More often than not Virago Modern Classics (of which I am an enthusiastic collector) turn out to be very special reads. I am not sure I have ever read a VMC that I didn't fall madly in love with or at least very much admire. Vita Sackville-West now joins those happy ranks for writing a novel that is not only still timely, but elegantly and eloquently told. According to some it is her best novel. All Passion Spent is a story I am not sure I would have appreciated as a young woman (not enough experience definitely or understanding of older women's lives), but it is a story that resonates with me now. It is dog eared and pencil marked and will be one I revisit some day.
Upon the death of her husband Lord Slane, former Viceroy of India with a brilliant university career and a seat in the Cabinet amongst his many accolades of a long life well lived, Lady Deborah Slane reflects back on her own life. She asks herself, "but what was happiness? Had she been happy?" A woman of eighty-eight, Deborah, is not a woman anyone would think of with pity. A Vicereine. A successful husband who was dedicated to her and a brood of children to care for. Her parents groomed her to marry well, and she did. What matter of the plans she had for herself, which must then be set aside for the greater good of her politician husband and her family.
And now her husband is dead and her children are perplexed by her behavior. Finally she can live just for herself, please herself.
"Mother was wonderful, but what was to be done with Mother? Evidently, she could not go on being wonderful for the rest of her life. Somewhere, somehow, she must be allowed to break down, and then, after that was over, must be stowed away; housed, taken care of."
She has always been utterly feminine and pliant. It was even thought that perhaps she was just a pretty face with an empty head. A beautiful woman to have on your arm, but a politician's wife? She shocks her grown children by not allowing them to stow her away and 'take care of her'. As a matter of fact, for the first time in her adult life she has freedom. This hint of independence is an outrage, almost a manifesto to her children. When she tells them she plans on taking a house in Hampstead, a house she has chosen and visited--'on her own'--they're flummoxed. Not only will she take this house, but she will live on her own.
"I am going to become completely self-indulgent. I am going to wallow in my old age. No grandchildren. They are too young. Not one of them has reached forty-five. No great-grandchildren either; that would be worse. I want no strenuous young people, who are not content with doing a thing, but must needs know why they do it."
She wants her space and her freedom and her solitude, but not so much her children. Instead the friends who gather around her are an unlikely ill-assorted group, and unsurprisingly, a group frowned upon (as unsuitable) by her children-- her maid who has stood by her side for most of her life, the owner of the house she rents, a carpenter/coffin-maker who works as her handyman, and a man from her past life in India. They love and appreciate her in a way her children cannot understand. As a matter of fact Deborah is ready to get rid of all the accoutrements of her younger self--all the money and 'things' that her children are so greedy to have but are disappointed not to be the recipients of.
This is a story filled with reminiscences and truths and much wisdom. Not much happens even though it is the accounting of a life, yet it feels like time has been traveled and distances crossed. It is at times elegiac but representative of what we all go through--though perhaps for the time and place, for a woman all the more disappointing.
"Henry by the compulsion of love had cheated her of her chosen life, yet had given her another life, an ample life, a life in touch with the greater world, if that took her fancy; or a life, alternatively pressed close up against her own nursery. For a life of her own, he had substituted his life, with its interests, or the lives of her children with their potentialities. He assumed that she might sink herself in either, if not in both, with equal joy. It had never occurred to him that she might prefer simply to be herself."
Her dream was to be an artist, which as a wife and mother was out of the question. Like so many women through time her own dreams were thwarted and suppressed. How many women have given up their own dreams to take care of others? Now I wonder about the woman who wrote this book and about the life she led. She knew. She must have experienced it, yet I think she managed to pave her own way and carve out a life of her own that was fulfilling. At least I hope so. I will read more by (and about) Vita Sackville-West. If I could, I would happily press this book into your hands!
I have to share one of the poems that VSW used on a page separating sections. This is lovely, too:
Her heart sat silent through the noise
And concourse of the street;
There was no hurry in her hands,
No hurry in her feet.
--Christina Rossetti (another woman who knew, too, and must have dared anyway . . .)