Vita Sackville-West's friendship with Lady Desborough

Harriet Moore

Vita Sackville-West was an English author, playwright, and diarist, also latterly known for her garden designing! Born in 1892 in Sevenoaks Kent, Victoria Mary Sackville-West was the only daughter of Victoria and Lionel Sackville-West, 3rd Baron Sackville. Her childhood was somewhat lonely – governesses provided her with an early education, before she attended an exclusive school for girls in Mayfair, London. Vita debuted in 1910, a fluent French speaker and already the author of eight novels and five plays. Vita’s formal entrance into society would have involved attending many social gatherings, as a means of presenting her as a marriageable young woman to eligible men of the appropriate social class.

Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies holds a letter written by Vita at the time, following one such social occasion, a ball held at Hatfield House in January 1912 (DE/Rv/C1960/1). In the letter, Vita writes to Lady Ettie Desborough (later of Panshanger House) thanking her for “the nicest ball I ever went to”It was at this ball that she was proposed to by the British foreign office diplomat and author, Sir Harold Nicholson, who she went on to marry in 1913.

Superficially at least, she lived as a conventional heterosexual, an aristocratic member of English society. It doesn’t take too much digging to realise however, that there was little convention in their arrangement. Whilst both Vita and Harold both championed their spiritual alliance, their marriage was sexless, and they openly experimented with dual sexual orientations. Normality, for them, consisted of a series of hetero and homosexual affairs within the marriage. Perhaps the affair of greatest note was that between Vita and Virginia Woolf between 1925 and 1935. Indeed, Vita was Woolf’s inspiration for the protagonist in her 1928 novel, Orlando.

Vita’s early association with Hertfordshire, more specifically her friendship with Lady Desborough, continued throughout her life and can be mapped via a series of letters held in the Archive. One such correspondence (DE/Rv/C1960/1), dated 1949, was written by Vita from where she lived in Sissinghurst Caste, Kent. It describes her desire to accept an invitation to lunch at Panshanger House, made by Lady Desborough. Already engaged with a lunch date in Westminster that day, Vita writes that she intends to catch a later Hertford North train out of Kings Cross, in order to be with Lady Desborough for afternoon tea.

If you would like to learn more about Vita Sackville-West and her life, you can visit two fascinating National Trust properties Sissinghurst Castle Garden and Knole, both in Kent.

This page was added on 17/01/2024.

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