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October 12 2019
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Clockwise from top left: Vita Sackville-West and her dog at Monk’s House; Virginia Woolf, circa 1920s; Woolf at home, circa 1928; Sackville-West, circa 1910.

Vita Sackville-West was an aristocratic poet and novelist, daughter of Lord Sackville. After she married the diplomat Harold Nicolson, in 1913, she continued to have love affairs with women, and perhaps the greatest love of her life was with the novelist Virginia Woolf. In February 1923, Woolf wrote in her diary: “[Vita] is a practiced Sapphist & may … have an eye on me, old though I am.” Virginia, née Stephen and married to Leonard Woolf, was then 44, 10 years older than Vita. Virginia considered herself provincial and dowdy by comparison with Vita’s flamboyant libertinism, as well as less successful as a writer. Vita admired Virginia’s “exquisite” writing. In this un-showy love letter, Sackville-West, writing to Woolf from one of her Italian retreats in early 1926, reassures her lover of her affections, even though she has other lovers. The relationship was over by 1928, but it inspired Woolf’s novel Orlando, which, with its recognizable gender-switching protagonist, is in some ways Virginia’s love letter to Vita.

Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf, January 21, 1926

Milan

I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia. I composed a beautiful letter to you in the sleepless nightmare hours of the night, and it has all gone: I just miss you, in a quite simple desperate human way. You, with all your un­dumb letters, would never write so elementary a phrase as that; perhaps you wouldn’t even feel it. And yet I believe you’ll be sensible of a little gap. But you’d clothe it in so exquisite a phrase that it would lose a little of its reality. Whereas with me it is quite stark: I miss you even more than I could have believed; and I was prepared to miss you a good deal. So this letter is just really a squeal of pain. It is incredible how essential to me you have become. I suppose you are accustomed to people saying these things. Damn you, spoiled creature; I shan’t make you love me any the more by giving myself away like this—But oh my dear, I can’t be clever and stand-offish with you: I love you too much for that. Too truly. You have no idea how stand-­offish I can be with people I don’t love. I have brought it to a fine art. But you have broken down my defenses. And I don’t really resent it....

Please forgive me for writing such a miserable letter.

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