It was during this time of year, the fall season, when Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, both well-established in the literary world of the time, first met. The year was 1922.
Virginia wrote in her diary of the meeting: “She is a pronounced Sapphist, and may… have an eye on me, old though I am… Snob as I am, I trace her passions 500 years back, and they become romantic to me, like old yellow wine.”
Vita wrote to her husband likewise: “I simply adore Virginia Woolf, and so would you. You would fall quite flat before her charm and personality… Mrs. Woolf is so simple: she does give the impression of something big… At first you think she is plain, then a sort of spiritual beauty imposes itself on you, and you find a fascination in watching her… I’ve rarely taken such a fancy to anyone, and I think she likes me… Darling, I have quite lost my heart.”
Complicated as any relationship emerging between two women married to men is, their relationship surpasses one of being remarkably unique and attains the level of poetics — the realm of untranslatability, where language meets its utmost limits. The realm of love.
Vita was a passionate conqueror, lusty for adventure, but guarded. Virginia was a sensitive, emotional intellectual, with a threatening, keen perception of people (the insights of whom would eventually inform her characters).
Vita, honoring a deep respect for Virginia beyond the emotional toy of sexual conquest, curtailed the physical relationship between the two. A scorned Virginia in turn wrote a cutting exposé of Vita, in the love letter turned novel, Orlando. Yet, because of the profound connection beneath an initial attraction, the two would carry on a deeply loving, though not uncomplicated, relationship, evidenced by a tome of letter writing between the two — for nearly 20 years.
On March 28th, 1941, afraid of losing herself to mental illness, Virginia drowned herself in the River Ouse.
Her last words to Vita inquired about Vita’s dying birds, the same type of birds kept in Virginia’s home. At the same time, ostensibly aware of her own end, she was writing what would be her last literary words in the closing scene of Between the Acts with the line “birds syllabling discordantly life, life, life…”
Knowing the calculating creative mind of Virginia, one cannot help but recall the reference, unmistakably from Orlando:
“Let us go then exploring, this summer morning, when all are adoring the plum blossom and the bee. And humming and hawing, let us ask of the starling (who is a more sociable bird than the lark) what he may think on the brink of the dust bin, when he picks among the sticks combings of scullion’s hair. What’s life, we ask, leaning on the farmyard gate: Life, Life, Life! cries the bird as if he had heard…”
At the brink of the dustbin, at the edge of her mortality overlooking the abyss, Virginia’s bird sings life, life, life, as if each utterance is a gift of the present moment, final and complete, and a true gift to those who hear it.
And ‘Life, Life, Life!”…. In latin, it is “Vita, Vita, Vita!”.
Today’s Advice: In the language is life and death.” Traditional Hawaiian Saying.
(references drawn from the work of Louise DeSalvo.)