Nigel Nicolson paints an endearing portrait of the marriage of his parents, Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson. His viewpoint is that, despite many – mostly homosexual – affairs on both sides, and, after the first few years following their wedding, no action in the marital bed, the two were devoted, missing each other during their times apart, and valuing their love and union as the pivot in their lives. All the time I was reading this book, I was wondering how much of a gloss this loyal son was applying, but he quotes from letters over decades and at length. And the two remained together from 1911 to Vita’s death in 1962, which left Harold devastated, until his own death in 1968. I’m persuaded that, despite everything – a lot of portrait is accurate.
Vita Sackville-West was born into the aristocratic Sackville family of Knole, Kent. Following her grandfather’s death, her (nuclear) family returned to Knole via a circuitous route. Her mother was her grandfather’s illegitimate daughter, from a liaison with a Spanish dancer, Pepita, but her father inherited the very grand stately home through being the son of one of her grandfather’s brothers. There was a court case – of course – and, this being the Sackville-Wests, a very colourful one. Despite living in many other properties with Harold, including no Sissinghurst, where she built her amazing garden, Vita loved Knole with a passion. In fact, on her wedding day, she almost didn’t get married because she couldn’t bear to leave Knole.
Vita Sackville-West wrote numerous novels and earns her living as a writer. Harold also wrote, mostly factual books, fitting in how writing in between his high-profile career as a diplomat, which included being a secretary for the Paris Peace Conference after the First World War. However what she is known for is her affairs with Violet Keppel and then Virginia Woolf. The Violet affair is described in painstaking details, partly from Vita’s own diaries. In the detail, we know and feel the pain and the conflict. When Portrait of a Marriage was adapted for television, by Penelope Mortimer, whom Nigel Nicolson describes as ‘somebody’s mother-in-law’, someone who had no time for ‘posh people’. It is tempting to go for the juicy bit. After all, sex is supposed to sell, isn’t it? But this book is far deeper and more thoughtful than just sex.
I’m writing this on a train and Virgin Trains are letting me have only 15 minutes internet, so I’d better finish. I’m stalling about the way I recommend books, so I’m changing the way I do it. In future, I’m going to award stars, five being wonderful, one being awful. For Portrait of a Marriage, I’m awarding FOUR. It misses out on five because the end of the book, as Vita and Harold go into middle-age, drifts off a bit. A very good read.