The Heir by Vita Sackville-West

Going to Sissinghurst reminded me that I haven’t read any Vita Sackville-West for a long time. Her writing doesn’t get much attention these days, though Virago have recently republished her novels in fancy new wrappers. She seems to be merely a footnote in Bloomsbury history, mainly known for her affair with Virginia Woolf and being the inspiration for Orlando. This is a great shame, as she was a truly superb writer, with a particularly fine eye for architecture and the domestic landscape, and deserves far more recognition amongst the literary establishment. All Passion Spent is possibly one of the most quietly moving books I have ever read (but then there is One Fine Day…), and now The Heir has also unexpectedly catapulted its way into my favourites list. I managed to eke out its 120-odd brilliant pages over an impressive seven days, as I genuinely couldn’t bear to finish. I am always moaning that writers these days don’t match up to the quality of their early 20th century predecessors, and Sackville-West is a perfect example of this. She writes elegant, understated, gorgeously precise prose that is a true work of art. She charms and delights effortlessly, capturing the heart of her characters and bringing her inanimate settings to life with a touch that is both lighthearted and profoundly beautiful. The Heir is such an exquisite little book that is heartwarming and uplifting and just so refreshing in its simplicity that I can’t sing its praises enough.

It is the story of Mr Chase, a middle aged solicitor living in lodgings in the nondescript Midlands city of Wolverhampton. When his Aunt dies, he is left her large estate, the centre of which is Blackboys, a breathtakingly lovely Elizabethan moated manor house in the heart of the Kent countryside. Sun faded chintz and damask mix with mellow wooden panelling and tactile tapestries, all stared down upon by portrait after portrait of Chase ancestors. Large mullioned windows inset with stained glass coats of arms reveal views of rolling countryside and delightful gardens, where peacocks roam and the scent of lavender floats on the breeze. Every room is filled with priceless heirlooms, yet it is not a showhome, by any means. It is a warm, comfortable, welcoming space which Mr Chase can’t quite believe is his own. However, the executors of his aunt’s estate, Mr Nutley and Mr Farebrother, have no intention of allowing Mr Chase the privilege of living at Blackboys. As soon as he arrives from Wolverhampton on the eve of his aunt’s death, they inform him that the mortgage is so heavy that everything will have to be sold off to pay the debts. They reel off dates and prices and acreages with dizzying detail, making Mr Chase feel very much that he is an outsider and leaving him with the distinct impression that, beautiful as it is, Blackboys would be more of a curse than a blessing. He comes to the conclusion that he would be best off doing as Mr Nutley and Mr Farebrother advise and sell up, going back to Wolverhampton with a little more money in his pocket to allow a slightly better quality of life.

However, Mr Chase doesn’t bank on Blackboys’ charm slowly taking its hold over him. Wolverhampton and his dull office job fade into a past that seems irretrievable when he is sitting in the dining room watching peacocks wandering on his lawn and delighting in the colours of the stained glass dancing across the worn carpets. The house seems to caress him, awakening feelings in his heart and ambitions in his soul that he never knew he had. His life that was once so humdrum and grey has suddenly become meaningful and beautiful, with possibilities bursting out of every corner of the lovely Blackboys. However, as Mr Nutley keeps reminding him, there is no money to run Blackboys, and the debts must be paid off. The sale must go on, and Mr Chase must go back to Wolverhampton and be grateful for the windfall that will be his once everything has been settled. But how can he, now he has had a taste of how special life can be, given the right surroundings within which to enjoy it?

I was just enchanted by this little novella, which has such a beautiful message and creates a glorious sense of place in its evocation of Blackboys and the surrounding area. Vita actually based Blackboys on Groombridge Place, once owned by her family, and which is now open to the public (gardens only). I’m desperate to go and visit, because the description of the house has made me fall in love with it. I also fell in love with Mr Chase, and so wanted him to make a change and become the person he was always capable of being. What a gloriously romantic, whimsical, charming story this is; I was holding my breath right up until the very last page and I only wish it could have been longer. If you’ve never tried any Vita, this would be a perfect place to start; it’s recently been republished by Hesperus Press, though my edition is from the 1940s and contains some marvellous woodcut illustrations, one of which I’ve reproduced for you. Thanks also to dear Simon, who recommended this to me in the first place – his taste never fails to come up trumps!

42 comments

    1. The 4th series of Sue Limb’s comedy GLOOMSBURY has just been commissioned by Radio Four.Very funny.Heard it all twice as it is repeated on Four Extra.

  1. Oh! I have this one, and read it years and years ago! An ancient, falling apart hardcover. Now where is it??? I MUST find it – you’ve jogged my memory.

    I’ve never had the pleasure of visiting Sissinghurst, but it is on my garden-pilgrimage wish list for that someday if I ever myself fall heir to a sizable amount of $$$. Sadly, not likely, lol. I first became acquainted with VS-W through her garden writings, and through reading Portrait of a Marriage by her son Nigel Nicolson, then branched out to exploring her fiction. All Passion Spent is also here, quite lately purchased in softcover, and a book of short stories the title of which escapes me.

    Thank you so much for this review. The TBR (or Want-TR) list just keeps getting longer and longer…

    1. I hope you can find it and re-read it – it’s such a lovely story, isn’t it?! One you should revisit often!

      Save up and come over to see them…it will be worth it! I hope you can one day. And do read All Passion Spent…it’s amazing!

  2. How can you possibly compare All Passion Spent with One Fine Day? I have read both one is perfect the other flawed ………which is which?

      1. Me, too, loved them both for very different reasons. Have just read The Heir and Rachel you are right as usual. And I thought I had read everything by VSW.

  3. I was hoping you might know who did the woodcuts?

    By the way — I didn’t get a chance last week to offer my congrats and best wishes on the move into teaching. I think your students are lucky.

    1. No sadly it doesn’t say – I’d love to know too! I think that’s a bit bad of them not to give a credit, really!

      Thank you very much – what a lovely thing to say!🙂

  4. Your prose is gorgeous also!
    I enjoyed “The Heir” a lot and, like you, didn’t want it to end. I almost smelled the June breezes from the garden, and I cannot forget the vase of tulips Chase likes to place in front of the dark paneling. She transports so much atmosphere in such an elegant way – truly an underrated writer!

    1. Thank you martina! I’m so glad you’ve read The Heir and loved it – it’s so lovely, isn’t it? Those tulips, yes! Such lovely imagery. Underrated she is indeed – I feel like starting a campaign!

  5. As you know, I adore this little book – I’ve read it three times, I think – but (although the Hesperus edition is gorgeous) I am a complete sucker for woodcuts, and now want this edition too. Do you know who did them?

    1. This edition is lovely! It’s by the Richards Press and was printed in 1940 something – no acknowledgement for the woodcuts that I can find, unfortunately, sorry. I’d like to know who did them too!

  6. This sounds interesting. Now I desperately want to know if he sells the estate or not. So this goes on my TBR list.

    I’ve only read one of her books, All Passion Spent. Like you say, such a lovely book. It has made me less afraid of growing old. I never thought a book would be able to do that.

  7. You make this one sound irresistible – and it would be the only VSW that isn’t on my TBR so I’ve just had to send for the Hesperus Edition. She’s such an under-rated writer – really looking forward to this one.

  8. I requested an early edition of The Heir to the Bodleian to see if it had the woodcuts – it doesn’t, but it turned out to be the first printing, circulated privately, and signed by VSW!

  9. What a delightful discovery, Simon! Apologies, Rachel, I just spied his comment (above). I am going to be on the lookout for this book while digging around for treasure during my trip. I have a recurring fantasy that someone will leave me a house in the English countryside, it will never happen of course. Reading about it happening to someones else could be fun though. Another tantalizing review!

    1. I know you’d love it Darlene! It’s such a beautiful book and such a lovely evocation of this part of England, too. You never know about the inheritance…look at Cousin Matthew, he had no idea! You could be someone’s third cousin twice removed!!

  10. What a discovery your blog is (I came via Steerforth at The Age of Uncertainty). I think VS-W is such a fine -and immensely underrated – writer: I recently re-read All Passion Spent and it’s so marvellous. And now I’ve read your post about The Heir I can’t wait to read it

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