Kelly's Reviews > All Passion Spent

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West
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Geoffrey Scott, one of the many people who fell in love with Vita Sackville-West over the course of her life, said that there was an “indefinable something” about her writing that raised above what it otherwise might have been.

Although he turned out to be a little crazy (that’s a whole other story), I can’t help but think that he was right about that. I certainly felt that way about All Passion Spent.

Many people are not able to resist the powerful temptation to compare this work to Mrs. Dalloway. It is understandable- both books are about an older upper class women looking back over her life, and the two authors had a love affair that began about the time Mrs. Dalloway was published, and essentially ended about the time Passion came out- the plots and themes of the two books even make for a really fitting metaphor about their relationship and the different conclusions that can come out of looking back and taking stock. I was tempted by that road myself.

But as the story went on, I really decided it would be a huge disservice to simply dismiss it as a lesser Dalloway. It isn’t a lesser anything, and Sackville-West isn’t indebted to anyone or anything but her own experiences for the story on the page.

The closest I can come to defining the appeal of Vita’s writing (or what I’ve read of it so far) is that it speaks to me in a voice I can easily understand, a voice I feel I’ve heard inside my own head, describing my own feelings- but without ever descending to the middle-brow commonplaces found in so much domestic focused literature. Put it better, she says things how I would like to have said them at the time- observing obvious things it took me years to figure out how to articulate. Her truths may be easily recognized, but they are also very poetic. One of my favorite passages describes the main character, Lady Slane, driving through India with her Viceroy husband, who is describing to her the various social problems she is to address with the ladies she’s about to meet. While he’s doing this, she is watching some butterflies outside the window and thinking instead about:

“...moving into a cloud of butterflies which were her own irreverent, irrelevant thoughts, darting and dancing, but altering the pace of the progresion not by one tittle; never brushing the carriage with their wings; flickering always; and evading; sometimes rushing on ahead, but returning again to tease and to show off, having an independent and lovely life”

… until she is recalled to her undoubtedly important duties by her husband and has to leave her ephermeral world behind. It’s touching to read this knowing that Vita must have been writing this partially to her husband Harold, who worked for the Foreign Office- perhaps an explanation as to why she could never simply follow him around the world going to tea with other diplomats’ wives. He eventually quit the diplomatic service for her, actually. Had he stayed, this could have been her future- she was always afraid of any part of her life swallowing her up, especially her marriage. This is the book where she tells you why.

Lady Slane is in her late eighties. Her husband has just died, her children are elderly themselves, and there are scores of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Lord Slane was a greatly respected public figure, she was considered the perfect wife. She never really got a story of her own, having married so young- when her husband dies, her children try to go on making decisions for her, and she suddenly informs them, essentially, that she is not the person that they’ve taken her for their entire lives. No, thank you, she is going to live out her last years exactly as she pleases, and she is going to arrange it entirely for herself.

They took her for dumb, you see, because she was so often silent, so subservient to their father’s every whim. Silly Mother, they said, can’t handle anything very real. As Lady Slane herself thinks many times throughout the story, no one ever asked her what she thought, or thought that she might have an entirely different self on the inside than the one she was obliged to present to the world. There’s a wonderful passage about the house she acquires to live in, speaking of the need for privacy in order to maintain any part of one’s self in a world that wants to take so much from you:

“it was a very private thing, a house, private with a privacy irrespective of bolts and bars. And if this superstition seemed irrational, one might reply that man himself was but a collection of atoms, even as a house was but a collection of bricks, yet man laid claim to a soul, to a spirit, to a power of recording and perception.”

I really loved VSW’s excellent treatment of the idea that people have many selves, many of which are private, some of which are easily misunderstood when only partially seen in the real world, or mistakenly slipped out in conversation. For instance: I adored the character of Edith, the youngest daughter of the family. She is given the first chapter, and we see how perceptive she is, what a delightful perspective she has on life. However, she can only get things out of her mouth “sideways,” voicing thoughts out loud without the accompanying train of thought that got her there- so she’s only seen as rude, stupid, or unfeeling. It’s a fascinating and a terribly sad idea that it is two worlds meeting that were never meant to is what gets you in trouble- that’s the only way to keep it intact. Lady Slane also expresses this idea beautifully. She’s talking about the idea that love or relationships are indeed worthwhile and often make up for individual expression, and yet:

“Who was she, the “I” that had loved? And Henry, who and what was he?... Hidden away under the symbol of their coporeality, both in him and in her, doubtless lurked something which was themselves, 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.”

Do you see what I mean about taking a fairly basic truth and making it seem fresh again?- and yet, not hiding it behind any real tricks or disguising it behind images. She says what she means, but with such a keen observation that it becomes more than every day. I mean, what a wonderful thought the above is! It might boil down to what we’ve all heard about loving yourself first before loving anyone else, but there’s something more there- that “indefinable something.”

This is without a doubt a feminist novel- an argument for the voices and lives of women being allowed to matter, not being expected to give way to men. But I think it’s also a general argument for anyone being allowed to make their own choice- not the choice dictated to them by the thousand little circumstances of class, gender, family, which parties one attended. It isn’t just Lady Slane who has made compromises, been affected by her life: we see her recluse possible other life love and the choices he made, her landlord, her agent.

By the by, speaking of other people- It really is a novel populated by great characters. Edith, Genoux the maid, (oh, ps, if you don’t speak French- there are many lines of untranslated French spoken by this character- you can get by without it, but just so you know), the agent, her sons, her horrid daughter Carrie- they’re all recognizable and living in some way. I will say here that one of the things that might bother some people about the novel is its concentration on “rich, white lady problems: Vita herself brings that up when Lady Slane hears Genoux’s story, for the first time in the sixty years she’s been with the woman- she never asked! In 1930, it was hard not to be conscious that there were much bigger problems with the world. I kind of almost wish she hadn’t brought it up, though. Which sounds awful, but- she only brings it up at the very end, and you can tell that it’s in sort of a guilty way, like someone had just said to her, “I wish I had had these problems!” and she felt bad. I wish she had either brought it up much earlier to weave it into her tale or left it out entirely so we could journey with Lady Slane- and not worry that we really should be reading someone else’s story. I don’t know. That bothered me.

It is a regretful novel to a certain extent, and perhaps even a novel that could be taken to be making an argument for a withdrawl from life- Lady Slane does spend an awful lot of time regretting the time and self that other people took from her over the course of her life, with not much acknowledgement of the fact that she’s lived what many other people would consider to be a very full life in many respects. VSW’s answer to that is this:

“and she thought, if only I were young once more, I would stand for all that was calm and contemplative, opposed to the active, the scheming the striving the false- yes, the false, she exclaimed… and then trying to correct herself, she wondered whether this were not merely a negative creed, a negation of life, perhaps even a confession of insufficient vitality; and came to the conclusion that it was not so for in contemplation (and also in the pursuit of the one chosen avocation which she had had to renounce) she could pierce a to a happier life than her children who reckoned things by their results and activities”

I also struggle with whether I think this is merely a negative creed, and how much one could miss out on following these ideas- but honestly I think VSW struggled with this herself. As she wrote this book she herself was falling in love again and embarking on yet another ill-advised torrid affair: striving, active, needing, desiring. What is worth more? Difficult to say.

But either way, this novel is about a woman who ultimately does get the chance to come back to herself before the end, which she does in a splendid and engaging fashion. I don’t know about you, but I think that is a triumphant, hopeful ending.

Look, I'm not saying this novel is genius or anything, it certainly has its problems, the magic is certainly quieter than the great novels of this era, and I'll even admit that there's a certain amount of "read this at the right time" in my opinion of it. But it is a novel will speak to many people for many different reasons, and for that, it deserves to be more widely read than it is now.
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Quotes Kelly Liked

Vita Sackville-West
“J'ai toujours pensé qu'il valait mieux plaire beaucoup à une seule personne, qu'un peu à tout le monde.”
Vita Sackville-West, All Passion Spent


Reading Progress

04/14/2010 page 123
40.46% "I'm afraid TGA is going to have to step to the side for the moment because I'd rather spend my time with Lady Slane. I love this!"
04/14/2010 page 140
46.05% "I <} Edith! Another girl who never quite gets the right thing out of her mouth. *identifies*"
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Comments (showing 1-25 of 25) (25 new)

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Kelly Oh how lovely! The outdoor dining room and its surroundings are just exquisite! What beautiful pictures!


message 2: by Martine (new)

Martine Vita Sackville-West was a fascinating woman who had many interesting affairs, the most famous being the one she had with Virginia Woolf. I've never read any of her books, but they should be interesting. I look forward to hearing your opinion on this...


Kelly Well, naturally the first thing every biographer wants to say about her is that she slept with Virginia Woolf, so that much I've gathered now. :) The plot of this novel does sound vaguely similiar to Mrs. Dalloway, so perhaps her association with Virginia is material to her writing style as well, though. I'm hoping there's other interesting things about her to be found, too.

I'll be sure to post a review of it.



message 4: by Kelly (last edited Apr 15, 2010 07:16AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kelly There are certainly pieces of VW's philosophy to be found here, but I think the emphasis, conclusions, writing style and focus of the piece are very different from Mrs. Dalloway. In fact, aside from the basic "rich white British ladies look back over their lives" similarity, I wouldn't much compare them at all.

I'll write more in the review! I'm trying to crank out my Fionavar review this morning and get to this one this afternoon.


Kelly See? Proirities! :)

The one other thing I will say is that reading this book made me super excited to start Lighthouse in a few weeks!


Jude There's a lovely film of this starring the amazing Wendy Hiller... Which prompted me to listen to her narration of the book: one of my all time favorite recorded books.


Kelly Oh, interesting! I would've thought that this might not translate well, considering how internal it is, but if you think the film is good, I'm definitely going to find it. Thanks, Jude!


Jude Well, as always, the book is better, but I saw the film first, which helped. Redgrave's Dalloway is brave & wonderful, too.


Kelly Ooh I do want to see the Dalloway, I've heard it's good- Redgrave can be so great- last time I saw her was in that little appearance she did in Atonement, and even that was gorgeous.


Kelly That's two votes from respected sources! Well, that settles it! I must see it now.


Sarah Are you still planning to review this? I too read it recently, so I've been anxiously awaiting your thoughts!


Kelly Yes, I am! I've actually been in a Vita reading frenzy lately so I've wanted to just be reading in my free time rather than reviewing! I'm planning to review a lot of stuff tomorrow, though, and this is one of them. Will post soon, promise!


message 13: by Lori (Hellian) (new)

Lori (Hellian) Another one on my to-read list, thanks Kelly!


message 14: by Jude (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jude Thanks for bringing the actual story of this back to me, Kelly, and doing for my experience of it what you love VSW for doing for our interior worlds.


Kelly Thanks, you guys, what lovely compliments! Aw, so nice of you! :) Jude, I'm definitely going to see the movie because of you- moved it up my list!


message 16: by D. (new)

D. Pow You're a fine writer Kelly.


Kelly Thank you, D., that's very kind of you to say!


Sarah "In 1930, it was hard not to be conscious that there were much bigger problems with the world. I kind of almost wish she hadn’t brought it up, though."

I was glad she brought it up, just because I'd been thinking that the whole time! You're probably right that it was a guilty afterthought, on Vita's part, but the revelation, on Lady Slane's part, made her more relatable to me. Instead of seeing her as a spoiled rich woman, I started to see her as a human being whose little pool of grief matters too. Afterthought or not, I'm glad Vita caught it in time. (That is, before the conclusion of the story!)


Kelly I see what you're saying, and to a certain extent I agree with you. It did sort of feel disrespectful to those of the "lower orders" (as they would have said) to shunt it in at the end that way, so their story could be an inspiration to said spoiled rich lady. If Vita wanted to bring it up, I wish she had given us Genoux's story from the beginning- that actually could have been cool, to see both women looking back on the lives had and missed, relative to their opportunities. That's all- didn't like the way it was done.


Sarah It's funny, these subtle differences of opinion! But I do see what you mean.


message 21: by Jude (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jude Love this part of discussion. To be the writer who gave us both stories, both VSW and her narrator would have had to be different people. It marks Slane with the precise limitations that her class puts on imagination. ?


Kelly I'm sorry I'm only belatedly responding, Jude, but yes, you're right. VSW had far too aristocratic an outlook on life herself (especially when she was in one of her conventional moods) to write a story like the one I suggested. I just suggested it to emphasize what I felt was a clumsy insert- definitely not a realistic suggestion. I agree that the limitation is representative of both her and her character- VSW was, for all her awesomeness in other ways, very self-centered. She spent most of her time writing about herself and her family, trying to figure out her own problems. She did follow "write what you know," I guess. :)


Mariel I bought this. I'm glad to know one of the best people on gr wrote this review. Signposts has stayed with me and I'm looking forward to this read. Anyway, thanks. I think you're a breath of fresh air.


Kelly Well thank you Mariel, I was really touched by that comment. I do hope you get to this and write a review. I would love to read it and see what you get out of it.


Suzanne Stroh You are quite right. It isn't a lesser anything.


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