Sissinghurst, Scones and Sex

30 May 2010
Sissinghurst, Kent

One of my greatest pleasures of living in England – greater even than the plentiful access to Brazilian cock – is getting to visit Literary Heritage sites that I spent my university undergraduate days reading about. I am, almost unashamedly, a member of the National Trust (which is not the same as being a member of the National Front, though I suspect that may have similar membership lists if compared), and love nothing more than sniffing around through stately homes where Elizabeth the First once took a dump during a road trip, or where writers lived, toiled, suffered from writers’ block, committed adultery and smashed furniture while creating their best-known works.

Today I got to continue my obsession with the legacy of the Bloomsbury Group and pre-World War II British literary life by visiting Sissinghurst Castle Garden, the former home of the writer, aristocrat and celebrity lesbian Vita Sackville-West and her husband, the writer, diplomat and politician Harold Nicholson, who was also quietly bisexual. It’s in the middle of Kent, surrounded by lush looking farmland, and despite being only an hour from central London by train, feels so idyllic and pastoral that it’s like travelling back in time.

Vita is probably best known as the lover of Virginia Woolf, who wrote the novel Orland as a humorous homage to Vita’s tangled aristocratic history and androgynous sexual appeal. Vita’s son Nigel, who seems to have been remarkably open-minded about the fact that his mother was a carpet muncher, called Orlando “the longest and most charming love-letter in history”. Nigel then went on to publish a number of books about his parents, including Portrait Of A Marriage, which recounted some of his parents’ daily correspondence with each other, and detailed their unconventional “open” marriage where they each pursued same-sex love affairs in between writing novels, working on the garden at Sissinghurst and occasionally throwing bread rolls at each other over the dinner table.

The Bloomsbury crowd are probably as well known for their unconventional sex lives as they are for their artistic and political legacy. I was, and still am, fascinated by the contradictory impulses of Harold and Vita’s relationship, which in some ways was conventional (marriage, children, a public life as a couple) and in other senses attempted to rewrite the rules of marriage and incorporate their respective same-sex affairs. Reading POAM and Harold’s and Vita’s letters and diaries is an alternatively depressing and inspiring experience. Their affection and respect for each other was obvious, but Vita’s repeated agonising over her conflicting commitment to Harold and the children and her wish to leave the marriage and live with a woman becomes, well… repeated and agonising.  Of the two, Harold seems to have conducted his affairs more discreetly than Vita, despite contracting the clap at one stage. Vita, on the other hand, had a bad habit of developing obsessive controlling relationships with her female lovers, usually ending up with abductions and screaming matches in hotel rooms in France. Somehow, though, their affection for each other continued and the marriage lasted until Vita’s death in the 1960s.

It’s not very fashionable to like the Bloomsbury Group these days, as they’ve mostly been written off as faux-hemian toffs who were insufficiently aware of their own privilege and happy to live off a servant class while expounding the values of socialism. This, I think, is mostly a load of horse shit – Virginia Woolf in particular was extremely sensitive to issues of class and acknowledged the privilege of her own rank and education in her essays A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas. Vita was slightly less PC about class warfare, which makes her a bit more fun – unapologetic in her aristocratic hauteur, and apparently fearless in her embracing the superior virtues of blue bloods and assuming for herself the “responsibilities” of the ruling class. Nigel was sensibly clear-eyed and unsentimental about this aspect of his mother, noting that she was what’s now commonly referred to as a snob, and was fond of stepping over maidservants scrubbing the stairs if they got in her way.

As spikey class-obsessed undergraduates and budding Socialists, we thought this was all terribly classist and appalling. Now that I’m middle aged and have my own room of one’s own (well, 5 of them) and enjoy recreationally shooting poor people, Vita’s position seems rather more understandable. What’s important to note is that all of the Bloomsbury set were aware of issues of class, and used their social privileges to try and change the world, rather than just lounging around drinking gin, hunting foxes and shagging the servants.

Portrait Of A Marriage was turned into a TV drama with Janet McTeer and David Haig as Vita and Harold, which somehow ended up on Sunday evening “Masterpiece Theatre” television in New Zealand in 1991. It focused mostly on Vita’s affair with Violet Trefusis, her old school friend and fellow hat-wearing toff, and much of the series involves them cooing to each other in cut-glass accents, and running around naked in large houses with billowing net curtains calling each other “Mitya” and “Lushka” breathlessly.

I was a 6th former at high school when I first saw the series, and it electrified me. Male homosexuality had only been legal in New Zealand for five years, homosexuality was still barely spoken about, I was living in a small town where I think only five gay men have ever lived (then and now) and here on television was a drama showing a very graphic love affair between two women, admittedly both with posh voices and big hats, which made the whole thing classier and a bit more literary.

While it fed a little too much into the “writer as crazed bisexual nut case” cliche, and hid behind the conventions of BBC-TV costume drama adaptation to make the sex scenes and musical beds seem more respectable to middle-class TV watching audiences, at that point I really didn’t care. It was the first drama I saw that was explicitly and unapologetically about homosexuality, and if anything, it helped to know that they were intelligent literary types. who were able to think and write about their experiences, in between destroying the living room furniture. It was also a remarkably clear-eyed and unsentimental portrait of a very strange marriage, and a mostly unjudgmental take on two complicated personalities who were trying to create their own moral code without destroying other people in the process. As a closeted teenager, I identified with Vita’s prolonged sense of angst about not being able to live as she wanted to when she wanted. I was also impressed by the ferocity of her sexual desire – as embodied by the wonderful Janet McTeer, who tore through the role like a wild animal – and it was exciting to watch a character demanding the right to live her love life openly and unapologetically.

POAM was an unlikely TV hit in New Zealand, garnering more viewers than a big-assed rugby game later in the year, and – in my 16 year old mind, anyway – put homosexuality on the map in a way that seemed kinda fun, especially if stately homes, big hats and sex in Elizabethan bedrooms with hand-woven linen bedspreads was in order.

Many, many years later, I’m now getting to visit the stately homes where vows were broken, hand-painted china was smashed and lovers got finger-fucked in the library over first editions of Chaucer. Predictably, I’m loving it, despite the fact that much of the messiness and sexual intrigue of the Bloomsbury Group members’ turbulent lives has been swept away into a neatly packaged, Radio 4 listener-friendly version of English history, complete with cream teas with clotted cream, gift stores selling tea towels and lavender scented soap, and hatchet-faced old women marching around the premises reminding you Not To Touch the Very Important English Heritage Artefacts in front of you. After my visit last year to Charleston, the Sussex farmhouse which was the home and studio of Bloomsbury artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, I wrote about something of the disappointment I felt at the censoring of the sexual messiness, and the way in which any attempt to preserve a literary site, no matter how well-intentioned, has the effect of embalming the complexities of the artists’ lives into an oversimplified and sanitised tourist package.

Somehow, Sissinghurst manages to resist disappointment, perhaps because it manages to straddle both aristocratic  glamour as well as memories of Bloomsbury bohemianism and sexual experimentation. It’s an extraordinary place – a series of Elizabethan red brick buildings constructed around square courtyards, and an enormous looming red brick tower, part bell-tower, part medieval fortress, which housed Vita’s study and writing room. The gardens, which Vita and Harold designed and spent the best part of 30 years working on and adding to, are an amazing combination of formal English gardening, with box hedges, carefully clippered yew bushes and geometric patterns, and the wilder, more improvisational feel of the countryside, with a dollop of English eccentricity.

The garden’s design represents, apparently, the blending of Harold’s “masculine” sensibility (he was a formalist who preferred clean lines, neo-classical principles of design and plants maintaining order within boxed sections, all nicely labelled), with Vita’s “feminine” (and more pagan) sensibility, which favoured bold contrasts of colour, plants and shrubs growing messily over footpaths and borders, random sprinklings of seeds and bulbs, and interesting combinations of flowers, shrubs and ferns all together. Perhaps it’s less about the marriage of masculine and feminine and more about the marriage of sacred and profane, civilisation and carnality, Apollo and Dionysus… who knows. Bring out your binary oppositions – they all seem to apply.

Each part of the garden, though obviously laid out with some care, has the feeling of walking into one room after another in a funhouse, each room appearing radically different from the last. The Upper Courtyard has carefully tended flower beds in a neat border around the perfectly mowed lawn, with clippered yew bushes lining the pathway leading to the Tower; Vita’s famous white garden is an elegant mix of linear paths and boxed hedging, meeting in the middle in a small gazebo with wild profusions of white jasmine blossom growing over the latticed roof; this leads into a long maze-like path surrounded by tall carefully trimmed yew trees.

A stone archway leads into the rose garden, a series of plots bordered by hedges where each plot displays different colours; an amazing walkway leading from the Cottage down to the moat (yes, a moat), lined with flowering blossoms and blazing red and orange flowers; a huge open air orchard with dovecotes, beehives and apple trees and uncut grass, with the occasional mown path as a concession to tourists; a carefully designed herb garden looking not dissimilar to the herbal beds of medieval monasteries; and the moat comes complete with Bloomsbury era pond scum, lily pads and weeping willows, looking ready for Millais’s Ophelia or Tennyson’s Lady of Shallot to float by in the water.

The Tower is visible from everywhere in the garden (and from several miles away as a feature on the skyline) and a trip up the creaky circular wooden stairway is one of the highlights of the visit, despite having to share the experience with at least 70 old National Trust ladies with creaky hips all ascending the stairs at the same time. On the first floor, Vita’s study and reading room is still set out, though now only viewable through a glass paned barrier.

In much the same way as Charleston compresses the messy reality of Bloomsbury existence into a rarified and sanitised world of English Heritage, so too does seeing the secret hidey hole of Vita Sackville-West – wild woman, Byronic lover, literary adventurer and Grade A nutcase – tidies up her turbulent life into something much less Vita(l) and much more conventional than I’m sure she ever wanted it to be. While it’s still a thrill to see her writing desk and chair and the old sofa where hopefully she and Violet did the dirty together, it feels like a museum piece. Perhaps that’s the appeal of the TV series, which brought the characters to life, placing them in pretty period costumes but also letting them rip the costumes off and mess around in the stately homes.

There’s a slightly better experience to be had standing on the terrace of the Tower. As you overlook the grounds and the garden, especially on a sunny blue skied day like today, you can see the class struggle forever, and feel quite naturally like you’re the king of the castle. It’s here, finally, that you can imagine how Sissinghurst appealed both to Vita’s need to be a recluse (or at least be independent from the rest of society) and imagine for herself an aristocratic perspective over her subjects. Having lost her ancestral home because of male-biased inheritance laws, it’s tempting to imagine that she was recreating her lost role as Lady of the Manor, though this time under her own terms and with fewer social restrictions (and more room to host her lovers).

Somehow, Sissinghurst feels accessible and inviting (and considerably less twee and tweedy) than other National Trust properties I’ve fossicked around in. Perhaps this is because the majority of the property is outdoors, so on a sunny day, you can commune with nature, and there are fewer opportunities to get on the wrong side of grim-faced old ladies in Barbour jackets who glare at you menacingly if you touch a table top or brush the wall or curtains with your bag. Perhaps it’s also because the house was created to some extent as a fantasy world or a retreat from the madding crowd, so visitors can indulge in the same sense of escape. The exception is the Library, a dark imposing-looking Elizabethan era room with beamed ceilings, a fireplace large enough to roast several suckling pigs (or small children) in, and a lot of dark, expensive-looking antique furniture. Portraits of fur-clad, bloated, gouty looking Sackville ancestors line the walls, in between floor to ceiling bookcases holding dust-covered first editions. Like most Elizabethan buildings, it’s built as a fortress with very few windows, and is incredibly dark inside. It’s very grand, but oppressively so, and seems to reek of the constrictions and limitations of Aristrocracy and Privilege that’s mercifully absent from the rest of the property.

Though Vita and Harold opened up the garden to visitors (Vita called the visitors “the shillingsers”, somewhat contemptuously), they were both apparently adamant that their home wouldn’t become a National Trust monument in their lifetimes. It was an easy position for Vita and Harold, as co-owners, to maintain, but less so for Nigel and Ben, who were faced with enormous inheritance tax levies when they inherited the property after Harold’s death in the late 1960s. Not wishing to see it sold, Nigel convinced the National Trust to acquire Sissinghurst, while he stayed on as “Resident Donor” of the property. He then set about pumping out his books on Harold and Vita, which boosted the popularity of the house and gardens so much that the Trust were forced to restrict the number of visitors to bring numbers down to a more sustainable level. Sissinghurst is now one of the most popular and visited gardens in the world, and pumps out a steady trade in plants, local produce, a steady stream of Sissinghurst-related publications, and millions of teatowels. With the gift shop doing a roaring trade, Sissinghurst now appears to be more well-financed and better maintained than it possibly ever was in Vita and Harold’s lifetime. Nigel and Ben’s descendants still live on the property – as we were sniffing around the Cottage Garden, we saw the kitchen door of the Cottage, held open by a pair of green Wellington boots (naturally) with some terribly posh looking people wafting around in Barbour jackets plucking a dead quail.

Despite my reservations about the English Heritage trail, it’s a marvellous place to visit, a surprisingly moving testament to a very loving marriage, and a wonderful example of a truly original creativity, manifested in gardening rather than in literature. Now if only I could rent it out for a by-invitation-only, all-weekend orgy. I’m sure Vita and Harold would approve.


    1. Intriguing response, if somewhat random and meaningless. I’m sure Vita & Harold threw all weekend orgies too, but theirs were clearly better attended than the ones you’re suggesting (or accusing?) me of hosting.

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