VIOLET TO VITA

The Letters of Violet Trefusis

To Vita Sackville-West, 1910-21

Edited by Mitchell A. Leaska and John Phillips

Viking. 303 pp. $19.95

ECHO

By Violet Trefusis

Translated from the French by Sian Miles

Viking. 109 pp. $17.95

IT IS, I suppose, a curious comment on this collection of passionate, overwrought letters written by Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West that Mitchell A. Leaska's 52-page introduction is the most interesting part of the book. For one thing, Violet was a frenzied, almost apoplectic and uncontrolled letter-writer, so violently in love with the glamorous and (later) married Vita that her letters explode rather than explain or describe. And what is more unfortunate, the other side of the correspondence, the letters to which many of these are responses, do not exist. Denys Trefusis, Violet's husband, in an understandable fit of jealousy, destroyed all of Vita's letters.

Nigel Nicolson, Vita's son, found the letters in a locked Gladstone bag just after her death in 1962. His fine biography of his parents, Portrait of a Marriage (1973), drew upon the one-sided correspondence. Now that we have the letters in their flaming entirety, I am forced to wonder whether Nicolson's use of them was not preferable to the full texts.

Violet Trefusis's life was, for the most part, shaped by her famous mother, Alice Keppel, the beautiful, accomplished and talented mistress of Edward VII. She was a marvelous hostess, a devoted lover, but a rigid and difficult mother. Nonetheless she was feared and adored by her unstable daughter. Violet met Vita when she was 16 and Vita two years her senior. They began a desultory correspondence. Two years later they met again and Violet fell in love, despite the fact that, at the time, Vita was absorbed in a passionate affair with Rosamund Grosvenor. The letters move from a slow unveiling of Violet's feelings toward Vita to hysterical detonation when Violet decides that Vita must leave her husband and her two children and run away with her to Europe.

Vita's marriage and apparently contented domestic life infuriated Violet (as, later, Violet's marriage, insisted on by her mother, was to anger Vita). When Vita, whose career as a novelist had begun successfully, went to Paris with her husband, Harold Nicolson, Violet sent this excessively superlative letter after her:

"You are made for passion, your perfectly proportioned body, your heavy lidded brooding eyes, your frankly sensual mouth . . . These are the best years of your life . . . You who might have been, who might still be! one of the greatest figures of your century -- a George Sand, a Catherine of Russia, a Helen of Troy, Sappho! . . . Cast aside the drab garments of respectability and convention, my beautiful Bird of Paradise . . . Otherwise, Mitya {Vita}, you'll be a failure -- you, who might be among the greatest, the most scintillating and romantic figures of all time . . ."

Immediately after World War I, the two women managed the third of their escapes from their families and Vita's established respectability, urged on by Violet's ornate, heated prose:

"Oh, Mitya, come away, let's fly, Mitya darling -- if ever there were two entirely primitive people, they are surely us: let's go away and forget the world and all its squalor -- let's forget such things as trains, and trams, and servants, and streets, and shops, and money, and cares and responsibilities. Oh God! how I hate it all -- you and I, Mitya, were born 2000 years too late, or 2000 years too soon."

There is a great deal more of this "artless prattle," as Violet herself characterizes her writing in these voluminous letters (sometimes as many as three a day). She expresses a great scorn for the "dowdy virtues such as punctuality, conscientiousness, fidelity and smugness"; she tells Vita about the violence of her love ("I want to hurt someone: if you were here . . . I should dig my nails into your flesh . . . I should like to tear you up, to mutilate you, to make you unrecognizable"); she makes great declarations of eternal love; ridden with jealousy, she demands that Vita have sexual relations with no one but her, not other women, not her husband.

During one escapade, they went to Paris, lived in a friend's apartment and went dancing in nightclubs. Vita dressed as a man (always in their relationship she enjoyed the masculine role), was called Julian by her feminine lover and escaped detection during four "wild and radiant months." They gambled, they ate at the Cafe de Paris, they worked together on Vita's novel, Challenge. They had become the talk of Paris, and of London as well, when Vita returned despondently to England and another deluge of extravagant letters from Violet began.

By 1921, when these love letters cease, Violet's husband had temporarily left her and her mother had forbidden her to correspond with Vita. Vita was 30, Violet 28, their passion had cooled. Harold's goodness and patience prevailed (and the satisfactions of his own extra-marital gay life); they lived together happily during her long and successful career as a novelist and until her death in 1962.

Violet "settled in" with Denys in Paris until his death in 1929. Two years later she published her second novel, Echo, written in French, recently translated by Sian Miles and published by Viking simultaneously with her letters. Set in Scotland, a land she came to love in later life, it is a slight, somewhat undeveloped but still interesting account of the visit of a sophisticated young Parisian to her Scottish cousins, a wild, almost primitive boy and girl, both of whom fall tragically in love with her.

Violet lived out her long, expatriate life in Paris, once again during World War II writing of her love to Vita (these letters are not contained in this collection), believing up until her death in 1972 -- as a passage she marked in Cyril Connolly's The Unquiet Grave testifies -- that "we love only once, for once only are we perfectly equipped for loving . . . And on how that first great love-affair shapes itself depends the pattern of our lives."

Doris Grumbach is a novelist and critic.