The lovely Virago Group on LibraryThing has decided not to do a big challenge this year (other years, we’ve done Elizabeth Taylor or Barbara Pym, for example), but to vote on an author to read per month, and then you can read anything by that author during that month, but dip in and out as you want. January came up with Vita Sackville-West, and as she’s a beloved author AND I wanted to do more re-reading this year, I decided to re-read “All Passion Spent”. I am not sure when I bought this – I have it in a slightly annoying to read hardback omnibus, and it’s got a pencil letter in which implies I bought it at either a book sale in Kent or one in Greenwich that I used to frequent. Anyway, I’m pretty sure it was one of the early Viragoes that I read, and I can’t think I’ve revisited it for a couple of decades. I’m glad I did.
Vita Sackville-West – “All Passion Spent”
An absolutely charming novel which completely vindicated my picking it up for a re-read, with the somewhat unusual central character an 88-year-old woman, Deborah Slane. The book opens as her husband has died, her pretty dreadful children have gathered, Something Must Be Done with the jewels, and Lady Slane needs to play her part. But she doesn’t want to play her part; aware of her extreme age, she resists being parcelled out among her children, refuses to see any of the great-grandchildren and claims her right to do whatever she wants to do, accompanied by her lovely French maid, Genoux, who has been with her for 70-odd years and speaks a charming Franglais (sample: “l’homme aux muffins” – all of her utterances are left untranslated in my edition, which I was fine with, but I’d be interested to find out whether footnotes are now supplied).
So Lady Slane and Genoux set out on a very small adventure, and our heroine mulls over the past and the life she’s led as an accessory to an important man. It’s hard not to think of Shakespeare’s sister from Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” when we learn that Lady Slane had ached to be an artist, and I also wonder if Vita was indulging in a bit of what-if when she describes Lady Slane’s life in the diplomatic and political worlds (I know I don’t like to bring an author’s life into their books, but she herself refused to travel with her diplomatic husband or help him with his political campaigns, refusing to be “wheeled out”, and created her successful writing career in those spaces). Lady Slane is not a feminist, however, and she puts the loss of her own career down to it being a marriage of “a worker and a dreamer”, while admitting her gender might have added a slight touch of extra difficulty. It’s worth noting that men are seen as needing to fit in, too, with one man who stakes his own claim to his life marked down as odd forever.
Lady Slane’s children are horrified by her “misbehaving” and patronise her and the two children she can tolerate madly, but she gives as good as she gets and delights in twisting their expectations. She makes some most unsuitable friends, who we can only hope will have the last word. When she has a slight crisis of conscience about denying the younger generations, she wonders if she will be given a chance to make amends. What is most important, though, the military parade or the butterflies? Lady Slane is not sure as she considers her long life.
This is such a lovely, funny and life-affirming book, even though there are a number of deathbeds found within it. A real masterpiece.