while ago, and here’s my review if you’re interested – I loved it even more the second time. The film of Orlando with Tilda Swinton is really good, and that’s an amazing book, but I’ve also loved all of Vita’s I’ve read, plus her pieces on gardening, of course. I know Knole (where she grew up and which she lost) and Sissinghurst well as I grew up near there. Lovely to see you reading this one.


    • Sorry for the delay, I wanted to read your review before I responded. You write “I know I don’t like to bring an author’s life into their books” – bringing the author’s life in is my favourite thing! I think most literary authors write mostly about themselves. Which doesn’t stop it being fiction, of course. My theory is that very good writers prefer writing to story-telling, so by writing about themselves they don’t have to bother about making stuff up. How that fits in with the ‘death of the author’ I’m not sure, but neither is anyone else, or writers festivals (and visits to Knole and Sissinghurst) wouldn’t be so popular.

      Anyway, I’m glad I finally got round to reading it. The other Viragos (authors) I can see from my desk are GB Stern, Martha Gellhorn, FM Beynon, Geo. Meredith, Mrs Oliphant and Ada Leverson. Any recommendations? (Looking around, none of my C19th Australians appear to be Viragos).

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh Ada Leverson is a lot of fun. I have her omnibus to read on the TBR – let me know if you’re planning to read it soon and maybe a readalong is in order. Heaven-Ali has that one, too and wanted to read it with me. Fun idea? I want to “do” Mrs O but only once I’ve finished at least one set of Trollope, which isn’t going very fast at the moment.

        And I am a bit conflicted about the death of the author thing – I love Knole and Sissinghurst and her writing tower etc but I like to read books as I read them rather than as reflecting on the author, and love the idea that the reader co-creates the book, if you see what I mean. Does that make sense?


      • I’d love to join in a readalong, the problem is I’m not reliable, I get very few pages read while I’m working. I could really only do it with an audiobook. I’m currently reading V Woolfe’s first – which I didn’t list, it must have been beside my bed. We’ll do the theory of the author another time, I find it endlessly fascinating – and I suspect I have been slowly changing what I say over the course of this blog.


  6. Okay, I made a goofy snorting noise at work when I read this: “This is not a feminist novel. Sackville-West said so.”

    That “she said so” sounds so like elementary school, where the only response can be “NUH UH!” I love that authors try to tell other people what kind of book we’re reading, as if we’ve no right to say anything about our own reading experiences. Margaret Atwood insists that she is not a science fiction writer, nor speculative fiction, and it’s like, really lady? So all the made up science stuff that you write about, predicting how science will be used in the future — that’s not science fiction??


    • I’m firm believer that once a book is “out there” the author has no say over it at all. Yet we continue to question them: What was your intention? And then we let the answer affect our reading. I think Sackville-West was saying: If I wrote it well enough then you will see my feminist intention. If not, well it’s a story about a nice old lady. Margaret Atwood is desperate to avoid being pigeon-holed. Even in my limited corner of the blogosphere people are saying in almost the same breath: I never read SF/I loved Handmaiden.
      (Sorry, I didn’t mean to preach. My high horse took off and I couldn’t jump off)


      • No, I completely understand why you got on that horse. It’s part of the reason I don’t label books “literary” anymore. Now, can I tell if a book would likely be deemed literary? Yes, yes I can. It’s not hard because often times they’re hard to categorize. They’re not really a mix of any genre. They feel like something else.

        I remember taking a literary theory course and just loving learning about this stuff. There is a field of people who think you should always look at an author’s background when analyzing the text, and another group who say you should read nothing about them.


      • I used to be entirely “death of the author” but my position now is that the author is writing to us, that the story contains a message, and we need to know what context she is writing from to be able to decipher the message..


  7. The ending! XD I love the ending. What a wonderful and dramatic way to end a shockingly complex story. I don’t know much about Modernism — In fact, I never really studied literature. I just read because I love it. And that’s one reason I enjoy reading your posts; you have taught me so much!

    For a book under 300 pages, was it difficult to read it without chapters?


    • Thank you. I’m pretty well self taught too. but now I have the privilege (and responsibility!) of involving others while I do. If you like modernist writing – that is, writing that is as much about the writing as it is about telling a story – then you won’t notice the absence of chapter breaks. If you don’t, then you will.

      Liked by 1 person

      • All these isms make their way into general literature without us noticing usually. When I look at the early part of a period I like to know what writers were talking to each other about and what they were trying to change. It’s my impression that the great mass of late adopters (that is, writers) do so because it’s fashionable, or because they think it’s fashionable, and without understanding what they are getting in to. This was particularly true of modernism/stream of consciousness and post-modernism/magic realism.


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