All Passion Spent

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West (originally published in 1931, my copy is published by the Virago Press in 1983. 297 pages).

It’s about time that I wrote about this book. I read it in December as part of Cornflower’s book group, but only made a brief comment at the time. I was pleased to find it’s one of those books that you wish you’d read before. You can read what everyone else thought about it here.

This is what I wrote:

I wasn’t sure what to expect as this is the first book by Vita Sackville-West that I’ve read and I was surprised that she could pack so much in to the story.

I think it’s a novel of opposites: male/female, achievement opposed to desires, wealth or poverty in both material and spiritual matters, passive/aggressive, extroverts/introverts, marriage or independence.

I enjoyed it very much and would like to reread it some time. The names interest me: “Lady Slane”, suggests she was, well “killed” or maybe stifled in her life by marriage and family life etc.

Someone else has commented on the parallel between Edith and her mother and I wish it had been developed more as well – Edith’s character seems to have been partly defined and then abandoned.

There’s not a lot of plot: Lady Slane is an ageing British aristocrat. Her husband has recently died at the age of 94, leaving his family with the problem of ‘What was to be done about Mother?’ The family are four sons and two daughters; the oldest is Herbert, then there are Charles, William, Kay, and the two sisters Carrie and Edith. Lady Slane at 88 is still a beautiful woman and quickly but quietly asserts her independence. She ignores her children and decides to live, with her maid Genoux, in a house in Hampstead that she had first seen thirty years previously.

She reflects on her life – she followed Henry, her husband ‘like the sun, but every now and then moving into a cloud of butterflies which were her own irreverent thoughts, darting and dancing.’

She thinks back to her youth when she was full of hopes, she had determined to become a painter, but lived life within herself, not showing outwardly her intensity and longings. She was ‘slain’ by her marriage and family life, although it becomes clear that her ambitions were never more than dreams. As you would expect there are many reflections on the nature of old age and the contrast with youth; Lady Slane prefers to “wallow in old age. No grandchildren. They are too young. Not one of them has reached forty-five. No great grandchildren either; that would be worse. I want no strenuous young people, who are not content with doing a thing, but must needs know why they do it.”

As I wrote in my comments above this is a novel of contrasts, beautifully written, and expressing so many emotions in a quiet unassuming manner. A gentle book, but highly critical of the way society inhibits the individual and women in particular. There is the contrast between the different attitudes towards men and women. A woman was to be “the wife of a man to whose career she might be a help and an ornament”. A man would continue with his career with the addition of a wife, whereas a woman had to forego “the whole of her separate existence”.

Another theme in the novel that interested me is that of the nature of the “self”. Lady Slane asks herself:

“Who was the she, the “I”, that had loved? And Henry who and what was he? A physical presence, threatened by time and death,, and therefore dearer for that factual menace? Or was his physical presence merely the palpable projection, the symbol, of something which might justly be called himself? … But that self was hard to get at; obscured by the too familiar trappings of voice, name, appearance, occupation, circumstance, even the fleeting perception of self became blunted or confused. And there were many selves.”

How true!

6 thoughts on “All Passion Spent

  1. Thank you for this positive review. I’ve not read any of Vita Sackville West’s novels. I’ve read a biography or two of her, and have become acquainted with her in reading the journals of Virginia Woolf. It’s always interesting to me to read these women’s experiences of love and marriate, and the way domestic life in their era tended to “slay” them, as you suggested.I will definitely add this to my bookstack 🙂


  2. Are you feeling better? I meant to read this for the group response but didn’t make it. I do, though, have very fond memories of the TV serialisation of some years ago with Wendy Hiller. Did you see that?


  3. Ravenous Reader, I think I’d like to read a biography of Vita Sackville-West – can you recommend one?Table Talk,I am feeling a bit better – thank you. I missed the TV version, sadly.


  4. I read it as well, but just haven’t been able to write anything at all about it. Isn’t that strange? This was my second reading, actually listening, to the book, and though I think I loved it the first time, I could barely get through it this time. I know that the children annoyed me tremendously. I have the same feeling about Penelope’s in The Shell Seekers. And in fact, the woman herself, annoyed me. But that’s as far as my words will come. You wrote a great review; really it could have been a magazine piece.


  5. I love Sackville West and have wanted to read this book for ages. You have just reminded my why. Thanks for the nice revieew!


  6. Loved this book, much more than No Signposts in the Sea, which is the other one of hers that I’ve read. Want to visit Sissinghurst now…


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