How can I even begin to do justice to a novel so beautiful, elegant and thoughtful as All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West?
This is a novel which confounds the stereotypical portrayals of older people often found in literature. I’m sure you’ve come across them. There’s the senile grandparent in the rocking chair; the hyper-critical crone; the indomitable matriarch; the feisty woman and any number of variations on those themes.
Vita Sackville West’s protagonist is a very different creation. A woman who, in the twilight of her life turns out to be not ‘the very incarnation of placidity’ described by her children but a woman with a quiet determination to be free.
Lady Deborah Slane is 88 years old and recently widowed. As a young girl she yearned to become a painter. But the spirit of the age and the expectations of her family were against her. So she became instead the wife of “a great man”, the perfect consort of the Viceroy of India and Prime Minister of Britain.
When he dies, the couple’s six children are left with a burning question: What To Do About Mother. They agree the house is too big and too expensive for her but where should she live? They know their duty but really none of them want her as a permanent fixture in their homes (far too disruptive). But what if she rotated among the married couples, spending time with each as a kind of paying guest?
And so they put another set of expectations in train, believing their dutiful mother will see the merits of the plan. But they have completely misunderstood this woman. Lady Slane astounds them when she reveals she has made her own plans and has absolutely no need of their help at all. She declares:
“I am going to become completely self-indulgent. I am going to wallow in old age.
She escapes her children’s clutches by forsaking her home in desirable Kensington for a rented house in the not so desirable suburb of Hampstead.
There she gathers an odd assortment of companions: the owner of the house Mr Bucktrout; her loyal French maid Genoux and the jack-of-all-trades Mr Gosheron. Into this close circle comes a secret admirer, Mr Fitz-George, a savvy art collector who met Lady Slane when she was the highly attractive Vicereine of India.
Freedom to Live
All Passion Spent shows that with physical freedom comes the freedom to explore the past and make sense of the world. In this new phase of her life Lady Slane reflects on frustrated artistic passions, on being young and growing old and on the nature of happiness..
Had she been happy? But one was happy at one moment, unhappy two minutes later, and neither for any good reason; so what did it mean? It meant, if it meant anything at all, that some uneasy desire wanted black to be black, and white, white; it meant that in the jungle of the terrors of life, the tiny creeping creatures sought reassurance in a formula.
At times satirical and at times amusing, All Passion Spent is insightful about the delights of living according to one’s own desires. Vita Sackville West’s friend and lover Virginia Woolf had, two years earlier, argued the necessity for a woman to ‘room of her own’. Lady Slane doesn’t get her room until late in life but she takes full advantage of the freedom it offers to her life on her own terms.
There’s so much in this novel that is sheer delight.
The portrayal of the ghastly children with their platitudinous conversations is masterful. I loved the scenes where Lady Slane and her young (er) friend Mr Fitz-George stroll slowly on Hampstead Heath, stopping frequently because they’re tired (though they pretend they want to admire the view).
Above all I adored the refreshing depiction of an elderly lady who delights in her new found independence. Vita Sackville-West shows us a woman whose calm conventional facade hid a passionate nature and an artist’s eye.
She remembered how, crossing the Persian desert with Henry, their cart had been escorted by flocks of butterflies, white and yellow, which danced on either side and overhead and all around them, now flying ahead in a concerted movement, now returning to accompany them, amused as it were to restrain their swift frivolity to a flitting around this lumbering conveyance, but still unable to suit their pace to such sobriety, so, to relieve their impatience, soaring up into the air, or dipping between the very axles, coming out on the other side before the horses had had time to put down another hoof; making, all the while, little smuts of shadow on the sand, like little black anchors dropped, tethering them by invisible cables to earth, but dragged about with the same capricious swiftness, obliged to follow; and she remembered thinking, lulled by the monotonous progression that trailed after the sun from dawn to dusk, like a plough that should pursue the sun in one straight slow furrow round and round the world – she remembered thinking that this was something like her own life, following Henry Holland like the sun, but every now and then moving into a cloud of butterflies which were her own irreverent, irrelevant thoughts, darting and dancing, …
Only as she approaches the end of her life is her true self set free.
All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West: Footnotes
All Passion Spent, the title of which is taken from the final three words of John Milton’s Samson Agonistes, first appeared in 1931 under the imprint of the Hogarth Press, an independent publishing house run by Leonard Woolf and his wife Virginia. Vita Sackville-West had been Virginia Woolf’s lover and they remained good friends.
Vita Sackville-West was a successful poet and journalist as well as a novelist. She was twice awarded the Hawthornden Prize for Imaginative Literature: in 1927 for her pastoral epic, The Land, and in 1933 for her Collected Poems.