Monday, 19 November 2012

A study of old age and so much more

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West (1931)

I had not read any Vita Sackville-West until I acquired an ancient Penguin edition of "All Passion Spent" when clearing out my mother-in-law's bookshelves.  What a treasure I had missed. This is English prose at its best, though describing a long dead world with its outdated mores and values, it still has a message for today. 
The heroine is the elderly Lady Slane who courageously embraces a long suppressed sense of freedom and whimsy after a lifetime of convention. After the death of her husband she, as an 88-year-old woman, is emancipated and, for the first time since she was eighteen, "does her own thing!"  Her husband was a politician, prime minister and Viceroy of India and she travelled the world with him as he followed his career. She enjoys annoying her pompous and overbearing children. She begins by infuriating them by ignoring their plans for looking after her in her widowhood and makes her own arrangements to live in a cottage in Hampstead. A few months later she has an opportunity to annoy them even more by giving away an enormous inheritance to charity to spite their avaricious and parsimonious tendencies.
This charming and gentle novel addresses people's, especially women's, control of their own lives, a subject about which Sackville-West was greatly concerned. Like Sackville-West, Lady Slane explicitly states that she is not a feminist and considers such issues to be questions of human rights, while acknowledging the difficult position of women.
The wise old lady seeks a life that allows plenty of time for reflection and she chooses companions that will not upset the rhythm of her new life. She reflects for the first time on the dreams that she had for her life before she became engaged at the age of 18 and how her plans became completely taken over by her husbands plans. It is a story about relationships, family, place in society, the constrictions that convention puts upon people and the lack of control that people have on their lives. It also reflects tangentially on the nature of love and relationships which considering Sackville-West's affairs with other women as a member of the Bloomsbury set and her long lasting "open" marriage are poignant.
I am glad I made the time to read this grubby old orange Penguin novel. It was a worthwhile read.

Image courtesy of vichie81 /

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