Uranian Freedom & Vita Sackville-West
Early in Vita Sackville-West's All Passion Spent, the elderly protagonist Lady Slane says, “Besides, I have considered the eyes of the world for so long that I think it is time I had a little holiday from them. If one is not to please oneself in old age, when is one to please oneself? There is so little time left!”
This is a Uranian declaration of freedom from Lady Slane who, with gentle, yet steady purpose, extricates herself from her social and familial duties and retires to Hampstead Heath, leaving her controlling and duty-bound children horrified. “Such a hint of independence was an outrage, almost a manifesto.”*
Like Lady Slane, the novel is lovely and gentle, exploring the way social conventions and expectations lock us into lives that don’t ever touch what is most real in us. There is safety in such conventions—familiarity is reassuring. Lady Slane’s children “found great reassurance in assertion and reassertion. Say a thing often enough, and it becomes true; by hammering in sufficient stakes of similar pattern they erected a stockade between themselves and the wild dangers of life.”
But there’s also a sense of loss as joy is overthrown by duty. For Lady Slane’s children “Joy was a matter they seldom considered, but duty was ever present with them, serious always and sometimes grimly.”
The beauty of the story is that Lady Slane is not bitter as she recalls the young self that never had the freedom to develop autonomously. As in Nightbitch, the husband is not blamed for the wife’s stifled artistic desires. An entire social structure serves to restrain what Lady Slane comes to know as “that transcending reality” of creative desire. Contemplating the creative aliveness of her younger self is “the softest, most wistful, of occupations; yet it was not melancholy; it was, rather, the last, supreme luxury; a luxury she had waited all her life to indulge. There was just time, in this reprieve before death, to indulge herself to the full. She had, after all, nothing else to do. For the first time in her life—no, for the first time since her marriage—she had nothing else to do. She could lie back against death and examine life. Meanwhile, the air was full of the sound of bees.”
There are moments in the book where Virginia Woolf’s influence appears.** Lady Slane as a young woman dreamed of disguising herself as a boy and running away. “They were thoughts of nothing less than escape and disguise; a changed name, a travestied sex, and freedom in some foreign city - schemes on a par with the schemes of a boy about to run away to sea. Those ringlets would drop beneath the scissors… those skirts would be kicked for ever aside… The image of the girl faded, and in its place stood a slender boy.” This Orlando moment seems more like a nod or a wink from Vita to Virginia than a sincere hope harbored in the heart of the young Deborah, soon to become Lady Slane. More significant than this fantasy is the fact that, at 17, Deborah has not had any time to explore her dreams and desires before she is swept up into an appropriate and successful role as wife of the up-and-coming Lord Slane.
Lady Slane’s struggle is reborn in her doppelgänger namesake great-granddaughter. But it’s repetition with a difference because young Deborah has broken off her socially-approved engagement. Deborah tells her great grandmother, “The people I like always seem to be scattered, lonely people—only they recognize each other as soon as they come together. They seem to be aware of something more important than the things grandfather and great-aunt Carrie think important. I don’t yet know exactly what that something is…. It seems to have something of the nature of religion. A chord of music, for instance, gives me more satisfaction than a prayer.” Both Deborahs crave what the elder has identified as “the life of the artist, the creator, looking closely, feeling widely.”
In Hampstead Heath Lady Slane has found her group of lonely, artistic people who recognize each other. Mr. Bucktrout, Mr. Gosheron and Mr. FitzGeorge are aware of Lady Slane’s beauty-loving soul, even if she is never understood by her efficient daughter Carrie or by her son William for whom “parsimony was in itself a career.”
Of course conventional values have the final word in the book, as Carrie, standing at her mother’s deathbed, erects a stockade between herself and the wild beauties of life. “‘In the presence of death,’ she said to Mr Gosheron, taking refuge in a last convention, ‘you might at least take off your hat.’” She’s shoring herself up against the transcendent realities that Gosheron and Bucktrout and Lady Slane seem to share with Walter Pater who wrote in The Renaissance: Studies In Art And Poetry:
We have an interval, and then our place knows us no more. Some spend this interval in listlessness, some in high passions, the wisest, at least among “the children of this world,” in art and song. For our one chance lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time. Great passions may give us this quickened sense of life, ecstasy and sorrow of love, the various forms of enthusiastic activity, disinterested or otherwise, which come naturally to many of us. Only be sure it is passion–that it does yield you this fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness. Of such wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for its own sake, has most. For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.
*Since I was also reading Bernardine Evaristo’s Manifesto, this line made me cackle.
** I was initially disappointed by this Orlando reference, as if Vita had been merely copying Virginia Woolf. Not that I think art appears virgin and uninfluenced in the mind of a creator, but this borrowing seemed so overt. But, in reading Audre Lorde’s detailed accounts of the loving give-and-take in her sexual relationships with other women in Zami, I began to see Vita’s nod to Orlando as a loving reciprocity: Vita warmly receives Virginia’s book which was a loving celebration of Vita.