The poet, novelist, and gardener Vita Sackville-West was not yet forty when she wrote her novel, All Passion Spent, published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press in 1931 and reissued by Virago in 1983. The novel should be better known than it is, both for the quality of the writing and for the subject matter that celebrates old age from a woman’s point of view. Sackville-West was already an accomplished writer when All Passion Spent was first published, and she and her husband, the diplomat Harold Nicolson, had just bought a ruined castle and its grounds in Kent, which would eventually become Sissinghurst Castle Garden, one of the great gardens of Britain and indeed of the world.
Some of that spirit of renovation and restoration seeps into All Passion Spent, but the novel mostly focuses on the act of looking back and trying to make sense of one’s life. Sackville-West narrates the story from the point of view of the main character: Deborah, Lady Slane, an eighty-eight-year-old aristocrat. Her sympathy for Lady Slane required an imaginative leap for the youngish writer, a feat that the author accomplishes with a light touch, with the help of the setting, Hampstead, and with allusions to two of Hampstead’s nineteenth-century residents: the painter John Constable and the poet John Keats.
In a time when old age seems more denigrated than celebrated, I found All Passion Spent even more powerful than when I first read it a few years ago. In a nutshell: the novel opens with the death of Lady Slane’s husband, a “great man” who had been many things, including prime minister. While the annoying and largely unsympathetic children (all in their sixties) bicker over the estate and what to do with their mother, Lady Slane decides that for once in her life she will do what she wants to do. Her children think she has lost her mind, but readers see her as transcendently sane.
Lady Slane sells her large house in central London; she and her loyal housekeeper (also elderly) move to a small house in Hampstead that Lady Slane had seen years ago and is now available to let. Influenced by Virginia Woolf, her friend and former lover, Sackville-West grants Lady Slane space—not to write, but to think. She moves to Hampstead, regarded by her children as an outpost of London, and even more shocking, she takes the Tube. In Hampstead, Lady Slane becomes the bright star in a small constellation of elderly men: the estate agent and owner of the home, the man who renovates the house, and a man who has loved her quietly from afar for over sixty years.
Like Woolf in A Room of One’s Own (1929), Sackville-West writes from the position of privilege, and her character reflects that privilege. Lady Slane, after all, has the means and space at last to think about herself and to piece her life together as she faces its end. Nevertheless, Sackville-West’s presentation transcends the limitation of class. The author achieves this perspective by satirizing the adult children, who live within the stuffy confines of high society and do not cultivate self-reflection. Lady Slane, however, relinquishes the demands of society and discovers her path forward, even if belatedly, with the help of a small group of friends.
Sackville-West’s descriptions of the group’s tea parties are delightful, but Lady Slane’s private thoughts and her walks with Mr. FitzGeorge (the ancient lover) are more revelatory. Mr. FitzGeorge, a collector of art who owns an unnamed painting by Constable, is associated with the vistas of Hampstead Heath. A century after Constable, Lady Slane is attracted to Hampstead because of its distance from the center of power: “Hampstead seemed scarcely a part of London, so sleepy and village-like, with its warm red-brick houses and vistas of trees and distance that reminded her pleasantly of Constable’s paintings.” United by their admiration for Constable, she and Mr. FitzGeorge wander Hampstead: “Thus they revived memories of Constable, and even visited Keats’ house, that little white box of strain and tragedy marooned among the dark green laurels.” Readers familiar with Constable’s paintings of Hampstead might think of his painting, now at the Tate Britain, Hampstead Heath, with the House called ‘The Salt Box’ (1819–20 ), although Keats’s house is not the subject of this painting.
For me the key point is that landscape art such as Constable’s provides a way for Lady Slane to think about her past. The actual landscape of the Heath inspires her metaphorical thinking about landscape. Once she has moved to Hampstead, the process begins:
She had plenty of leisure now, day in, day out, to survey her life as a tract of country traversed, and at last become a landscape instead of separate fields or separate years and days, so that it became a unity and she could see the whole view, and could even pick out a particular field and wander round it again in spirit, though seeing it all the while as it were from a height, fallen into its proper place, with the exact pattern drawn round it by the hedge, and the next filed into which the gap in the hedge would lead. So, she thought, could she at last put circles round her life.
This landscape vision provides Lady Slane with the structure and language she needs to understand her past life—to see the patterns as well as to encircle it as a unified whole. The Hampstead landscape not only awakens her memories but helps her relive them. She has found the right vantage point: a tract of country viewed from a height.
Keats’s presence in the novel—if only in allusions to his suffering—also resonates. The young genius, taunted by his critics as a Cockney, who died at twenty-five but produced some of the most memorable poems in the language, might seem like an odd choice to highlight the life of an ancient aristocrat, but Keats’s meditations on mortality and memory are even more intense because of his youth. This is the poet who in a letter rejected the notion of life as a “vale of tears” and instead urged his brother George to think of it as a “vale of Soul-making” where we are schooled in the ways of the world and in the workings of the human heart. Lady Slane looks back over this “vale of Soul-making” in her imagination and acknowledges what she has learned in a life, which in retrospect, she can appreciate as full.
Which brings us to the title, All Passion Spent, from Milton’s Samson Agonistes (1671), as explained in the epigraph:
His servants he with new acquist
Of true experience from this great event
With peace and consolation hath dismist,
And calm of mind, all passion spent.
These are the closing lines of Milton’s dramatic poem. They describe blinded Samson, after he has pulled the pillars of the temple down on himself and his enemies, the Philistines, in a final, sacrificial act of heroism. Sackville-West thought of these lines in conjunction with Lady Slane, whom she named Deborah, perhaps in recognition of that biblical prophet’s presence in the Book of Judges along with Samson. But at the end of her life, Lady Slane needs to commit no such sacrificial action. Ironically, Lady Slane attains her own calmness of mind through renunciation of worldly prestige and her sharpened vision of the landscape she has traversed. Her long life, when put together as a remembered whole, provides a model for those who are willing to assess their lives honestly and imaginatively.
The allusion to Samson Agonistes brings the themes of All Passion Spent together. Milton defines Samson’s act of heroism as spiritually inspired but also dependent on the physical violence of the crashing pillars. Sackville-West redefines heroism in terms of an elderly woman asserting herself and rising to the challenge of, finally, defining herself apart from the others who have claimed her identity. In her youth she had wanted to be a painter, an ambition she did not pursue, but her affinity with painting (through her rediscovery of Constable and her encounter with his landscapes) provides the means for her to recall the memories of her long life and to organize them as if she were creating a painting from a landscape. Hampstead becomes Lady Slane’s “vale of Soul-making,” not a dreary last stop but an opening to a wider life than she had imagined possible.
Judith W. Page is Professor of English and Distinguished Teaching Scholar, Emerita, at the University of Florida. Her latest book, Women, Literature, and the Arts of the Countryside in Early Twentieth-Century England (with Elise L. Smith) will be published by Cambridge University Press in 2020. The book contains a chapter on Vita Sackville-West and the creation of Sissinghurst Castle Garden, among other women writers, artists, and gardeners.