After meeting at a dinner party in 1922, the writers Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West began an affair — and generated pages and pages of confirmation. Naturally, Woolf, one of the greatest writers
of the 20th century ever, also wrote a helluva love letter. "Throw over your man, and come to me," Woolf wrote in a letter in 1927.
In the movie Vita and Virginia, out August 23, their complicated relationship unfurls amid the lavish sitting rooms of the landed gentry and 1920s-inspired costumes. Gemma Arterton plays socialite and popular writer Sackville-West, Elizabeth Debicki is Woolf, ten years her lover's senior and a literary icon in-the-making.
Vita and Virginia is latest in a crowd of recent works that depict the complexities of lesbian relationships. HBO's Gentleman Jack is an ode the marvelously ahead-of-her-time Anne Lister (Suranne Jones), who kept a diary about her exploits with women and openly married a woman in 1834. And, instead of painting her as a sad shut-in, Wild Nights With Emily rewrites Emily Dickinson (Molly Shannon) as a horny, raging poet. In all three works, the real women’s letters inform the plot.
Compared to Dickinson and Lister’s clandestine relationships, Sackville-West and Woolf’s affair was no secret to anyone — including their husbands. Leonard Woolf, Virginia's husband, was aware of his wife’s relationship, and reportedly wasn’t “worried.” Woolf and West ran in a progressive literary circle called the Bloomsbury Group; extramarital affairs were just one of many scandals. Sackville-West and her aristocratic husband, Harold Nicolson, had an understanding; both were bisexual and had frequent affairs.
Nigel, Sackville-West’s son, remarked on the unconventional marriages in his book, Portrait of a Marriage. “Their marriages were alike in the freedom they allowed each other, in the invincibility of their love, in its intellectual, spiritual and non-physical base, in the eagerness of all four of them to savour life, challenge convention, work hard, play dangerously with the emotions — and in their solicitude for each other,” he wrote.
In December of 1922, Vita met Virginia. At the time, 40-year-old Woolf had just published her first novel and Sackville-West, who was ten years her junior, was by far the more popular literary talent. Still, Sackville-West was impressed by Woolf. “She does give the impression of something big,” she wrote in a letter to her husband. Right away, Sackville-West confessed her attraction to the writer, saying, “I’ve rarely taken such a fancy to anyone, and I think she likes me...Darling, I have quite lost my heart.” Woolf, on her end, immediately identified Sackville-West as a “pronounced Sapphist” in her diary.
From 1922 to the end of 1925, the writers were just friends who exchanged the occasional flirty letter (like West saying, "How nice it would be to get another letter from you—still better, to see you."). Then came December 1925, when Woolf came to stay with Sackville-West at her estate — and things got serious, as well as sexual.
Naturally, the letters got steamier too. “I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia. You have broken down my defences,” writes Sackville-West in a 1926 letter to Woolf. At the time, Sackville-West was away in Milan was, uh, missing Woolf: “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.”
Woolf responded to Sackville-West's letter with words of longing of her own. “I have been dull; I have missed you. I do miss you. I shall miss you. And if you don’t believe it, you’re a longeared owl and ass,” she wrote.
Woolf was both in awe of and intimidated by her younger lover. In a 1925 diary entry, Woolf writes, “Vita shines in the grocers shop in Sevenoaks…pink glowing, grape clustered, pearl hung…There is her maturity and full-breastedness: her being so much in full sail on the high tides, where I am coasting down backwaters; her capacity I mean to take the floor in any company, to represent her country, to visit Chatsworth, to control silver, servants, chow dogs; her motherhood…her in short (what I have never been) a real woman.”
While they certainly loved each other, their relationship became strained by 1927. Part of the trouble had to do with Sackville-West’s meanderings — she saw other people while she was with Woolf. Some of Sackville West’s other notable lovers include the poet Violet Trefusis, Hilda Matheson, a director of talks at the BBC, and Gwen St. Aubyn, her sister-in-law. Once, she and her husband dated another couple, with Vita coupling with Alvide Lees-Milne and Harold with James Lees-Milne.
Between 1927 and 1929, their letters take on a desperate tone. In 1927, Woolf pleads, “Look here Vita — throw over your man, and we’ll go to Hampton Court and dine on the river together and walk in the garden in the moonlight and come home late and have a bottle of wine and get tipsy, and I’ll tell you all the things I have in my head, millions, myriads.”
Though their sexual relationship ended in 1929, the women remained extremely important to each other.
Woolf based Orlando: A Biography, which is about a man who magically changes sex midway through his life, on Sackville-West, who once ran away with a lover while wearing men’s clothing. According to Sackville-West’s son, Nigel, Orlando is “the longest and most charming love letter in literature."
The women’s final letters were exchanged in the early ‘40s, when England was at war. Sackville-West visited Woolf at her house at Sussex three times but returned to London to weather out the blitz. “It’s perfectly peaceful here — they’re playing bowls — I’d just put flowers in your room. And there you sit with the bombs falling around you What can one say — except that I love you and I’ve got to live through this strange quiet evening thinking of you sitting alone,” Woolf wrote to her ex-lover in 1940.
Woolf’s final letter was sent six days before she took her own life in 1941. Their relationship ended with words of love. “You have given me such happiness,” Woolf wrote.