‘All Passion Spent’ by Vita Sackville-West
All Passion Spent was my very first Vita Sackville-West. She’s a figure of some intrigue who has floated peripherally around my studies and reading for many years, but I’d never read any of her books until now, which, as it turns out, is a real shame.
My New York Book Club chose All Passion Spent as their September read and I’ve been loyally reading along, long-distance. So while I don’t know what they made of the book, I certainly enjoyed it.
All Passion Spent has been described as the literary companion to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, which is a pretty accurate description. Passion tells the story of the eighty-something Lady Slane who, having spent her entire life denying herself in service to her politician husband and string of children, decides to move out on her own to a cottage in Hampstead after her husband’s death. It shocks her children, but, so close to death, she decides she has well-earned the right to make her own choices.
Stylistically, Passion isn’t a very novelish novel—the entire middle portion is a philosophical musing by Lady Shane over the course of one afternoon about her life and feminism—but it is a very satisfying one.
In addition to the lengthy non-narrative second part, the perspective and narrator slips from character to character throughout the book, each time embodying that person’s inner monologue. Such narrative shifts work surprisingly well at painting a broader picture of Lady Slane’s world (as well as giving the reader a firm sense of where the other characters stand) and were not as distracting and Woolf-ish as they sound.
On the whole, I think the middle section was actually my favorite. In the micro of Lady Shane’s personal experience, it explores turn-of-the-century womanhood and budding feminism as she reaches for something she never had the chance to experience. It’s a fascinating perspective, for as much as Lady Slane gave up, she also doesn’t fully regret it. Her regret is too complicated to even be called that—she loved her husband and her family, but would she had loved being an artist more? It’s an impossible question, but her exploration of it is as relevant to today’s questions of “can women have it all?” as it was to Lady Slane herself.
This past summer, a friend of mine went on a Vita spree and enthusiastically recommended her books to me. I can’t wait to dive to take her up on the recommendation and explore more of Vita Sackville-West’s books. If anyone has a particular book I should go to next, chime in below!