Virginia Woolf is one of our most celebrated alumni. The renowned writer and feminist icon attended King’s College London Ladies’ Department from 1897–1902, going on to publish seminal works of fiction and non-fiction such as Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse and A Room of One’s Own. In celebration of LGBT+ History Month, we explore Woolf’s relationship with fellow writer Vita Sackville-West. A romance immortalised in the pages and pages of letters shared between the two, which has recently been collated into the collection Love Letters: Virginia Woolf & Vita Sackville West. Their relationship also inspired the play, and film adaptation, Vita & Virginia.
Like Woolf, Sackville-West was a writer and at the time the more successful of the two. She was almost as well-known for her romantic relationships as she was for her novels. In 1918, five years after she married her husband Harold Nicholson, Vita reconnected with her lover Violet Keppel and over the course of the next two years the pair ran away to France together several times. Their heady romance was almost unstoppable but in what would be their final ‘elopement’ they were pursued by their husbands in a two-seater airplane and convinced to return home. The two parted remaining close friends, but it was a scandal that followed Vita her whole life, and one that would inform one of Woolf’s most celebrated works, Orlando.
By the time Virginia met Vita she, along with her husband Leonard, had set up the Hogarth Press and was very much a key figure of the influential Bloomsbury Set - a collection of associated writers and philosophers. Virginia and Vita first met at a party in December 1922, with Vita writing to her husband of the meeting, ‘I simply adore Virginia Woolf, and so would you.’ The two began to see each other frequently and the development of their friendship into a romantic relationship is documented in both Woolf’s diary and in the many letters exchanged by the pair.
Somehow it’s dull and damp. I have been dull; I have missed you. I do miss you. I shall miss you. And if you don’t believe it, you’re a long-eared owl and ass.– Virginia to Vita, 1926
What else? I miss you horribly… The wish to steal Virginia overcomes me, — steal her, take her away, and put her in the sun among the objects mentioned alphabetically above. If I can get myself to Asia and Africa, why can’t you? (But with me, please.)– Vita to Virginia, 1926
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Just six years after their first meeting Woolf published Orlando, a fictional biography spanning three hundred years, inspired by Vita’s life. It was a critical and financial success, giving Woolf the kind of financial security, her previous works had not. Over time the relationship between Woolf and Sackville-West evolved into a friendship but they remained close and continued to correspond until Woolf’s death in 1941.