All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville West

Vita Sackville-West is an author who has been on my radar for a very long time. I read The Edwardians years ago, probably whilst at university, and I liked it, but I don’t remember it blowing me away. I know about her due to her relationship with Virginia Woolf, her interesting marital situation, and her childhood home, Knole, where I spent many hours of my own childhood, but her writing career and novels have never been of massive interest. That hasn’t stopped me from buying them – of course not! – but I haven’t picked one up in about five years. This weekend I decided to finally give All Passion Spent a go; I didn’t have high expectations, and I anticipated it being nothing but an interesting, light, witty read that I’d get through fairly quickly and be able to tick off the list of guilt inducing books I’ve been meaning to read for ages. Thankfully I was wrong; while it was interesting, light and witty, it was also tenderly, insightfully and beautifully written, and refreshingly unusual in telling the story not of bright young things or middle aged angst but of a coolly detached elderly woman in the last days of her life. It genuinely moved me, and gave me much food for thought.

All Passion Spent opens in the aftermath of the death of Lord Slane, a universally admired and respected former Prime Minister and Viceroy of India. His six grown up children descend upon the London home of their parents to dispense advice and organise the funeral, feeling they must protect and support their elderly mother, Lady Slane, who they have always thought of as being rather simple. Lady Slane, married in the mid 1800s when still a teenager, has never had a life outside of being a wife and mother. Considered as nothing but an attractive appendage to a man whose intellect and fame made him the star of every show, her opinions and wishes have never been sought. She has merely had to float along behind Lord Slane for nearly seventy years, moving their home and children to wherever his career required them to be, smiling at his side at official events, making inane conversation at dinner parties put on for his benefit and being a source of comfort and solace when things did not go to his plan.

Now he is gone, her children, who assume she adored their father and had no desire but to live for him, anticipate her being prostrate with grief and helpless with the practical arrangements of life. As such, they come up with a plan to parcel her equally between them over the course of a year, and make her pay for the privilege. However, Lady Slane shocks them all by declaring that she wants nothing more than to spend her remaining years alone, and that she plans on renting a house she fell in love with many years previously in Hampstead. Much to her children’s consternation, she arranges the whole affair herself and moves to her leafy, quiet and peaceful new home with her French maid Genoux. Finally she is free to spend her time as and with whom she wishes, but it isn’t long before she picks up a select band of enriching new friends. One of these is a mysterious visitor from her past, who encourages her to reflect on who she might have been, had not Lord Slane come along and absorbed her life so completely within his.

On the surface, Lady Slane has had it all; a varied, interesting life, lived amongst the most illustrious people of the day, amidst the backdrops of some of the world’s most glittering cities. She has been surrounded by wealth and splendour, been loved by a fine and handsome man, and had six children to dote upon. In the eyes of most, her life has been gilded at every turn – but now, in old age, Lady Slane looks back and can see that for her, all these trappings meant nothing compared to the secret, unfulfilled desires of her soul. Beneath her calm and conventional exterior beat a wild and adventurous heart, that was never discovered by those who were supposedly closest to her. Only now, as she nears her death, do her children realise that their mother is not the woman they always thought her to be, and that her life has not been as golden as they assumed.

This is a remarkable, touching, poignant and searingly honest portrayal of how lonely humans can be, and how cast adrift from our own dreams and hopes and wishes our lives can become. Lady Slane doesn’t get her ‘room of her own’ until she is in her late eighties; the chance to live as she pleases and indulge her own interests – interests her children and husband never even suspected she had. She had spent her entire life a stranger to those she was closest to, and a stranger even to herself. How many people, I wonder, live and lived like this, closed off from their true desires, suffocated by the wishes and demands of others, swept along a path they never meant to take, burying their own souls deeper and deeper until even they forget what once caused their heart to sing? Lady Slane’s experiences shows that it is easy to let your self slip away, easy to get subsumed by a partner, by children, by the business of day to day life, and become merely a bystander in the lives of others, rather than the protagonist in the story of your own. For some, it is fear, and for others, accident, but to think of all the wasted dreams and passions and hopes…it is heartbreaking. Sackville-West, through Lady Slane, exhorts us to be true to ourselves, rather than to the standards of the world. It is only when Lady Slane retreats from the world that she finds contentment, as there she finally has enough silence to allow her to listen to the desires of her own heart.

This is such a beautifully written, elegiac novel, that, while predominantly an attack of the suffocating marriages inflicted on many a Victorian woman, is still very relevant to the lives we live today.  How true are we ever, to ourselves? And how well do we ever really know each other? All Passion Spent is definitely one to make you ponder. Don’t let it pass you by.

38 comments

  1. What a beautiful review, Rachel! I’m ashamed to say that I did let it pass me by – I had a copy sitting on my shelves for years, and eventually let it go, during a bit of a ‘cull’. Having read your review I regret that bitterly!! I will add it to my list of books I’d like to read next year.

    1. Thanks Caroline! Don’t be ashamed – I do that with books all the time and live to regret it when I read great reviews of books I’ve culled! You can’t keep them all. Hope you can get around to it soon!

  2. I have not read the book — sounds right up my alley, must read soon — but, the BBC miniseries based on the book was wonderful. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0090608

    I have 2 books and a DVD on my to be read/watched list: Portrait of a Marriage (DVD), Sissinghurst: An Unifinished History and Inheritance: The Story of Knole. I’m curious, how did you end up spending time at Knole when you were a child? Sounds lovely.

    1. I must watch this miniseries!

      I grew up very near to Knole and it is a National Trust property now, so open to the public. It has a huge deer park and my parents used to take us there to roam on Sunday afternoons – it’s a really beautiful and special place!

      1. Knole, Sissinghurst, and Bateman’s are on my “to see” list…would you think best to see in spring/summer? Have you seen the gardens at Sissinghurst? I wonder if they do anything special at Christmas or are most National Trust properties closed in the winter? Sorry for all the questions. How fantastic to have grown up in that area.

      2. Hi Margaret, sorry just saw this – Knole is at its most beautiful in Autumn in my opinion. The grounds are open year round but I think the house closes for the winter – you’d have to check the website. If you’re coming up for a visit, you should go to the Churchill’s house, Chartwell, at the same time – it’s ten minutes up the road and is AMAZING – the grounds are spectacular, there is a brilliant museum, and the shop and tearoom are fab too. Plus you can see Winston’s paintings in his garden studio! Chartwell is beautiful in Summer but a trip in Autumn would also be wonderful – the trees would be spectacular. I haven’t been to Sissinghurst or Batemans but I would imagine they’re closed from November-March like most National Trust places – though again, check the website to be sure because sometimes they can surprise you!

  3. I confess that all I know about Sackville-West is related to her connection with Virginia Woolf. But after reading your lovely review, I can’t wait to become acquainted with her through her prose. Thank you!

  4. I can also recommend Portrait Of A Marriage, a book of the letters between Vita and her husband Harold (published posthumously by their son Nigel). For me, more fascinating than any fiction she ever wrote.

  5. I’m so glad you enjoyed this, although I’m also not surprised! I keep meaning to read more VSW. At the moment I’m reading A Book of Secrets: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers, by Michael Holroyd, which includes a section on Violet Trefusis, who as you might know had a bit of an affair with VSW.

    1. That book is on its way to me, Laura! I’m looking forward to reading it. Vita and her circle were such interesting characters….definitely more intellectual and daring than most of the celebrities we have today!

  6. This sounds like such a remarkable book Rachel. Your review beautifully done, as always. I love the questions you pose about how well do we know each other, and, sometimes I wonder how well many know themselves. This looks to a book I will eventually seek out – and I know I will thank you for the introduction.

  7. I read this along with Karen/Cornflower’s Book Group in 2007 or 2008, and I think it’s wonderful – Lady S is one of the greatest depictions of old age I’ve read. You must seek out the very-short very-wonderful book The Heir by VSW, which was published in a beautiful edition by Hesperus – it’s even better. If you are interested in the ways old houses make their inhabitants love them, you’ll love it…

    I love that ‘of course’ you bought VSW books even when you weren’t that interested – of course!

    1. I thought when I was reading this that it was just your cup of tea, Simon!

      I’ll check out the other book…it sounds brilliant!!!

      I knew I’d get around to them at some point!!🙂

  8. I picked up the green Virago of this when Thomas from My Porch made it sound so appealing with its London landscape. Your wonderful, as ever, review has made me even more glad it’s on my shelf! And I make sure that everyone in my house, and all of my friends, knows that I am a prisoner. Destined to wither away from boredom in a Canadian suburb while my very being pines for all that London has to offer. I’m surprised they haven’t shipped me off just to end the whining!

    1. You would love this, Darlene! Love love love it. And it’s a quick read. So make sure you read it soon! You make me laugh…a retirement in Hampstead might be on the cards for you too!

  9. Such a lovely story, and I agree that when I read it I couldn’t help but feel (sorry to sound like Carrie Bradshaw) sad for all the people of that time trapped in lives they didn’t necessarily want to be a part of. Something foreign for us who grew up post-60’s, where we are encouraged to be as individual and diverse as possible. Thought provoking indeed.

    AND as Simon said, please read ‘The Heir.’ She herself feels like it was a youthful, whimsical book, but nevertheless, it’s stunning!

    1. It really is thought provoking and beautiful isn’t it? It made me so sad too, to think that so many people just muddled along without ever getting to fulfil their dreams.

      I will, I will! I will put it on my Christmas list!

  10. I’m glad you wrote this: I’ve been meaning to read this for a while, and last night I came to the end of two projects, one of which reading a VERY long and dense book, and tonight I have the night to myself and was wondering what I should start. And now I know! I shall read this this very evening🙂

  11. Thank you so much for writing about “All Passion Spent.” I am a fan of Virginia Woolf’s books and have read them all, as well as books by other writers in her circle. But I have never read Vita. I will do it now, and I am so happy to hear it is so good. Thank you for a wonderful review!

  12. I have not read the book, but this review struck a cord! I seemed to have lived my life – waiting. Waiting for my children to grow up and be independent; waiting for my husband to be the man I thought I glimpsed in him so many years back. Waiting for my country to come of age and be the great nation it has all the potential to become. I have had an epiphany! What am I waiting for? I am sixty years old and have had my life on hold waiting for others to …. what? Validate my life? I am going to read ‘All Passion Spent’; I am going to stop being a ‘bystander in the lives of others’ and become the star of my own production! Thank you for your enlightening commentary.

    1. Charmaine, I am so delighted that this review has given you inspiration – read the book and then recharge your life! I wish you all the best in making the changes you desire – you become that star – you have definitely got it in you!🙂

  13. What an amazing site! I found you by looking for “All Passion Spent” – I am so glad I did! I fear this is a blog where I will spend an inordinate amount of time. I love your detailed and thoughtprovoking reviews and also your choice of books – most are unknown to me, but surely I will check them out. As I have never been to England, but plan to do so -hopefully soon! – it’s also very special for me to accompany you on your walks and travels. You put so much work into this site, thank you!!!
    “All Passion Spent” is the first novel by Vita Sackville-West I read. (Before, I knew and loved her poems – poetry I understand at the first reading, a rare and welcome thing!) I enjoyed it a lot and it made me think about my own life a lot. I guess it’s a great reminder at any age to be true to ourselves rather than to what people expect from us, as you also said.
    “The Edwardians” and “Family History” are waiting…
    I also bought a very beautiful book “Vita’s Other World” about her gardens. You mentioned that your Mum lives near Sevenoaks where Vita and Harold planned their first garden at Long Barn. Do you happen to know if it can be visited, or is it private?
    Looking forward to visiting your wonderful place again and sending you rainy greetings from Germany, Martina

  14. What a wonderful site you have. Just arrived here after looking for someone else’s comentary on all passion spent as am currently at P.110 (of a curious edition: 1976 Buccaneer Books, new York. Terrible paper, large-ish type but a splendid story!)

    Shall link to you from our place to remind us to return.

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