Monday, 6 August 2018

Social Whirl

"Who?" I asked. "Who? How come I've never heard of him?"
At some time in the past I must have heard of him. A novelist and music critic who socialised with the Morrells (undoubtedly meeting Sassoon at Garsington), not to mention the Tennants, and lived in a stately home - of course I must have. But somehow Eddy Sackville-West (1901-1965) had made no impression.
He was, needless to say, related to Vita Sackville-West, the poet and novelist whose affairs with Violet Trefusis and Virginia Woolf are legendary, though they did not prevent her having a successful and enduring marriage to Harold Nicolson, who was also bisexual. Vita was unlucky enough to be born female, which meant that she could not inherit her family home at Knole, and she felt the loss keenly. No wonder Virginia Woolf chose her as the model for "Orlando".
Her first cousin, Eddy, was in line to inherit both the estate and the title of Baron Sackville, and was given a suite of rooms in anticipation of this. These have only relatively recently been opened to the public by the National Trust, which now owns and runs Knole. Several of these rooms have been redecorated and set out much as they were during Eddy's residence, though without the grand piano he kept in his music room. Eddy was more successful as a musician and music critic than he ever was as a writer of fiction.
Like his cousin, he had issues with his sexuality, but never overcame them enough to consider marriage. His long-standing lover was the literary critic Raymond Mortimer, whom he met while working for the New Statesman. Other close friends included Desmond Shawe-Taylor. He entertained a number of house guests at Knole, including Duncan Grant. A "life mask" of Eddy, along with a portrait of him by another friend, Graham Sutherland, can be seen in the tower rooms. The conductor Malcolm Sargent actually lived there for a time, after the Second World War, when his London home had been bombed. By then, Eddy had taken up residence near Wimborne in Dorset, sharing a household with Mortimer, Shawe-Taylor, and the painter Eardley Knollys.
On her visits to Eddy, his cousin Vita was surprisingly critical of his lifestyle, saying "I don't object to homosexuality, but I do hate decadence." Perhaps her true objection to him was that he was living in a house that should have been hers and did not appear to appreciate it as she did.
At Sissinghurst, which the Nicolsons later bought, you can see how Vita was trying to make up for the loss of Knole. A view of the house from the top of the "castle" gatehouse is surprisingly similar to looking down on Knole House from the tower, so much so that I initially labelled my holiday photos wrongly. Despite this, Vita and Harold eventually chose to settle down in a cottage in the gardens, where you can now see their living and sleeping arrangements, much as they were left when Harold died in 1968. Their son Nigel worked tirelessly to ensure that Sissinghurst, incorporating the gardens Vita designed, passed into the hands of the National Trust, and he was doubtless pleased with the results.
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