Portrait of a Marriage

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This article is about the biography. For the British television adaptation, see Portrait of a Marriage (TV series).

Portrait of a Marriage: Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson is the 1973 biography of writer and gardener Vita Sackville-West compiled by her son Nigel Nicolson from her journals and letters. This is a book of strong emotions relating to Sackville-West's complicated marriage to writer and politician Harold Nicolson.

The two chapters written by Vita sometimes seem to be a diary and sometimes a self-confession. They are centred in herself and her violent passion for the wild Violet Trefusis, who loves her, gives her intense pleasure, both physical and intellectual, and drives her to hurt intensely and briefly abandon Harold Nicolson, Vita’s bisexual husband, and her two children, Nigel and Ben.

The three chapters written by Nigel Nicolson are also very strong but in a different sense. Reading about the sexual and emotional life secrets of a mother by the hand of her son is strange, uncomfortable and in certain occasions it even seems cruel: ”I did not know Violet. I met her only twice, and by then she had become a galleon, no longer the pinnace of her youth, and I did not recognize in her sails the high wind which had swept my mother away […]. I did not know that Vita could love like this, had loved like this, because she would not speak of it to her son. Now that I know everything I love her more, as my father did, because she was tempted, because she was weak. She was a rebel, she was Julian [Vita’s alter ego], and though she did not know it, she fought for more than Violet. 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. Yes, she may have been mad, as she later said, but it was a magnificent folly. She may have been cruel, but it was a cruelty on a heroic scale. How can I despise the violence of such passion?”

Nevertheless these are important chapters to understand the big picture. Vita writes mostly about herself and her emotions. Nigel speaks about Harold and the rock solid love between him and Vita, that grew more and more important for them as their life progressed, and was the base to which each of them returned after Vita’s strong passions for other people, including the famous Virginia Woolf and Harold’s adventures with men. Nigel also puts Vita’s writings into context, by stressing the advanced and liberal nature of Vita’s and Harold’s views and actions about marriage and sexuality in the early years of the 20th century, but also by bringing forward Vita’s intense snobbism and coldness about the lower social classes.

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