Ten things I learned while researching Sissinghurst and Vita Sackville-West

I read numerous brilliant books researching Sissinghurst Castle Gardens and its creators Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson. Here are ten random things I learned, and some I just thought about.

As I read about the demise of wildlife in England since the dawning of the industrial age, it made me wonder what differences Vita and Harold would notice in the wildlife in their garden, between the 1930s and the present day.

Image by Marathon

Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf had a passionate friendship and perhaps more, but came from quite different backgrounds. Vita was from an aristocratic family and was raised at Knole, the family’s ancestral home. Virginia was more of an intellectual. Vita once said that having a conversation with Virginia was like ‘having my mind held against a grindstone.’

While Vita did the planting in the gardens, Harold was responsible for the layout, referring to the garden rooms as a ‘succession of privacies’. This seemed a beautiful metaphor, with spaces a person could move through at various times of the day, where different moods might be reflected.

Image by Derek Harper

Vita believed a time would come when people like herself and Harold, who had what she called a ‘duality’, would be better accepted. They both famously had multiple same-sex lovers throughout their lives, despite remaining married and devoted to one another.

The gardens at Sissinghurst attract almost a quarter of a million visitors annually. Perhaps this is due to the sanctuary Vita and Harold created, but perhaps also to the intriguing nature of their relationship. Perhaps their lives contained something we all seek for ourselves now: the courage to live as our authentic selves.

I learned that I can write fiction! And that I enjoyed the process. Walking my dog one day, I realized I was thinking more about Harold and his perspective than Vita, especially about his grief when when Vita died, and he was alone. I changed the narrator in my story to a man whose wife has left him.  Everything fell into place and it became a story about love and loss, told in the lyrical, romantic tradition.

Vita and Harold sometimes argued over the planting in the gardens. It still makes me chuckle to think of them bickering while wielding a hoe over the garden beds.

Image by Klaus D Peter

Contrary to what you might think, given the size of Sissinghurst, Vita and Harold weren’t made of money. They picked up many of the statues in the garden at rural markets and second-hand sales.

At the end of the afternoon, Harold would peer out of the South Cottage windows where he had his writing room, at the tower, where Vita had her writing room. If the lights were off, she had finished for the day, and Harold would make his way through the garden to the Priest’s House where the family met for dinner.

Vita put plants that were red, orange and yellow in the garden outside Harold’s writing room so that he could look out of the window and see sunset colours. The beauty and long-lasting nature of this gesture speaks to the depth of their love, don’t you think?

Sissinghurst Day, a short story

Sissinghurst Day is published as a short story, with an account by the author of writing it.

“A lovely, romantic and hugely atmospheric story which captures the spirit of the place beautifully.” Juliet Nicolson

Buy now as a paperback or e-book.

All images used through the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.


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