Friday, January 13, 2012

Looking Back

"Siting there in the sun at Hampstead, in the late summer, under the south wall and the ripened peaches, doing nothing with her hands, she remembered the day she had become engaged to Henry.  She had plenty of leisure now, day in, day out, to survey her life as a tract of country traversed, and at last become a landscape instead of separate fields or separate years and days, so that it became a unity and she could see the whole view, and could even pick out a particular field and wander round it again in spirit, though seeing it all the while as it were from a height, fallen into its proper place, with the exact pattern drawn round it by the hedge, and the next field into which the gap in the hedge would lead.  So, she thought, could she at last put circles round her life.  Slowly she crossed that day, as one crosses a field by a little path through the grasses, with the sorrel and the buttercups waving on either side; she crossed it again slowly, from breakfast to bed-time, and each hour, as one hand of the clock passed over the other, regained for her its separate character: this was the hour, she thought, when I first came downstairs that day, swinging my hat by its ribbons; and this was the hour when he persuaded me into the garden, and sat with me on the seat beside the lake, and told me it was not true that with one blow of its wing a swan could break the leg of a man.

She had listened to him, paying dutiful attention to the swan which had actually drifted up to them by the bank, dipping its beak and then curving to probe irritably into the snowy tuft of feathers on its breast; but she was thinking less of the swan than of the young whiskers on Henry's cheek, only her thoughts had merged, so that she wondered whether Henry's brown curls were as soft as the feathers on the breast of the swan, and all but reached out an idle hand to feel them.  Then he passed from the swan, as though that had been but a gambit to cover his hesitation, and the  next thing she knew was that he was speaking earnestly, bending forward and even fingering a flounce of her dress, as though anxious, although unaware of his anxiety, to establish some kind of contact between himself and her; but for her all true contact had been severed from the moment he began to speak so earnestly...He had gone.  He had left her. Even while she conscientiously gazed at him and listened, she was already miles and miles away.  He had passed into the sphere where people marry, beget and bear children, bring them up, give orders to servants...Mr. Holland was asking her to accompany him into this sphere.  He was asking her to be his wife."


Sometimes we read a passage of writing that takes our breath away and makes us gasp at the perfection of the words and how effectively they express what the writer was trying to say.  For me that happened recently with this passage from "All Passion Spent" written in 1931 by English writer Vita Sackville-West. They are the thoughts of  88-year old Lady Slane as she sits outside her new home in Hampstead Heath in London after the death of her husband Lord Slane, a former Prime Minister and Viceroy of India, at the end of a long Victorian marriage.  Her six adult children have tried to control her life after the death of her husband, assuming she would be overwhelmed with grief and incapable of dealing with the practicalities of life.  She has always been viewed as an appendage to her powerful statesman husband, with no real life of her own.  They assume she will want to live with them, but she shocks them by declaring she wants to live by herself and buys a small house that she has always loved in Hampstead Heath.

The story is poignant and touching:  a woman near the end of her life finally doing exactly what she wants.  She has simplified her life to the bare minimum -- living in a small but elegant house in Hampstead Heath with her old French maid Genoux.  Her children have stopped visiting, as Hampstead is too far for them to travel.  She does not mind. Now is the time for reflection and simplicity.  Much to her surprise three men have entered her life and are regular visitors. They have neither status nor prestige, which is part of their appeal for her.  They are the agent who helped her buy the house, the builder who helped remodel it, and a reclusive and wealthy collector of fine art Mr. FitzGeorge who knew her in India and is still in love with her.  She has not enjoyed herself this much in many, many years.  Days are spent walking on the Heath or reading in front of the fireplace.  Evenings are spent visiting with her new friends, or sitting by herself lost in thought as she thinks about her life and the choices she has made.

This is a book not to miss.  It will make you think about getting older, looking back, being true to yourself and appreciating the simple pleasures that make life worthwhile.  What a treat to discover this elegiac and beautiful book "All Passion Spent" written by the very passionate and rebellious English woman Vita Sackville-West.   Like Virginia Woolf and Rebecca West, Vita felt strongly about the issue of women being repressed by society and she was a fierce advocate for her own personal freedom throughout her life.


  1. Going to Diesel immediately. Well, in two hours anyway. Sounds like a perfect literary accompaniment to TV's Downton Abbey, which I thank you and Megan for again - we LOVE it.
    Yesterday, the NY Times had a section about books for the lovers of Downton Abbey, but I don't remember this one in it?

  2. I read this last year and loved it. Loved re reading the passages you've chosen here. It truly is a wonderful read.

  3. Absolutely beautiful, I have this book but I have not read it. After reading your passage, I am going to start on this next. Thank you for prodding me in the right direction.

    Have a great weekend! Enjoy, Elizabeth

  4. In the same family tree are two wonderful books by Juliet Nicolson, granddaughter of Harold Nicolson and V. Sackville-West--The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm (2008), and its companion piece, The Great Silence: Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age (2010). This spring, Nicolson's novel Abdication comes out. You learned readers probably know about these books, but if you don't, you'll love them.

  5. Connie, thanks for the great recommendations! I will look for both of those books, especially as they sound like great companion books for the television series "Downton Abbey" which I am really enjoying.

    Kathy, I saw that article also and I don't think it included any novels. I think "All Passion Spent" and the books that Connie recommended sound perfect to read during this period of time when "Downton Abbey" is on TV .

    Elizabeth, I am so glad you have this book and are going to read it now. Please let me know how you like it.

  6. Oh Sunday! You have done it again, sent me off in search of another book! This looks wonderful. I am reading about Vita's life thru Sissinghurst and now you have provided me with another clue...Thank you! This looks fabulous!
    I am off to check out the book and the move. :)

    Jeanne xx

  7. Sounds like a book I would love. I seem to gravitate to the late Victorian age books when women are struggling to find their place in such a male dominated world. As I listen, however, to several of my friends going through divorces, I often wonder just how far we have come.

  8. I keep meaning to read this one. Thanks for the reminder!

  9. I'm really looking forward to reading this, based on your review!

  10. I just watched the mini series and loved it! I'm going to find this book in as early an edition as I can find and buy it!