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.