Behind the Mask: The Life of Vita Sackville-West
Aristocrat, literary celebrity, ‘Rose Queen’, devoted wife, lesbian, recluse, iconoclast – Vita Sackville-West was many things, but she was never straightforward. Her life is re-told here in a dazzling new biography.
Vita Sackville-West is perhaps best known as the creator, with her husband Harold Nicolson, of the gardens at Sissinghurst Castle, now the most visited gardens in Britain. In a career spanning more than forty years, she also made her mark as a prolific and accomplished writer. She was an award-winning poet, a best-selling novelist, a biographer, a travel writer and a journalist with a huge and devoted following. Images of Vita – striking, poised, aristocratic, and intellectual – remain iconic even now. Yet these public images do not tell all. Behind the mask another, more complicated Vita lay.
Here, in the first biography to be written for thirty years, Matthew Dennison reveals a renegade, brave and charismatic woman: from a lonely childhood of immense privilege in her beloved family house Knole (which she, as a woman, could never inherit), to a celebrated and affectionate marriage which was nevertheless mutually ‘open’ and strewn with passionate homosexual affairs (in Vita’s case, most famously with Virginia Woolf and Violet Trefusis); from the hubbub of jewel-encrusted parties at Buckingham Palace, to the solace Vita found in nature and gardening and the eventual seclusion of her tower at Sissinghurst.
Drawing on sources from archives across the globe as well as Vita’s own prolific written output, Dennison traces the inspiration, triumphs and contradictions of Vita’s extraordinary life. Devoted wife, literary celebrity, ‘Rose Queen’, reluctant courtier, recluse, lesbian, iconoclast – Dennison deftly weaves together the myriad strands of Vita’s life to create a revealing and insightful portrait of the woman behind the mask.
BOOK OF THE YEAR as chosen by: -
The TimesIndependentObserver -
'Dennison captures both Vita’s irresistible charm and her selfishness. Like his subject, he is a natural storyteller, and his impeccable scholarship never weighs down his lively narrative' Independent -
”'Brave man to take on the biography of Vita, and he has brought it off superbly … It studies and reveals this extraordinary woman as well as could possibly be. A fine achievement” - Spectator, Susan Hill
”'Astute and engaging, Dennison looks again at Vita’s extraordinary life and makes a new sort of sense of it … fascinating … an insightful book. The connections between Vita’s childhood, her dispossessions, her sexuality and her writing are compellingly explored. Vita emerges as a complex and interesting character, and far more than a gay icon” - Literary Review
”'Dennison emphasises the desire for solitude that existed in tension with her joyous sensuality and need for love” - Guardian
”'Detailed and fascinating … Dennison shows true admiration for his latest subject … freshly chronicled here for the first time in more than 30 years” - Daily Express
”'Intimate … A splendid biography of a splendid character” - The Lady
'This astute and engaging book looks again at Vita's extraordinary life and makes a new sort of sense of it … Fascinating … Insightful … The connections between Vita's childhood, her dispossession, her sexuality and her writing are compellingly explored. Vita emerges as a complex and interesting character, and far more than a gay icon' Literary Review -
”'Comprehensively documents her literary … with evocative portraits of her husband [and lovers] … Dennison’s Vita is convincingly ambivalent and inflammatory, a product of her age” - New Statesman
”'This carefully researched book is intelligently and elegantly written … balanced, oratical and confident” - Spectator
”'Brilliant … thorough and engaging” - Daily Mail