Trefusis in 1920
6 June 1894
|Died||29 February 1972
near Florence, Italy
|Occupation||novelist, radio broadcaster|
|Spouse||Denys Trefusis (1919–29; his death)|
Violet Trefusis (née Keppel; 6 June 1894 – 29 February 1972) was an English writer and socialite. She is chiefly remembered for her lesbian affair with the poet Vita Sackville-West. She wrote novels and non-fiction works, both in English and French.
The affair was featured in novels by both parties, in Virginia Woolf's Orlando: A Biography, and in many letters and memoirs of the period, roughly 1912–1922. Many are preserved at Yale University Library. Trefusis was an inspiration to many writers' fiction and was a pivotal character in their novels including Nancy Mitford's Love in a Cold Climate as "Lady Montdore" and in Harold Acton's The Soul's Gymnasium as "Muriel", a fictional portrait of her.
Born Violet Keppel, she was the daughter of Alice Keppel, later a mistress of King Edward VII of the United Kingdom, and her husband, The Hon. George Keppel, a son of the 7th Earl of Albemarle. Her biological father, however, was considered by members of the Keppel family to be William Beckett, subsequently 2nd Baron Grimthorpe, a banker and MP for Whitby.
Trefusis lived her early youth in London, where the Keppel family had a house in Portman Square. When Trefusis was four years old, Alice Keppel became the favourite mistress of Albert Edward (Bertie), the Prince of Wales, who became King Edward VII on 22 January 1901. He paid visits to the Keppel household in the afternoon around tea-time (while her husband, who was aware of the affair, was conveniently absent), on a regular basis until the end of his life in 1910.
Affair with Vita Sackville-West
Trefusis is best remembered today for her love affair with the wealthy Vita Sackville-West, which Virginia Woolf described by analogy in her novel Orlando. In this romanticized biography of Vita, Trefusis appears as the Russian princess Sasha.
This was not the only account of this love affair, which appears in reality to have been very much more strenuous than Woolf's enchanting account: both in fiction (Challenge by Sackville-West and Broderie Anglaise a roman à clef in French by Trefusis) and in non-fiction (Portrait of a Marriage, which mingles Sackville-West's letters and extensive "clarifications" by her son Nigel Nicolson) further parts of the story appeared in print.
There are still the surviving letters and diaries written by the participants. Apart from those of the two central players, there are records from Alice Keppel, Victoria Sackville-West, Harold Nicolson, Denys Trefusis and Pat Dansey.[a]
An overview of the whole story can be found in Diana Souhami's Mrs Keppel and her Daughter (1997). When she was 10, Violet met Vita (who was two years older) for the first time. After that, they went to the same school for several years and soon recognised a bond between them. When Violet was 14, she confessed her love to Vita and gave her a ring. In 1910, after the death of Edward VII, Mrs Keppel made her family observe a "discretion" leave of about two years before re-establishing themselves in British society: upon returning, the Keppels moved to another address (Grosvenor Street). When Violet returned to London, Vita was soon to be engaged to Harold Nicolson and was continuing a love affair with Rosamund Grosvenor. Violet made it clear that she still loved Vita and became engaged herself to make Vita jealous. This did not stop Vita from marrying Harold (in October 1913), who, in his turn, did not curtail his homosexual adventures after marriage.
In April 1918, Violet and Vita refreshed and intensified their bond. Vita had two sons by now, but they were left in the care of others while Vita and Violet left for a holiday in Cornwall. Meanwhile Mrs Keppel was busy arranging a marriage for Violet with Denys Robert Trefusis (1890–1929), son of Colonel Hon. John Schomberg Trefusis and Eva Louisa Bontein. A few days after the armistice, Violet and Vita went away to France for several months. Because of Vita's exclusive claim, and her own loathing of marriage, Violet made Denys promise never to have sex with her as a condition for marriage. He apparently agreed as, on 16 June 1919, they married. At the end of that year, Violet and Vita made a new two-month excursion to France: ordered to do so by his mother-in-law, Denys retrieved Violet from the south of France when new gossip about her and Sackville-West's loose behaviour began to reach London. The next time they left, in February 1920, was to be the final elopement. Sackville-West might still have had some doubts and probably hoped that Harold would interfere. Harold did arrive with Denys in a two-seater airplane, which led to heated scenes in Amiens.
The climax came when Harold told Vita that Violet had been unfaithful to her (with Denys). Violet tried to explain and assured Vita of her innocence (which was in all likelihood true). Vita was much too angry and upset to listen, and fled saying she couldn't bear to see Violet for at least two months. It was six weeks later when Vita finally came back to France to meet Violet. Mrs Keppel desperately tried to keep scandal away from London, where Violet's sister, Sonia, was about to be married (to Roland Cubitt). That meant that Violet spent much of 1920 abroad, clinging desperately to Vita via continuous letters. In January 1921, Vita and Violet made a final journey to France, where they spent six weeks together. At this time, Harold threatened to break off the marriage if Vita continued her escapades. When Vita returned to England in March, it was practically the end of the affair. Violet was sent to Italy; and, from there. she wrote her last desperate letters to their mutual friend Pat Dansey, having been forbidden from writing directly to Vita. At the end of the year, Violet had to face the facts and start to build her life from scratch.
The two former lovers met again in 1940 when the war had forced Trefusis to come back to England. They continued to keep in touch and send each other affectionate letters.
During the Second World War in London, Trefusis participated in the broadcasting of "La France Libre", which earned her a Legion d'Honneur after the war; she was also made a Commander of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic.
Trefusis received mixed reviews on her books. Some critics credited Trefusis with an "excellent gift of observation" and a "talent for mimicry and flair for decor in most of her books." These qualities were evident in her novels written in English and in French. Other critics stated that her books were not great literature, although they sold well and her readers enjoyed them.
She made many appearances as a pivotal character in other writers' fiction. Nancy Mitford based "Lady Montdore", a character in her novel Love in a Cold Climate, on Trefusis. She featured in Cyril Connolly's The Rock Pool, in Harold Acton's The Soul's Gymnasium as "Muriel", in several novels by Vita Sackville-West, and in Virginia Woolf's Orlando: A Biography as the ravishing "Princess Sasha".
Although her writings spanned much of the twentieth century, many were unpublished. Virago, a publishing house devoted to recovering the forgotten work of women writers, set about putting matters right. They brought out two of her novels with introductions by Lorna Sage and Lisa St Aubin de Teran, but were eventually defeated by copyright difficulties. In addition, Lorna Sage, Trefusis great champion among British critics, died before she could assist in the publication of further works by Trefusis, as she planned.
Later life in France
From 1923 on, Trefusis was one of the many lovers of the Singer sewing machine heiress Winnaretta Singer, daughter of Isaac Singer and wife of the homosexual Prince Edmond de Polignac, who introduced her to the artistic beau-monde in Paris. Trefusis conceded more and more to her mother's model of being "socially acceptable" but, at the same time, not wavering in her sexuality. Singer, like Sackville-West before her, dominated the relationship, though apparently to mutual satisfaction. The two were together for many years and seem to have been content. Trefusis's mother, Alice Keppel, did not object to this affair, most likely because of Singer's wealth and power, and the fact that Singer carried on the affair in a much more disciplined way. Trefusis seemed to prefer the role of the submissive and therefore fitted well with Singer, who, whip in hand, was typically dominant and in control in her relationships. Neither was completely faithful during their long affair, but, unlike Trefusis's affair with Sackville-West, this seems to have had no negative effect on their understanding.
In 1924, Mrs Keppel bought L'Ombrellino, a large villa overlooking Florence, where Galileo Galilei had once lived. After her parents' death in 1947, Trefusis would become the chatelaine of L'Ombrellino till the end of her life. In 1929, Denys Trefusis died, completely estranged from his seemingly unfeeling wife. After his death, Trefusis published several novels, some in English, some in French, that she had written in her medieval "Tour" in Saint-Loup-de-Naud, Seine-et-Marne, France – a gift from Winnaretta.
Joseph Alsop, an American journalist, recounts in his autobiography a meeting with Violet in Florence. "Mrs. Trefusis's enthusiasms had long since inspired the rhyme 'Mrs Trefusis never refuses.' Governor Olson, as it turned out was not refused . . . they were much cheered up by one another."
François Mitterrand, who later became President of the French Republic in 1981, in his chronicle La Paille & le Grain, mentions his friendship with Violet Trefusis under 2 March 1972, when he received "the telegram" informing of her death. He goes on to discuss how, before Christmas 1971, he went to Florence to visit her as he knew she was in her last months of life: he had dinner with Violet Trefusis and Frank Ashton-Gwatkin (sv), who was a member of the British Government at the beginning of the Second World War, at her house in Florence.
Death and legacy
Trefusis died at L'Ombrellino on the Bellosguardo on 29 February 1972. She died of starvation, the effect of a malabsorption disease. Her ashes were placed both in Florence at the Cimitero degli Allori (The Evangelical Cemetery of Laurels) and in Saint-Loup-de-Naud in the monks' refectory near her tower.
- Sortie de secours (1929)
- Écho (1931)
- Tandem (1933)
- Broderie Anglaise (1939–1945)
- Hunt the Slipper
- Pirates at play
- Les causes perdues (1940)
- Prelude to Misadventure (1941)
- Don't look Round (1952)
- Last works
- Memoirs of an armchair (1960)
- From Dusk to Dawn (last work, 1972)
- Unpublished / other
- The Hook in the Heart (n.d.)
- Instants de mémoire (Gestes)
- La chèvre et le chou (n.d.)
- The Shortcut
- Les sœurs ennemies (c. 1940s?)
- The End Justifies the Means (c. 1947)
- All Glorious Within (n.d.)
- Alas, A Lady! (n.d.)
- Father and Daughter. The Seducer
- Irène et Pénélope
- The Sleeper (n.d.)
- A Tooth for a Tooth(n.d.)
- The Yale University Library contains correspondence, writings and other materials by or related to Violet Trefusis. The correspondence consists of approximately 500 letters from Trefusis to John Phillips written in the 1960s. Also included are letters to Trefusis from her mother, Alice Keppel, her sister, Sonia Keppel, and several governmental departments in France and England concerning Trefusis's re-entry into France after World War II, and her nomination to the Légion d'honneur. Writings include holograph and typescript drafts of Trefusis' memoirs, novels, plays, etc. Other materials include a miniature case portrait of Trefusis as a child, and an album containing photographs of friends of the Keppels, taken by George Keppel between 1924 and 1939 at the family's Villa dell'Ombrellino in Florence, including many members of European nobility and royalty.
- "Violet Trefusis (Keppel)". geni.com. Retrieved 10 September 2012.
- Brown, Susan, Patricia Clements, and Isobel Grundy, eds. VIOLET TREFUSIS entry: overview screen within orlando: Women's writing in the British Isles from the beginnings to the present. Cambridge University Press online ,2006. http://orlando.cambridge.org/public/svPeople?person_id=trefvi
- Holroyd 2011, p238
- Taylor, Clare L. (2004). "Trefusis, Violet (1894–1972)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 2007-11-29.
- Souhami, Diana (1997). Mrs. Keppel and Her Daughter. Queen's and Heirs Apparent: St. Martin's Griffin. pp. 21–22. ISBN 978-0-312-19517-5.
- Scandalous Love – The Life of Violet Trefusis Scandalous women : Violet Trefusis
- Woolf, Virginia (1955). Orlando: A Biography. Wordsworth Editions. ISBN 1-85326-239-0. In the introduction, p. vii, by Merry Pawlowski.
- Souhami, Diana (1998). Mrs. Keppel and Her Daughter. St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-19517-6.
- "Guide to the Violet Trefusis Papers GEN MSS 427". Yale University Library.
- "Major Denys Robert Trefusis". The Peerage. Retrieved 25 October 2014.
- Trefusis, Violet Keppel (1991). Leaska, Mitchell A.; Phillips, John, ed. Violet to Vita : The Letters of Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West, 1910–1921. Penguin Books.
- Sharpe, Henrietta (1981). A solitary woman: a life of Violet Trefusis. Constable. ISBN 978-0-09-464140-2.
- "Violet Keppel Trefusis". Findagrave. Retrieved 10 September 2012.
- Commire, Anne (2001). Women in World History. Trefusis, Violet: Gale; 1 edition. p. 558. ISBN 978-0-7876-4074-3.
- Holroyd, Michael (2010).The Laurie Lee Lecture: Cheltenham festival pp 19–20
- Holroyd 2011,[page needed]
- Srinivasan, Archana (2007). Modern Inventors. Sura Books. p. 6. ISBN 978-81-7478-636-4.
- Alsop, Joseph. I've Seen the Best of It.[page needed]
- Holroyd 2011, p239
- Mitterrand, François (1975). La Paille & le Grain. Flammarion. ISBN 2-08-060778-2.[page needed]
- "Grave site of Alice Keppel and Violet Trefusis (Scotland)". 17 April 2011. Retrieved 28 March 2012.
- Rawdon, Kathryn. "Guide to Violet Trefusis Papers". Retrieved 28 March 2012.
- Holroyd, Michael (2011). A Book of Secrets: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers. London: Farrar, Straus, Giroux. ISBN 978-0-374-11558-6.
- Jullian, Philippe (1976). The other woman: A life of Violet Trefusis. Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 978-0-395-20539-6
- Jullian, Philippe (1985). Violet Trefusis. Mariner Books. ISBN 978-0-15-693555-5
- Leaska, Mitchell A. (1990). Violet to Vita: The Letters of Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West, 1910–1921. Viking Adult. ISBN 978-0-670-83542-3
- Mahon, Elizabeth Kerri (2011). Scandalous Women: The Lives and Loves of History's Most Notorious Women. Perigee Trade. ISBN 978-0-399-53645-8
- Phillips, John (1985). Last Edwardians: An Illustrated History of Violet Trefusis & Alice Keppel. ISBN 978-0-934552-44-8.
- Phillips, John (1976). Violet Trefusis: Life and Letters. Hamish Hamilton ISBN 978-0-241-89454-5
- Sharpe, Henrietta (1981). A solitary woman: A life of Violet Trefusis. Constable. ISBN 978-0-09-464140-2
- Wajsbrot, Cécile, and François Mitterrand (1989). Violet Trefusis. Mercure de France. ISBN 978-2-7152-1589-4
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- Portrait at NPG
- Biographical notes and bibliography
- Nerina Milletti, Due Violette a Firenze (Italian)
- Picture at NPG, shown with Alice Frederica Keppel (née Edmonstone)