Freedom Triumphs Even In The Twilight Years

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West

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.

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West

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.

Plans Confounded

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.

Multiple Delights

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.

If you’ve not read this book yet, I’d suggest you go out right now and buy/borrow/beg a copy. I promise you will not be disappointed.

If this books gets you thinking about how older people are depicted in literature, do take a look at the Bookword blog where Caroline reflects on that very topic. 

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West: Fast Facts

All Passion Spent 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.

With her husband Sir Harold Nicolson she created the celebrated garden at Sissinghurst Castle, near Cranbrook, Kent, now owned by the National Trust.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on October 25, 2019, in Book Reviews, British authors and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 26 Comments.

  1. I very much enjoyed this too. Your description of Lady Slane’s ‘quiet determination’ is very apt, and it’s a delight to observe her blossoming and liberation. Quite a feminist novel for its day, I suspect.

    • I loved the way we saw her first via her children who set up this expectation she would be a woman with no mind of her own. It made it even more delightful then to see her turn the tables on them.

  2. Several years ago I put together a book blog tour for a collection of short stories that revolved around this community in San Diego. One narrator was a woman in her 80s, and I remember the focus being on her desire to have sex with this gentleman in her neighborhood. The author did a Q&A in which she discussed her own mother talking about how elderly people are not sexually “dead,” and that REALLY stuck with me.

  3. I too enjoyed this depiction of a spirited older woman – though it’s sad that she spends much of her life (the period before the narrative opens) playing second fiddle to an often inattentive husband and family. Never too late to rebel, however. And she does so with panache.

    • She had a life that would have been considered enviable – status, travel etc. And she recognises that but still there is a part of her that feels missing.

  4. Loved this one. Definitely one of my all-time favourite reads.

  5. Really enjoyed this one. Fairly sure I saw the series first.

  6. Those quotes are wonderful! As is your enthusiasm – sold!

  7. Nice!

  8. That’s an amazing quote, and I really should get on to reading the copy of this I’ve had for years. Vita’s writing always surprises me – I forget how good she is. And I get fed up with negative portrayals of older women – it really grates on me (particularly as I’m not getting any younger myself). I could do with a positive portrait, as I refuse to start behaving my age! :DD

    • Lisa (ANZlitlovers) has found a fascinating series on this topic Karen – the blogger is at https://www.bookword.co.uk
      Might be something of interest.

      I’ve not read anything by Sackville-West but am really keen to delve into her on the basis of this experience. It was so hard to resist just putting in loads of quotes because there were so many wonderful sentences and passages

  9. Vita Sackville-West is having a moment! Cosy Books just reviewed The Easter Party. I haven’t read her yet, but you both are very persuasive in your arguments as to why she should race up to the top of the TBR. Thanks for a lovely review. I do really enjoy books that are focused in the humanity and fine detail of the characters.

  10. During the week I read a book with a negative portrayal of an older woman shuffling around in her slippers and letting the house and garden go, and it sparked quite an interesting conversation. The author was trying to highlight loneliness in society and she had a young character who was lonely too, but the depiction of a woman as being ‘old’ at 75 really grated for me, even though the author is a doctor mining her experience of patients and apparently the story is based on an aunt of hers.

    I was very alert to the way older women are depicted are following a series of blog posts at Global Literature at Libraries, it’s hard to find now that they’ve moved onto a different focus, so if you are interested you need to search using the tag ‘older women in fiction’ which will bring up the category i.e.
    https://glli-us.org/category/older-women-in-fiction/

    I have a vague recollection of another novel in this vein, something by Nina Bawden?

  11. I am so in the mood to read this book. It sounds simply wonderful. I’ve heard so much about Sackville-west yet never read her. I will look for a copy of this. I too get so tired of the portrayal of older women in books especially as I am about to turn 70 and am still in a motorbike club, forget a rocking chair. (My porch is not large enough). Thank you for sharing this. 🤠🐧

  12. This sounds wonderful. Despite being published decades ago, the story could be taking place today. I was delighted to find a copy in my library. Thanks for the review; I never would have known about it otherwise.

    • That’s a really interesting point about the timelessness of the story Rosemary. I’m sure there are many widowed elderly ladies whose families think they know best and ride roughshod over their mother’s own wishes.

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