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Vita Longa, Harold Brevis : VITA AND HAROLD: The Letters of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, Edited by Nigel Nicolson (Putnam: $29.95; 452 pp.)

August 16, 1992|Georgia Jones-Davis | Jones-Davis is an assistant Book Review editor

They had a smallish country wedding. After five years of what appeared to be fairly humdrum domesticity, during which sons Nigel and Ben were born, they decided to go their separate ways--sexually. She was bisexual, though leaning more in the lesbian direction. He was gay. But in the wake of an emotional upheaval caused by an affair of hers, they were convinced that their love for one another was so strong that their marriage would not be threatened by their extramarital "muddles."

They might have met during the Summer of Free Love in San Francisco and honeymooned at Woodstock. In fact, Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson met at a society dinner party in London in 1910 when she was 18 and he was 24.

It is generally easier to approach a collection of letters, or diaries, having read a biography or the works of a subject first. While "Vita and Harold: The Letters of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson" is engaging to read, some knowledge about the literary couple and their circle will dramatically increase a reader's enjoyment. Editor Nigel Nicolson has provided ample biographical information in the introduction and commentary to satisfy even the most curious, and "The Letters" provides a good steppingstone to the fascinating diary/biography, "Portrait of a Marriage" by Nigel Nicolson. Masterpiece Theater's three-part miniseries based on that book may be the primary introduction many Americans have to Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, who are quite celebrated in their native England. (The magnificent actress Janet McTeer, who portrayed Vita, has captured the humorlessness, intensity and physical grandeur that she apparently possessed. And Harold--on television and in his letters--comes across as mild, loving, maternal, patient beyond the call of duty, and always well dressed, even while gardening.)

Sackville-West wrote novels and poetry very popular in their day, and one impressive travel book, "Passenger to Teheran." But she is best known for her elegant, informative gardening columns written for the Observer in the 1940s and '50s, and, along with her husband, for the creation of the hauntingly beautiful gardens at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent.

Nicolson was a diplomat who turned journalist, politician and biographer. (His official biography of King George V led to knighthood. Harold was humiliated: "Niggs (son Nigel) . . . being a sensible lad he quite saw that it would not be possible for me to refuse without appearing churlish, snobbish and conceited. But how much more I would have liked a Regency Clock.") He and Vita were expecting a peerage, something much more along their lines. They were incredible snobs when it came to things like lineage, wealth and titles. Vita and Harold--nicknamed Mar and Hadji respectively--even had a private word for anything common --"bedint."

If anyone had reason to be snotty about lineage, wealth and titles, it was Vita, the only child of Lord and Lady Sackville. The Sackvilles had been hobnobbing with the crowned heads of England since Elizabeth I awarded them Knole, a Gothic manor house built in the late 15th Century. She grew up a lonely, eccentric child amid 365 rooms full of grand portraits of titled ancestors, a house that was part of England's history itself--from the era of Henry VIII through Cromwell down to the Battle of Britain, when part of it was bombed.

Virginia Woolf, Vita's most famous lover, was much taken by the majesty of Knole; "Orlando," is as much a paean to the manor house as it is to Vita. Vita's loss of Knole due to primogeniture--her uncle, then male cousin, inherited the title and house--haunted her all her life; in truth, she would as soon never have set foot outside the gates of its vast deer park.

Harold, the son of Lord Carnock, followed his father into the diplomatic service. He participated in the peace conference in Paris following World War I, working side by side with, among others, Prime Minister Lloyd George, President Wilson and Clemenceau of France. Vita, who had lived briefly with him at Constantinople when they were first married, hated the expatriate life of diplomatic wives and chose to remain back home, first at Long Barn (the old farmhouse they called "the mud pie") and later at Sissinghurst Castle, where she worked in the garden, wrote her poetry and fiction, and carried on several affairs.

Harold, off in foreign capitals, referred subtly in his letters to various "friends" he met along the way. He told Vita about one special new acquaintence in Paris, a dressmaker he thought he might move in with. But Harold never entertained notions of leaving Vita and the boys. His dalliances were momentary amusements and had nothing at all to do with his beloved family life.

For Vita, it was not that simple.

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