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Portrait of a Marriage: Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson

4.07  ·  Rating details ·  1,801 Ratings  ·  121 Reviews
Vita Sackville-West, novelist, poet, and biographer, is best known as the friend of Virginia Woolf, who transformed her into an androgynous time-traveler in Orlando. The story of Sackville-West's marriage to Harold Nicolson is one of intrigue and bewilderment. In Portrait of a Marriage, their son Nigel combines his mother's memoir with his own explanations and what he lear ...more
Paperback, 278 pages
Published November 1st 1998 by University Of Chicago Press (first published 1973)
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Jan 11, 2010 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: VSW fans, fans of ambiguity and awesome women
So I have this friend (yes, really a friend, not me in disguise, promise). She lives like a character in a novel. I don’t mean to say that she’s acting in some sort of pantomime. I mean that things happen to her, she thoroughly absorbs them and contemplates them, and then acts as if she’s had herself a two chapter period of long walks in the park and insightful inner monologues before each choice is made. All of her choices seem to make sense, as if chosen by an author skilled in characterizatio ...more
Oct 20, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Like many people I first heard of Vita Sackville-West when reading about Virginia Woolf and their relationship. Sackville-West was a poet, author, gardener, and someone who, quietly, lived outside the norms of society. Her marriage to Sir Harold Nicolson remained open, but only to women. Portrait of a Marriage is part autobiography and part biography. It was inspired by a journal, Vita's son, Nigel Nicolson, found among her possessions after her death.

Nicolson presents Portrait of a Marriage in
Feb 01, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: reviewed
I read this book in parallel with Diana Souhami's Mrs. Keppel and Her Daughter and the below review combines my thoughts on both books. (Review first published on BookLikes.)

Let the cat fight begin!

In the red corner, Diana Souhami, defender of Violet Trefusis. In the blue corner, Nigel Nicolson, son of Vita Sackville-West and representing her point of view.

No, I'm not going to try and write this as a ring report, but for the most part of reading both in parallel it has been as if I was watching
K.D. Absolutely
Sep 12, 2012 rated it really liked it
Recommended to K.D. by: 501 Must Read Books (Memoirs)
Shelves: 501, memoirs, british
This book is included in the 501 Must-Read Books under the category of Memoirs. I would not have bought this if I were not in this quest of reading all those 501 books. In my last tally, I've read almost half of them.

Some of those books got 1 or 2 stars from me that proves once again that our taste in literature is really a matter of personal preference. That we bring our own experiences, bias, prejudices when we devour a book. Still, I rely on my friends and all these book lists rather than jus
James Murphy
Feb 08, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Sometimes I can't get enough of Virginia Woolf. I often luxuriate in rereading one of her novels or even one of the biographies. I have occasion to peek into the diaries or letters again. Reading about those important to her gives satisfaction, too, so that I've read biographies of Leonard Woolf, Vanessa Bell, and Vita Sackville-West to learn how they influenced Virginia. Sometimes I think I might resemble a sad teabag saturated with Woolf and Bloomsbury and unceremoniously plomped into a delica ...more
Feb 03, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Continuing my reading about Vita and Violet, I felt it important to read 'Portrait of a Marriage'.To use the official lingo, is both a primary and a secondary source of sorts. The book is split into roughly for chapters, plus an introduction. Two of the chapters are by Vita, and each is followed by a chapter by Nigel Nicolson, her son and literary executor.

After his mothers death n 1962, Nigel found a locked bag among her things. Inside the bag was a notebook of her writing. After a few pages o
Mar 04, 2008 rated it it was amazing
This book is extraordinary. And I dont' mean that in the hyperbolic sense, I just mean that it honestly transcends the ordinary. This book kind of gives me a glimpse of that sort of heightened, cerebral, upper-crust sexuality that isn't really sexy that Woody Allen always slavers over in movies like Manhattan and Stardust Memories. As much as I love his work and those films, there is a very large, Midwestern part of me that always rolls her eyes at that kind of stuff. And I have my reasons, good ...more
Un diario rinvenuto e una storia da riscrivere intimamente, più che da ricostruire. Nigel Nicolson parla di sua madre, Vita Sackville West, nobildonna inglese, scrittrice, personalità controversa e molto chiacchierata; di suo padre, diplomatico e scrittore; e del loro inconsueto rapporto coniugale, spesso oggetto di attenzioni morbose da parte della stampa, o dei gossip più sfrenati, durante il secolo scorso in Inghilterra. Cerca di ristabilire una verità umana, etica, più che storica o ufficial ...more
Shawn Thrasher
Oct 28, 2015 rated it it was amazing
A courageous, honest book, brilliant and blunt, sort of like being smacked with cotton candy - a sticky and sweet sensation. Nigel NIcolson finds his mother's unpublished memoir, and then fills in the bits and pieces - his mother's memoir about her now famous affair and "elopement" with Violet Trefusis; his father's homosexuality; and how the unusual couple built this enduring, strong, unusual, revolutionary marriage. These Nicolsons all must be rara avis, they are absolutely fascinating people. ...more
Written by their son Nigel, he tells the story of Harold Nicolson's 49 yr marriage to Vita Sackville-West, a union based on trust, shared interests, deepening love, frankness and reciprocal infidelity. It's chronicles Vita's love affair with Violet Trefusis, the crisis which nearly broke their marriage.

Contains BW photographs.
Aug 20, 2011 rated it it was ok
This book couldn't decide what it wanted to be. If it wanted to be a reasonably complete biography, then it should have discussed Vita and Harold's careers more explicitly. If it wanted to focus on their marriage and adult relationships, the first third of the book didn't need to include long details of Vita's childhood and those of her parents. It felt rather like reading the term paper of a student who had a particular theme in mind but felt the need to include ALL of the background research s ...more
Oct 08, 2007 rated it really liked it
This is a fascinating biography, written by Nigel Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West, of a marriage between two individuals who should not have been able to live together. That they did and succeeded in raising a family is the story of this book. It is told in a unique way with two sections based on Vita's autobiography amplified by sections written by her son Nigel. The focus is tilted toward the courtship and early years of marriage with little detail of the later years of the marriage.
Feb 15, 2015 rated it really liked it
i had no clue what this book was about before picking it up. it was listed on a "suggested reading list" in susan branch's book, a fine romance. what an incredible autobiography...what a story! i was blown away by how a history could be so perfectly told via letters and journal entries, and while i was fascinated by the story, what really left an impression on me is the lost art of writing letters with pen to paper. to me an email just doesn't have the same feeling, whether i am the author or re ...more
Mar 18, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A fascinating look at the life of Vita Sackville-West and her marriage to Harold Nicholson. Unconventional in the extreme they stayed with each other while engaging in relationships outside their marriage. Vita is most well known for her affair with Virginia Woolf, although it was the more longstanding relationship with Violet Trefusis that was more significant to her. Partly written as Vita's autobiography and partly biography written by her son Nigel, this is a revealing and intriguing look at ...more
Donna P
Dec 02, 2009 rated it really liked it
Makes you long for the days letter writing and journal keeping made life - and sexual mindgames - seem so civilized and elegant. I can't help but think if this lesbian love triangle happened today, the documentation would be limited to "I h8 u. dont talk 2 me ever." If you've ever had difficulty choosing between two people or two life paths, you'll enjoy this read.
Sarah SL
Jun 10, 2016 rated it really liked it
A beautiful book--more beautiful as it goes along. At first I thought this might just read like a society novel, very Love in a Cold Climate. The first few chapters (which to me are not the most interesting) are primarily

a) an account of the unusual sexual and social practice of Vita's parents. The most interesting part of this, in my view, isn't actually the affairs her parents had, nor the sexy family secrets stretching further back. Rather it's the seemingly-chaste relationship Vita's mother
Sep 09, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2010
Nigel Nicolson (1917 – 2004), the author of this work that was published in 1973, was the second son of Harold Nicholson (1886 – 1958) and Vita Sackvile-West (1892 – 1962), who were married quite happily for 55 years, from 1913 until Vita Sackville-West’s death. Harold Nicholson was a career officer in the British Diplomatic Service, later a Member of Parliament, and an author; Vita Sackville-West was a poet, a novelist, and a noted gardener. But it was their marriage, and how they conducted the ...more
Sep 11, 2010 rated it it was amazing
After her death, Vita Sackville-West's son Nigel Nicholson discovered among Vita's things a thinly veiled account of her passionate affair with Violet Trefusis. The manuscript begins with a somewhat awkward account of Vita's early years, the scandalous history of her mother's birth and subsequent adventures in Chancery, her own childhood at Knole, and her engagement and marriage to Harold Nicholson. The writing takes off with the beginning of Vita's affair with Violet, one of those incredible kn ...more
Mar 13, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I knew nothing about the life or work of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson until reading this biography of Vita by their second son, Nigel (who has also published his father's diaries and some of his parent's letters). It is the story of an absorbingly unusual marriage, fuelled by dramas, absences, and other lovers (often same-sex). Any other marriage would have imploded through some of the crises, but this couple remained together through it all, each other's rock and beloved solace. To d ...more
Jul 16, 2007 rated it it was amazing
For about two years, I was obsessed with Virginia Woolf and her relationship with Vita Sackville-West, and read whatever I could get my hands on about the two women, their marriages, and their other relationships. This coincided with my own exploration of an open marriage and of a long love affair. I have no doubt that one - reading about Vita and Harold, Virginia and Leonard - shaped the experience of the other - my relationships with my husband and my lover.

Looking back from a distance of some
Susan Branch
Jun 18, 2013 rated it really liked it
I read this when I was 24 -- it's how I found out there were "gardens in England" ~ it made me dream of visiting Sissinghurst. Before this book I thought everyone grew up the way I did on Claire Avenue, was surprised to learn that they didn't and that everything worked out well anyway!
May 30, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
El matrimonio que se retrata es el de Vita Sackville-West y Harold Nicolson, padres del autor del libro en realidad coautor porque de las cinco partes que componenen el retrato, dos son transcripciones de los textos que Vita escribiendo contando su vida y su historia de amor con Violet, la única de sus aventuras que puso en peligro su relación. Vita y Harold tuvieron un matrimonio increíble, duradero y, sobre todo, feliz para ellos dos.

Me ha conmovido su honestidad brutal con el otro y su since
Stephanie Jane
May 25, 2014 rated it really liked it
I listened to Orlando by Virginia Woolf last year on audio and, having loved that book, wanted to find out more about its real-life protagonists especially the muse for Orlando him/herself, Vita Sackville-West. Having asked for biography suggestions on Goodreads, several people directed me to Portrait Of A Marriage by Vita's son, Nigel Nicolson. I downloaded it ages ago and have finally gotten around to reading it!

Firstly, I think the authorship should be equally credited to Vita as well as Nige
Charles Eliot
May 31, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson built a long and unconventional marriage based on elements which at first sound traditional: deep and unshakeable love, shared values, shared interests, endless respect and admiration and kinship, home-building, shared adventures. These elements had to contend with forces that would have torn lesser people apart, in particular Vita's extravagant affairs with other women.

Her affair with Violet Trefusis takes up most of the book. It is heart-stopping stuff:
Nov 26, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
After the death of his mother Vita Sackville-West in 1962, author Nigel Nicolson stumbled upon her private notebook containing details of her tumultuous love affair with Violet Trefusis. Using this diary as a springboard, Nicolson boldly endeavored to unearth and lay bare the facts of his mother’s life.

Sackville-West was a fiercely independent woman, raised in the lap of lavish luxury. The author takes pains to illustrate not only his mother’s life, but that of her own mother. Sackville-West gr
The Wee Hen
Mar 28, 2012 rated it really liked it
After Michael Holroyd's "A Book of Secrets" I felt rather protective of Violet Trefusis and had taken a dislike to Harold Nicolson. So I booked this one at the library to take another look at the story. And Nicolson turns out to be not that bad of a fellow, in his milieu. He and Vita had quite a marriage. I'm still not sure I quite get it, it's all rather sophisticated for me. I have no interest in sharing Mr. Rooster but then we don't hanker after our own kinds. And well, it's not the early Twe ...more
Apr 18, 2013 rated it it was ok
Shelves: classics, biographies
There is a mystique surrounding many early 20th Century literary figures and, for me, Vita Sackville-West was one of those mythic figures I'd heard of, but really knew little about.

My less than enthusiastic reaction to this book suggests that perhaps I should have left Vita clothed in a hazy cloud of eccentricity (rather than trying to undress her). The book alternated chapters from Ms. Sackville-West's diaries with commentary by her son, Harold Nicolson. Neither her writing, or that of her son,
Aug 28, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: memoirs, biography
This is a biography and a memoir because two sections are written by Vita Sackville-West, I don't think with the intentions of publishing them, and three sections are written by her son, Nigel Nicolson. He found a memoir his mother wrote back in the 20's, and after his parent's death, decided to publish it, along with his own very interesting commentary that explained and rounded out the picture. The part Vita wrote mostly focused on her relationship with Violet. The book covers her whole life a ...more
Barbara Sibbald
Nov 27, 2013 rated it really liked it
Having strolled through and greatly admired Sissinghurst, I was drawn to know more of the couple that could achieve such natural beauty. Vita and Harold's marriage is as remarkable as their garden. Most people would characterize it as being filled with infidelity, but that is too harsh a word, and indeed is inaccurate. They had an agreement and were sure in their love and trust for one another, and void of jealousy. It also helped that they stopped have sex at an early stage (post children) and ...more
Jul 19, 2012 rated it liked it
I am devouring V. S-W's life. Immersing myself in the love lives of dead literati is comforting, somehow. I'll admit I read this book like I'd read a contemporary gossip column, and it has all the same elements - inheritance disputes, fantastic wealth, scandalous infidelities, glimpses of royalty (Violet's mother is the King's mistress) - but these events being now nearly a hundred years old, there's something extra in the distance.

The first part of Vita's journal/autobiography, and Nigel's com
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“She fought for the right to love, men and women, rejecting the conventions that marriage demands exclusive love, and that women should love only men, and men only women. For this she was prepared to give up everything … How could she regret that the knowledge of it should now reach the ears of a new generation, one so infinitely more compassionate than her own?” 4 likes
“Brak je samo za temperamentne stare djevice, iscijeđene prostituke i kraljevske parove.” 1 likes
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