Portrait of a Marriage
Atheneum, 233 pages
Since gay marriage has become a legal reality in the United States so recently, it pays to remember that in the last century tolerance for sexual variety was generally low. Homosexuality was considered a perversion and a few unlucky people born with the proclivity sought out “cures”. There were however some surprisingly tolerant oases in this desert of negative public opinion.
One such was the long running marriage between Harold Nicolson, the British diplomat and his wife Vita Sackville-West the novelist and garden writer. They married for love in 1913, or so it appeared at the time. What Harold Nicolson did not know was that his wife was in love with another woman, and only came around to marriage reluctantly.
Vita was aware of her “duality” but didn’t know enough at twenty to put a name to it. Homosexuality was not a phenomenon she recognized and so some years into her marriage with Nicholson, when the couple already had two small boys, she ran away with one of the great loves of her life Violet Trefusis, living abroad with her and often squiring her about Paris in drag, Vita never considered her activity “homosexual”.
Naturally all this caused a scandal. Vita was the daughter of Lord Sackville, and was known in the tabloids of the day as “Kidlet”, while Violet was the child of Mrs Kepppel, the very same lady who provided solace (mostly bridge and sex) to the ailing King Edward in his last years. Their elopement was a boon to the gutter press and both Nicolson and Trefusis, Violet’s rapidly acquired husband, were caught in a very unflattering spotlight.
Surely divorces would follow? Not at all. Nicolson waited for his wife with tact and delicacy. He never tried to force her back or threatened her with anything. Three years after it started this volcanic romance ran out of magma, and Nicolson simply took Vita back again almost without a reproach. But then as his son has observed in this unique biography of a marriage, he understood his wife’s ambivalent nature because his own erotic preference was for men.
The unlikely truce that was called between them in 1921 or so was the beginning of a very successful and long open marriage where most of the side tracking that went on was masculine on his side, and with only one exception, female on hers. None of this seemed to affect their deep affection for one another. He went on to have a distinguished career at the Foreign Office, and in the House of Commons, to write several books and to see the publication of his famous Diaries. She wrote several novels of which The Land is probably the best, also her far better known Garden Book, and is remembered for the creation of the remarkable Sissinghurst garden. She was moreover the inspiration for the gender crossing hero/heroine of Virgina Woolf’s Orlando.
Still it is Vita’s prescient writing about the dilemma of loving your own sex in a straight world and the plea she made for compassion that is most starling in her account of the affair. ” I hold the conviction,” she wrote in 1920, ” that as centuries go on,… such connections will cease to be regarded as merely unnatural, and will be understood far better…The first step in the direction of such candor must be taken by the general admission of normal but illicit relations, and the facilitation of divorce, or possibly even the reconstruction of the system of marriage.”
She might be surprised to see how much things have changed in a hundred years, and her son who edited her account and added to it to create a two part narrative, might as well. Portrait of a Marriage is a fine book which should not slip into obscurity despite being published in 1973, especially in our age when so many of the building materials of marriage and family life are being re-examined for their long term tensile strength. Between them Harold and Vita created a very loving and very human structure indeed.