Behind the Mask: The Life of Vita Sackville-West

Written by Matthew Dennison
Review by Mary F. Burns

This new biography of Vita Sackville-West is a treasure trove of quotes from letters sent and received by the inimitable iconoclast whose life bridged two if not three shattering sea changes in the western world (1892-1962). Dennison delivers a fairly straightforward account of the anything-but-straightforward Vita and her many lovers and complicated love affairs, most of them with women, alongside her lasting marriage with Harold Nicolson, who was also homosexual and had his own affairs to attend to. The book is not strictly linear, but gathers and presents information somewhat thematically, with chapter titles taken from Vita’s many published writings: “The Edwardians,” “Challenge,” and “The Land and The Garden.” She was a prolific writer of fiction, non-fiction, essays, articles and poetry, and was quite popular also on the radio, both before and after WWII, reading poems or conducting interviews on art and literature.

A burgeoning cast of true-life characters can be confusing, particularly the long line of lovers cast out in Vita’s selfish wake, Virginia Woolf among them. Woolf’s Orlando was based on Vita’s intense belief she harbored both a man and a woman’s being in her soul, and dressed accordingly, scandalizing various townspeople (even in Paris!) by appearing in public attired in men’s clothing. Vita was, by turns, charming, selfish, generous, cruel, madly in love or simply mad – but, one can assume, always interesting.