3.5* (out of 5*)

Let the cat fight begin!

In the red corner, Diana Souhami, defender of Violet Trefusis. In the blue corner, Nigel Nicolson, son of Vita Sackville-West and representing her point of view.

No, I’m not going to try and write this as a ring report, but for the most part of reading both in parallel it has been as if I was watching a boxing match – with few punches held.

Both books focus on the lives of the two women at the time of their relationship. Although both books are good general biographies, it is really the relationship between Vita and Violet that gets all the attention. Of course, it is Vita’s own manuscript – her detailed confession of the relationship with Violet – locked in a drawer which Nicolson discovered after his mother’s death that caused Nicolson to write his book and so the focus on this part of Vita’s life is entirely justified.

And it is a fascinating story – one which would even find its way into Orlando, Woolf’s adoring mock biography of Vita – full of jealousy, confusion, passion, and struggle for control.

“Behind Violet’s love for Vita was contempt for the hypocrisy of marriage as she had seen it practised by her mother and the King. For herself she knew marriage would be a meretricious show. She wanted proof that Vita was dissembling too.”

(Souhami, Diana  – Mrs Keppel and Her Daughter

So, on one hand we have a book trying to vindicate Violet and attributing the misery of her emotional upheaval to Vita, on the other we have Vita crediting Violet’s manipulation as the cause of of her emotional dependence on Violet.

“Then, when I had finished, when I had told her how all the gentleness and all the femininity of me was called out by Harold alone, but how towards everyone else my attitude was completely otherwise – then, still with her infinite skill, she brought me round to my attitude towards herself, as it had always been ever since we were children, and then she told me how she had loved me always, and reminded me of incidents running through years, which I couldn’t pretend to have forgotten. She was far more skilful than I. I might have been a boy of eighteen, and she a woman of thirty-five. She was infinitely clever – she didn’t scare me, she didn’t rush me, she didn’t allow me to see where I was going; it was all conscious on her part, but on mine it was simply the drunkenness of liberation – the liberation of half my personality. She opened up to me a new sphere. And for her, of course, it meant the supreme effort to conquer the love of the person she had always wanted, who had always repulsed her (when things seemed to be going too far), out of a sort of fear, and of whom she was madly jealous – a fact I had not realized, so adept was she at concealment, and so obtuse was I at her psychology.”

(Nicolson, Nigel  – Portrait Of A Marriage)

As a result, neither comes across as particularly likeable and I found myself feel rather sorry for their husbands, Denys Trefusis and Harold Nicolson, who went to great lengths to both enable Violet and Vita to conduct their relationship and at the same time protect them from the destructive nature of their passions.