One of the things I love best about my blog is that I can research and showcase incredible people from a diverse range of backgrounds. So far, I’ve introduced you to trail-blazing African American botanists and world-altering female botanists. It brings me great pleasure to spotlight LGBTQ+ botanists throughout Pride Month.
This week, we’re taking a peak into the illustrious life of the “best-selling, bisexual baroness” Vita Sackville-West who, despite living in the 1920’s, was determined to prove that love could be between a woman and a man or a woman and a woman, and sometimes both at once.
Born into audacious aristocracy
Author and gardener Vita Sackville-West, or Baroness Victoria Mary Sackville-West, Lady Nicolson, CH as she was formally known, was born in 1892. Her story, however, begins with her grandfather, British Diplomat Lionel Sackville-West, 2nd Baron Sackville. The year was 1852. Lionel travelled to Paris in the autumn, unknowing that he would meet his partner for life. Romani Spanish dancer, Josefa Durán y Ortego, had just débuted at the Théâtre du Vaudeville. The moment Lionel set his eyes on her he was lovestruck.
Lionel and Pepita had a wonderful romance, spending as much time together as possible. They went on to have seven children together. Unfortunately, Pepita had never formally divorced previous husband and so their marriage was not legally recognised. While this wouldn’t normally be an issue, according to the English courts this meant that their children were illegitimate and couldn’t be heirs to their father’s title.
With no legal heirs, Lionel passed on his title to his nephew, who was also confusingly called Lionel. But hold on to your hats because Lionel Edward Sackville-West, 3rd Baron Sackville, deputy lieutenant of Kent, went on to marry his first cousin, Victoria Sackville-West, the illegitimate daughter of his uncle Lionel and aunt Pepita. Which finally brings us to the birth of Vita, who was the sole child of Lionel and Victoria.
Vita grew up at Knole, Sackville estate, which was gifted to her ancestor Thomas Sackville by his cousin Queen Elizabeth I in the sixteenth century. She was home-schooled by governesses for much of her formative years, before attending Helen Wolff’s school for girls. By the time she was 18, Vita had written eight full-length novels and numerous plays, in both English and French. She had a keen interest in her Romani heritage, inherited from her grandmother Pepita, and regularly visited Romani camps where she felt at home. This interest was mirrored in her writing, which was heavily influenced by Romani culture and traditions.
Igniting her passion for plants
We had a garden on a hill,
we planted rose and daffodil,
flowers that English poets sing,
and hoped for glory in the spring.
We planted yellow hollyhocks,
and humble sweetly smelling stocks,
and columbines for carnival,
and dreamt of summer’s festival.
And autumn not to be outdone
as heiress of the summer sun,
should doubly wreathe her tawny head
with poppies and with creepers red.
We waited then for them to grow,
we planted wallflowers in a row,
and lavender and borage blue,
but love was all that ever grew.
Vita Sackville-West, Garden Museum
In 1913, Vita married British politician Harold Nicolson. The above poem was written in 1915, by Vita Sackville-West, after a brief period of living on a hillside in Constantinople, Turkey, with Harold. There, she was surrounded in a myriad of beautiful plants, which ignited a passion for gardening in her.
She returned to Kent with this passion, and in her new home at Long Barn, she and Harold began cultivating their own little garden paradise. In her diary, Vita writes, “I have known absolute happiness”. The combination of her marriage to Harold, the move to Long Barn, the birth of her first son, Benedict, and the creation of her first garden had Vita radiating joy.
In 1930, Vita and Harold bought their second home, Sissinghurst Castle. Built on the site of a Saxon pig farm, Sissinghurst Castle was first cited in an 1180 charter. It has passed through many hands, and during the Seven Years War (1756-1763) was used as a Prisoner-of-war camp. In 1928, the castle was up for sale for the Princely sum of £12,000 and was purchased two years later by Vita for £12,375. And what did they get for £12,375? No running water no electricity, no drains and a garden in disrepair.
After three years of clearing the land, the garden was finally ready to be restored. Harold carefully planned the design and layout, while Vita and a team of gardeners went about the planting. By 1939, the garden was complete. A breath-taking, picturesque creation that both Harold and Vita poured their hearts into. In the final years of her life, Vita wrote a gardening column for The Observer and was later awarded the Royal Horticultural Society’s Veitch Medal in recognition of what she had achieved at Sissinghurst.
Although Vita was an incredible writer and gardener, she is more commonly remembered for open marriage to Nicolson, and her famous lovers, including writer Virginia Woolf. Woolf and Vita’s relationship lasted 10 years and it was suggested that the positive influence they had on one another lead to a fantastic peak in both their careers. One of Woolf’s most famous novels Orlando is inspired by Vita and was described by Vita’s son Nigel as “the most charming love-letter in literature”.
Sackville-West wrote a memoir of her relationships, titled Portrait of a Marriage, in 1920, although it was only published in 1973 by her son Nigel. Despite writing the memoir for scientific purposes in order to present bisexual people as normal, in it, she describes herself as having an “unnatural” and “perverted nature” because of her bisexuality. However, she also describes in it her acceptance of her bisexuality as a “liberation of half [her] personality”.
These conflicting statements could have been caused by her fear of not having the memoir published if she normalised her behaviour. In the 1920s, homosexuality was illegal and thought to be a mental illness. She called for a tolerance of gay and bisexual people and suggested a future where more people “of [her] type” would exist.
Remembering his mother, Nigel said of her, “She fought for the right to love, men and women, rejecting the conventions that marriage demands exclusive love, and that women should love only men, and men only women. For this she was prepared to give up everything.” Sissinghurst is now a hugely popular National Trust Property and an important part of LGBTQ+ culture. Vita Sackville-West is remembered as a passion author and gardener, and trailblazer for bisexual rights.
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Sissinghurst Castle Garden: Oast House Archive