Portrait of a Marriage: Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson
“It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by. How else, indeed, to clap the net over the butterfly of the moment? For the moment passes, it is forgotten; the mood is gone; life itself is gone. That is where the writer scores over his fellows: he catches the changes of his mind on the hop.” ― Vita Sackville-West
Yesterday was the anniversary of the birth of Nigel Nicolson who was born in 1917 to Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West. Nigel Nicolson died in 2004, after having found fame in several other ways — as co-founder of the publisher Weidenfeld and Nicolson, as award-winning author, as a controversial MP. His son, Adam Nicolson, is an award-winning author also; one of his books, right, got its start when his father, then still an undergraduate, responded to this newspaper advertisementHis fascinating biography of the marriage of his parents, written by Nigel Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West, described a marriage between two individuals who should not have been able to live together. That they did and succeeded in raising a family is the story of this book--one that is told in a unique way with two sections based on Vita's autobiography amplified by sections written by her son Nigel. The focus is tilted toward the courtship and early years of marriage with little detail of the later years of the marriage.
Nicolson's Portrait of a Marriage caused a double stir, partly for Sackville-West's journal entries and letters (see quote below) describing her lesbian affairs, partly for her son's decision to publish them, with commentary. Ethics aside, the book is a compelling account of passion and fidelity — and, on the son's part, of admiration for both his bisexual parents and their unusual, half-century marriage.
The book raises interesting questions about the differences in the couple and the dynamics of their personal lives apart from the marriage and the effect on both their marriage and sons. Most importantly it is an interesting story about two people who lived unusual and very literary lives.
“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 un-dumb 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, spoilt 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 defences. And I don’t really resent it.” - ― Vita Sackville-West, The Letters of Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf
Portrait of a Marriage by Nigel Nicolson. Univ. of Chicago Press. 1998 (1973)