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Case 14 - Virginia and Vita Looking Back



Virginia Woolf ’s A Room of One’s Own was a twentieth-century manifesto calling for women to be educated and to have literary careers. Although Woolf did not know of as many earlier women writers as we do now, she was fascinated by those she did know. She was also inspired by the life of her dear friend, Vita Sackville-West, to write her biographical novel Orlando. Sackville-West lived at Knole and was related to Lady Anne Clifford. She edited Clifford’s diary and wrote about her in a book on the history of Knole, in addition to writing biographies of other notable early modern women. Woolf, Sackville-West, and all the modern women writers who have followed, are descendants of those women to whom we have given “a room of their own” in this exhibition.




V. Sackville-West. Knole and the Sackvilles. London, 1922
 

Vita Sackville-West. Daughter of France; the life of Anne Marie Louise d’Orléans. London: M. Joseph, 1959
 

Anne Clifford Herbert, Countess of Pembroke. The Diary of the Lady Anne Clifford. Ed. Vita Sackville-West. London, 1923
 

Vita Sackville-West. Aphra Behn: The Incomparable Astrea. New York: Viking Press, 1928


Lady Anne Clifford looms large in Vita Sackville-West’s biography of her ancestral home, Knole. Clifford was first married to Richard, earl of Dorset, one of Sackville-West’s ancestors, and her diary among the family papers provided Sackville-West with much information on the house and family in the period of James I. She sympathizes with Clifford, writing: “for my part I strongly suspect… her fighting spirit preferred even the ordeals and excitements of London to the tedium of Knole.”

 

In the last biography she wrote, Vita Sackville-West turned to the story of “La Grande Mademoiselle,” one of the wealthiest and most powerful women at the court of Louis XIV, and a woman whom we have noted for her Memoires. Sackville-West’s interest in her may stem from what she saw as Mademoiselle’s appreciation of her own sex. “She was intensely sensitive to feminine beauty, censorious when a woman was dowdily dressed, appreciative of grace and wit in their most feminine expressions. Yet she was no believer in a docile submission to man.”

 

A year after publishing the history of Knole in which Lady Anne Clifford figured so prominently, Vita Sackville-West brought out this edition of Clifford’s diary, which is based on an eighteenth-century transcript found in the papers at Knole. Sackville-West writes that Lady Anne “liked texts and maxims … and would make her secretary copy her favourites for her, which she would pin up inside the curtains of her bed, where her eye might conveniently light upon them.”

 

First published in London in 1927, Vita Sackville-West’s biography of Aphra Behn focuses mainly on Behn’s life, but the last chapter considers her as a writer. Sackville-West felt that Behn wasted her talents as a novelist. Instead of focusing on her own fascinating life in London, Behn drew on the European romance tradition. “Given her vigour and rapidity, her shameless candour and her knockabout experience, we should have had an earlier Defoe,” Sackville-West opines, but “as a playwright, … she did a trifle better…. That she opened the way for women as writers, is her principal claim on our gratitude.”

 



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